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

9 Victorian Hobbies That Seem Weird Today

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

Getty

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

Getty

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

Getty

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

Getty

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."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
arrow
Animals
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Hires Puppy to Sniff Out Art-Munching Bugs
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some dogs are qualified to work at hospitals, fire departments, and airports, but one place you don’t normally see a pooch is in the halls of a fine art museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is changing that: As The Boston Globe reports, a young Weimaraner named Riley is the institution’s newest volunteer.

Even without a background in art restoration, Riley will be essential in maintaining the quality of the museum's masterpieces. His job is to sniff out the wood- and canvas-munching pests lurking in the museum’s collection. During the next few months, Riley will be trained to identify the scents of bugs that pose the biggest threat to the museum’s paintings and other artifacts. (Moths, termites, and beetles are some of the worst offenders.)

Some infestations can be spotted with the naked eye, but when that's impossible, the museum staff will rely on Riley to draw attention to the problem after inspecting an object. From there, staff members can examine the piece more closely and pinpoint the source before it spreads.

Riley is just one additional resource for the MFA’s existing pest control program. As far as the museum knows, it's rare for institutions facing similar problems to hire canine help. If the experiment is successful, bug-sniffing dogs may become a common sight in art museums around the world.

[h/t The Boston Globe]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
arrow
History
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios