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Walter Potter's taxidermy. Image credit: Graham French/Getty

9 Victorian Hobbies That Seem Weird Today

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Walter Potter's taxidermy. Image credit: Graham French/Getty

Though they didn’t have access to television or the internet, the Victorians had no problem keeping busy. Some looked to the supernatural realm for fulfillment, while others passed the time scouring their own backyards. From graveyard picnics to kitten taxidermy, here are some of the diversions people enjoyed in the Victorian era that might seem odd today.

1. CEMETERY PICNICS

With fewer parks, gardens, and museums to choose from, many Americans of the Victorian era sought to have a good time in graveyards.

Sprawling “rural cemeteries” began cropping up in the United States after 1830. For a number of U.S. residents, the local cemetery was the closest thing they had to a public park. Groups would pack lunches and have picnics among the tombstones. Afterwards, they might go hunting or have carriage races on the grounds. Cemeteries became such heavily-trafficked destinations that guidebooks were distributed to visitors at some of the most famous locations, like Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn or Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts

2. FERN COLLECTING

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In the 19th century, fern fever caught England by storm. It was so prevalent that it was even given an official name: pteridomania. The phenomenon took off in 1829 when a British botanist named Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward started cultivating the plants in glass cases (later known as Wardian cases; today we call them terrariums). Soon enough, Victorians around the country were hunting desirable ferns to grow in their own homes. The hobby was especially popular among women, perhaps because it offered them a socially acceptable excuse to be outdoors unsupervised.

3. ANTHROPOMORPHIC TAXIDERMY

Walter Potter's Rabbit School. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Fair Use

When it came to the taxidermy creatures of the Victorian period, some had more dignified afterlives than others. Positioning stuffed animals in typically human scenarios became a popular theme within the artform—and it was indeed an artform. Popular taxidermists like Walter Potter and Hermann Ploucquet put an extraordinary amount of effort into making their scenes come to life. Memorable pieces from the era depicted ice-skating hedgehogs, a classroom full of rabbits, and a wedding attended by kittens decked out in highly detailed garb.

4. SEAWEED SCRAPBOOKING

Brooklyn Museum Libraries, Special Collections

You can add seaweed to the list of plants Victorians were obsessed with. After collecting the specimens, scrapbookers would paste the multicolored strands onto sheets of construction paper. The designs were more aesthetic than educational, with the seaweed sometimes arranged to spell out words or form images.

5. DIATOM ARRANGING

Victorian biologists found their own ways to have fun. By arranging diatoms, or single-celled algae, on glass slides using strands of hair, they could create elaborate kaleidoscopes of natural beauty. Some microscopic designs—which often included butterfly scales and insect scales as well as algae—incorporated thousands of individual components onto a single slide. The number of patterns was limited only by the artist’s imagination. The craft is still practiced by at least one person today, as you can see from the video above.

6. MAKING JEWELRY FROM HAIR

Though using human hair in art and jewelry dates back to ancient Egypt, the practice soared to new heights with the Victorians. Snippets of hair were woven into rings, necklaces, pins, watch chains, and other unique pieces of ornamentation. A lock of hair taken from a living loved one acted as a very personal version of a friendship bracelet. Hair cut from the deceased, meanwhile, was often made into keepsakes for those coping with their loss.

7. SÉANCES

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Today, a typical séance might involve breaking out a plastic ouija board at a slumber party. But during the Victorian era, attending one was a major event. At the time, Spiritualism—a religious practice focused on contacting the dead—was extremely popular. Spiritualists would host intimate séances at home, or go out to see mediums perform otherworldly acts on stage. In addition to moving ouija boards, mediums would summon disembodied hands, levitate tables, and cough up ectoplasm during communions with the dead. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to participants who bought into their tricks.

8. SENDING SECRET CODES WITH FLOWERS

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It wasn’t hard for Victorians to communicate a thoughtful message through a bouquet of flowers. Different flowers became attached to different meanings, and anyone with a dictionary of floriography—the language of flowers—could decipher them. Daffodils, for example, symbolized chivalry and unrequited love, while monkshood warned of potential danger. Oscar Wilde was one famous user of floral codes: The green carnation he sported was a signal worn by gay men in 19th century Europe.

9. CRYSTAL GAZING

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Humans have been seeking out their fortunes in reflective surfaces since ancient times, but the practice saw a revival in the late 19th century. Crystal gazers would stare into glass orbs, mirrors, or gems like amethysts hoping to tap into the secrets of their subconscious minds. In his 1896 book Crystal Gazing and Clairvoyance, John Melville laid out the instructions for using a crystal for spiritual purposes: “The crystal or mirror should frequently be magnetized by passes made with the right hand,” he wrote. “The magnetism with which the surface of the mirror or crystal becomes charged, collects there from the eyes of the gazer, and from the universal ether, the Brain being as it were switched onto the universe, the crystal being the medium."

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Never Buy Drawing Paper Again With This Endlessly Reusable Art Notebook
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Art supplies can get pricey when you’re letting your kid’s creativity run wild. But with an endlessly reusable notebook, you never have to worry about running out of paper during that after-school coloring session.

The creators of the erasable Rocketbook Wave have come out with a new version of their signature product meant especially for color drawings. The connected Rocketbook Color notebook allows you to send images drawn on its pages to Google Drive or other cloud services with your phone, then erase the pages by sticking the whole notebook in the microwave. You get a digital copy of your work (one that, with more vibrant colors, might look even better than the original) and get to go on drawing almost immediately after you fill the book.

An animated view of a notebook’s pages changing between different drawings.

There’s no special equipment involved beyond the notebook itself. The Rocketbook Color works with Crayola and other brands’ washable crayons and colored pencils, plus dry-erase markers. The pages are designed to be smudge-proof, so turning the page won’t ruin the art on the other side even if you are using dry-erase markers.

Rocketbook’s marketing is aimed at kids, but adults like to save paper, too. Break away from the adult coloring books and go free-form. If it doesn’t quite work out, you can just erase it forever.

The notebooks are $20 each on Kickstarter.

All images courtesy Rocketbook

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This Amazing Clock Has a Different Hand for Every Minute of the Day
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In the video below, you can watch Japanese ad agency Dentsu transform passing time into art. According to Adweek, the project was commissioned by Japanese stationery brand Hitotoki, which produces crafting materials. To celebrate the value of handmade items in an increasingly fast-paced world, Dentsu created a film advertisement for their client depicting their goods as a stop-motion clock.

The timepiece ticks off all 1440 minutes in the day, and was assembled in real-time against a colored backdrop during a single 24-hour take. Its "hands" were crafted from different combinations of some 30,000 disparate small items, including confetti, cream puffs, tiny toys, silk leaves, and sunglasses.

"In a world where everything is so hectic and efficient, we wanted to bring the value of 'handmade' to life," explains Dentsu art director Ryosuke Miyashita in a press statement quoted by Stash Media. "We created different combinations of small Hitotoki brand items to express each and every minute."

You can check out a promotional video for the project below, which details the arduous crafting process, or view a real-time version of the clock here.

[h/t Adweek]

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