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

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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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Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
The Covers of Jack Kerouac's Classic Titles Are Getting a Makeover
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press

Readers have been enjoying classic Jack Kerouac books like The Dharma Bums and On the Road for decades, but starting this August the novels will have a new look. Several abstract covers have been unveiled as part of Penguin’s "Great Kerouac" series, according to design website It’s Nice That.

The vibrant covers, designed by Tom Etherington of Penguin Press, feature the works of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline. The artwork is intended to capture “the experience of reading Kerouac” rather than illustrating a particular scene or character, Etherington told It’s Nice That. Indeed, abstract styles of artwork seem a fitting match for Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”—a writing style that was influenced by improvisational jazz music.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of The Dharma Bums, which was published just one year after On the Road. The Great Kerouac series will be available for purchase on August 2.

[h/t It's Nice That]

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John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz
Murdered

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.

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