When Vox published Sarah A. Chrisman’s essay in September, “I love the Victorian era. So I decided to live in it,” it sparked an Internet furor. In the piece—a tease for her new book, This Victorian Life, which came out in early November—Chrisman extols the virtues of switching over to clothing and technology from the 1880s and 1890s, as she and her husband, Gabriel, have. Sarah originally wrote the book, her third, in script with a fountain pen.
“Yes, the Victorian era was terrible because of this and that. But I think you can study any aspect of history you like without making apologies for other aspects of it.”
Rebecca Onion from Slate’s The Vault Blog pointed out that it’s not actually possible to live a Victorian life in isolation from the politics of those days—from the health-care dilemmas to the social pressures—as well as day-to-day interactions with other Victorians. Indeed, as I learned when I spoke to the Chrismans (see our interview below), they admitted that their inability to find a sense of community—even in Port Townsend, Washington, the historic town they choose to live in—has been one of their greatest frustrations.
Other bloggers, including Kristen Hanley Cardozo and Amanda Marcotte, brought up unpleasant truths about the late 19th century that Chrisman left out of her essay. For example, married women at the time lacked personhood in the eyes of the law—they couldn’t vote, often suffered abuse from alcoholic husbands, and had a difficult time getting a divorce. Upper- and middle-class white people in the United Kingdom and the United States enjoyed the spoils of imperialism, while for the most part, recent immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans were excluded, exploited, or abused. (The late 1800s were incredibly brutal for black Americans, for example.) But even the privileged couldn’t escape raging epidemics like tuberculosis, measles, and smallpox, while others were killed by dysentery and typhoid fever.
All the hubbub about the Chrismans got me thinking about the ways collectors, re-creationists, costume partiers, and those of us who write about collectibles (ahem!) can fall into the trap of romanticizing history. When we focus on a specific collectible or object, like, say, a chatelaine, we often think about how functional and beautiful it is but not about the people who didn’t have access to it, let alone the miners who labored to extract the metal from the Earth, or the blacksmiths or factory workers who put their sweat into making the object. The Chrismans are certainly not the first Gen Xers to adopt the decorating style of the 1800s bourgeoisie—I’m looking at you, Brooklyn. As Cardozo writes, “That’s the thing about romanticizing the past. We love it only when it’s the most privileged version of the past.”
“A lot of people think we’re just cutting out technologies, but actually what interests us about the 1880s and the 1890s are the technologies people used.”
In her Vox article, Sarah presents their object-focused Victorian lifestyle as a more mindful, environmentally friendly alternative to the status quo, something that makes them odd ducks in their community. Responses to their project have ranged from death threats to interviews on ABC’s “The View” and “Nightline.” Their re-creation is also a little like the film “Groundhog Day,” in which every day is the late 19th century, as the couple does not plan to, say, enjoy the Roaring Twenties in their 70s.
But they’re not totally cut off from 21st-century technology either, as they have a computer and a website through which they share their 1800s discoveries and offer consulting services and educational workshops. In our interview, conducted via Skype, Gabriel was emphatic that their message is about choices—that before people mindlessly buy their next smartphone, they might want to think about how they interact with technology, non-renewable resources, and the world around them. In theory, eschewing modern conveniences sounds noble, but such choice is only available to people who can afford the technology to begin with. The Chrismans say despite appearances, they are not particularly wealthy, so their conversion to their 19th-century dream life has been slow. As neo-Victorians, they insist, they are just being themselves, white lower middle-class thirty-somethings aspiring to a higher social status than they can actually afford. Here’s what they had to say.
Collectors Weekly: Why did you pick the 1880s and 1890s?
Sarah: We love those decades because it was such a dynamic time in America. So many things were coming into the world for the first time—things, like telephones, that people today still struggle to use appropriately.
Gabriel: A lot of people think we’re just cutting out technologies, but actually what interests us about those two decades are the technologies people used.
Sarah: It’s not as though someone just plopped us down into a ready-made existence one day. It’s been a gradual transition, as we’ve been able to accumulate period-appropriate things. Every birthday, every anniversary, and every Christmas has been an opportunity to give each other presents that have added to the collection. Over time, as modern things in our life broke, we would replace them with sturdy antique versions.
Gabriel: Sometimes not quite as sturdy as we’d like, but we try.
Sarah: That’s because they’re old. I hope I’m in that good condition when I’m a 130 years old or so.
Collectors Weekly: What inspired you to do this experiment?
Sarah: The real turning point for us was when Gabriel gave me my first corset as a birthday present back in 2009. Up until that point, I had heard all the stereotypes and misconceptions about corsets, and I’d believed them. I’d suspected he was thinking about giving me a corset, so I told him not to. But he did. I tried it on just to humor him at first. I realized right away it was comfortable, I could breathe, and that blew a whole host of stereotypes out of the water for me. I started asking myself, “Well, if I was so wrong about this one aspect of Victorian life, and if everyone I’ve ever talked to has always been so wrong about just this one thing, what else have I been wrong about?”
Gabriel: We’d already been interested in this period. But we hadn’t realized how much that we were missing about it while we were relying on modern writings, as opposed to going back to the primary sources, in terms of both text and artifacts, and seeing what we could learn from those.
Sarah: When we were just reading the modern books about the period, it was like the children’s game that people now call “telephone,” where something gets misinterpreted along the way. By going back to the original 19th-century books, magazines, diaries, and letters and all the physical artifacts, we’ve been able to learn a lot more than just listening to the rumors.
Collectors Weekly: What are your backgrounds?
Sarah: I have one degree in French and one degree in international studies. Gabriel has a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in library science with an emphasis on archives.
“When these things only ever exist in museums, some part of people’s subconscious starts to think that history only ever existed in stasis and untouchable, behind glass in a museum.”
Gabriel: I was originally studying computer science until I realized that I didn’t like what the technology was doing to people. I didn’t like the fact that everything was becoming these impenetrable black boxes that taught you nothing in and of themselves. I wanted to pursue and study the transparent technology that I saw as being a gateway to learning, that encouraged people to explore, to try things, and to fix things themselves. You could look at these Victorian machines, you could see how they work, which increased people’s knowledge. I wanted to understand the relationship between people and technology, and where we got the concept of obsolescence. Especially in America, where modern things are seen as being inherently better than anything that’s old.
It definitely is interesting to see people’s reactions to what we do. It is very polarizing. We get people who love what we’re doing, and some people who just hate it. Some of them probably can’t even articulate why they hate it. But it’s because it’s essentially a challenge to the American way of thinking about progress and technology.
Collectors Weekly: In terms of work, how do you afford to do this?
Gabriel: Scraping by. It’s all in prioritizing. I work as a bicycle-shop manager and mechanic.
Sarah: I’m a writer. Our income every year is very, very low. It’s much lower than any of our neighbors’. But we don’t have the same bills that most Americans do. We don’t have cell phones. I don’t have a driver’s license. Since I make all my own clothes, I spend far less than most American women spend on clothes, because all I have to buy is fabric and notions like buttons. Gabriel has his clothes made by a local seamstress, which is less than a businessman would spend on his clothes.
Gabriel: But a lot more than most bike mechanics.
Sarah: At least he’s supporting someone local. Because we don’t have an electric refrigerator, and we use an icebox instead, our electricity bill every month is the bare minimum of what the electricity company is willing to charge.
Gabriel: Same with the water service.
Sarah: In both cases, we’re getting charged for more than twice as much as we use, just because that’s their lowest tier. But we spend more on ice than anyone else.
Collectors Weekly: In that time period, Gabriel, if you were a bike mechanic, would you have had leisure time, considering they didn’t have the 40-hour work week?
Gabriel: I don’t have a 40-hour work week now. I don’t think a lot of things would be radically different. It would be likely that I would have a little more leisure time back then. First, I would either have had to live somewhere closer to work, or there would’ve been a train that would’ve gone to town, which probably would’ve been faster than driving. But also, the way the cycling business worked then, it was seen as much more normal to go out for rides with customers, because most new customers were people who had never ridden a bike before. So every bike that was sold came with lessons, which meant that the bike-shop workers got to go out of the store and ride with their customers.
Collectors Weekly: Sarah, do you believe you could’ve published work under your own name during that time?
Sarah: Oh, absolutely. Look at Louisa May Alcott, one of my heroes. And I love Elizabeth Bisland. She was a journalist right smack in the middle of our period. In 1889, she raced around the world. It was an 80-day race, partly against time, because of the Jules Verne book, Around the World in 80 Days. It was partly a race between two women, Elizabeth Bisland and Nellie Bly. And Nellie Bly is now the more famous of the two because she was sort of a loose cannon, and she won the race. She went in for what now gets called “gonzo journalism,” where she would do a stunt just so that she could write about it in the papers. Elizabeth Bisland, on the other hand, she had been given the assignment by her boss. When I’ve gone back and I’ve read the things she wrote, I feel her to be the better writer of the two. She was a cool lady. She managed to do the whole around-the-world trip, no support. She lost by a couple days, but she managed it.
Collectors Weekly: And that would have been a feminist thing to do at that time?
Sarah: No. It was just a newspaper thing to do. The newspaper people were pulling off stunts like that all the time.
Gabriel: Also, it depends on your definition of feminist. We don’t hate all feminists. But we think that there are more—how to put it exactly?—constructive things that feminists could be focused on.
Sarah: I don’t like putting blanket categories on people, period. That’s why I don’t like -isms.
Gabriel: Neither of us identify with the -isms because we don’t want to be blanketed in with other people. We have our individual set of opinions, and we don’t care if there’s a group out there that shares them. We believe what we believe, and we’re going to do what we’re going to do, and no one else has to endorse or agree with us.
Collectors Weekly: Do you feel like your lifestyle is a better way than the mainstream path?
Sarah: It’s a more conscious way of living, I would say.
Gabriel: Certainly, it makes you think more, which I like. A lot of people could benefit from learning more about the technologies they are using, whatever they are. For me, Victorian technologies are the ones that I’m inspired to learn about and at the scale that I like to work at. Our push, I would say, is that people should be more conscious of their choices and understand that even if they’re just going along with what the culture at large is doing, they’re making choices.
Collectors Weekly: My understanding is that the Victorian era was a very consumeristic time with a lot of waste and pollution.
Gabriel: If you look at what people are consuming now, it makes what people were consuming in the 1880s and ’90s seem tiny. Yes, the Victorians were definitely consuming a lot of fuels. Industrialization was, at that point, just starting to ramp up. If you look at those exponential curves that they show of technological advancement and fossil-fuel burning, it was right at that tight bend in the curve. The 1880s and ’90s were where everything started to accelerate. You had the beginnings of globalization. You had the beginnings of high technology in everyday life for average people. You had the beginnings of just about everything that we have now. For us, it’s the period when people were first wrestling with a lot of these issues. Understanding that point in history, I think, is the key to understanding where we are now and how to move forward.
Sarah: One of the things we like about it is that the technology was still at a point when every person could see the resources they were using in a tangible way. Part of the reason consumption is so massive now is that it’s done through black boxes. Flick one switch, power comes. Flick another switch, heat comes. Another one, food is ready. It’s very easy for people to forget that every single one of those switches represents a huge infrastructure of resources that are being dumped into making life comfortable.
Take our oil lamps. To get light, we have to light one. We watch the level of the oil as it goes down, and then I have to fill it again. It makes us a lot more conscious about asking ourselves, “OK, is it really dark enough to need the lamp yet, or is the sunlight all we need right now?”
“The high-wheel bicycle is now an icon of obsolescence. You see it, and it’s what you think of as outdated technology. That happened in 1890.”
Gabriel: We’re also more careful about how we time out our days to use the daylight. One of the problems with a lot of modern technology is it makes everything frictionless. It becomes so easy to use these resources, so why think about them?
Even if coal burned in the 19th century generated a lot more pollution, you had people trying to decide how much heat they needed. You had to burn this coal, versus just flipping a switch and turning on a thermostat. I’d bet you that people would be using less energy today if they had to shovel the coal and clean everything up themselves.
Sarah: Oh, the women’s magazines of the late 19th century talk about that constantly, how to use less coal so that you have less work for yourself.
Gabriel: I don’t think necessarily that everyone should do what we’re doing. That’s not what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to provide a bit of an example for people of how things could be different.
Sarah: When he says that it’s not that everyone should do what we were doing, we’d love it if everyone did. But it is every individual’s or every family’s choice.
Collectors Weekly: When it comes to collecting, it’s interesting you’re actually using your antiques as opposed to preserving them for the future.
Gabriel: We like to say our collection is a working collection. We see a lot of what we do as educational outreach. We try to show people how these things would be used and what you can learn by using them. Part of the reason we feel absolutely fine with this is that none of the antiques that we can afford are museum-quality antiques with provenance.
“I realized right away the corset was comfortable, I could breathe, and that blew a whole host of stereotypes out of the water for me.”
Sarah: Honestly, the ones we can afford are the same tier of preservation—or decrepitude, depending on how you want to define it—as the antiques other people are buying to tear apart and make steampunk jewelry out of. And we’re using them for their intended purposes.
When these things only ever exist in museums, some part of people’s subconscious starts to think that history only ever existed in stasis and untouchable, behind glass in a museum. They tend to forget that it was real people living real lives and doing things that ordinary people do. By showing people that we can do this, we like to think that we show them that the people of the past were just like them.
Gabriel: Also, we see that with some of these antiques, if you don’t use them at all, they deteriorate. In a lot of cases, using them is actually keeping them in good condition, especially machines.
Collectors Weekly: Sarah, according to your website, you wear a corset 24/7. Is that what Victorian women did?
Sarah: Some did. Looking at it on a case-by-case basis, you see everyone is different.
“We’re not playing roles. We’re not just dressing up and saying, [fakes haughty accent] ‘Oh, well, I am this.’”
Gabriel: A great deal of the Victorian writings explain that you should save your old corsets and use them for sleeping. It’s the trick that made corset-training easier for women who found the change in body shape uncomfortable. If you just give the torso the same shape all the time, then your body doesn’t have to make that adaptation daily.
Sarah: All that’s down there is the digestive system. It’s made up of very thin, hollow organs. Think latex thin, like sausage casings, which are animal intestines. The only thing giving them their shape—ahem!—is semi-digested food, to put it delicately. So when that’s being forced into different shapes all the time, that can get uncomfortable. But when it’s just got one shape that it stays in, it’s fine. It just takes on that shape.
Women at every tier of society in the 1880s and ’90s were wearing corsets every day. Not a hundred percent of them were sleeping in theirs necessarily, but they were all wearing them during the day because that was part of being dressed. It’s what gave the dress its shape. When Victorians did studies trying to find women who weren’t wearing corsets, they had to go to Indian reservations to find those women. If you look really closely at old photos, laborers are wearing corsets. They’re just laced far more loosely than the fashionable ones.
Gabriel: A lot of the corsets that were made for working-class women were marketed to them as a back support. They were seen as being valuable for heavy labor.
Sarah: There was a particular model that was called “the pretty housemaid corset,” which was specifically marketed to domestic servants. In a period magazine cartoon, men joke that they can’t tell the mistresses from the servants anymore because they all have the same figures.
Collectors Weekly: So they weren’t that expensive then?
Gabriel: They were remarkably cheap.
Sarah: In fact, by the 1890s, they were in the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog. The average model cost 25 cents, which was the cost of a dozen eggs at that point. If you think about what a dozen eggs costs now, that’s cheap for something you’re going to wear every single day.
Gabriel: It’s one of those many instances where we wish we could place an order from the Sears, Roebuck catalog from 1895.
Collectors Weekly: I’m curious about your grooming routines. Do you wear deodorant?
Sarah: I wear a salt-base deodorant. In terms of washing, I wash with a bowl and pitcher every morning. When I wash my hair, I get into the clawfoot bathtub, and I use castile soap from a company that’s been around since 1837, a bar of soap that I have to lather up. The castile-soap trick is one I got from a ladies’ magazine from 1889. I’ve found that because it gets my hair so much cleaner than modern shampoos, the hair is not as slippery, and it’ll stay in the Victorian updos a lot better.
Gabriel: I don’t wear deodorant, and I never have. It’s no particular change for me. When we wash our clothes, our outer garments, we wash them a lot less frequently than modern people wash their clothes. It just isn’t required. It wears the clothes out.
Sarah: I have quite a few undergarments. I don’t think most modern people wash their winter coat every single day because it’s not contacting the skin very much. Because all our clothes are made out of natural fibers, the fabrics breathe very well. It’s not like a synthetic fiber. Polyester doesn’t breathe and builds up sweat. That’s why synthetic clothes get very stinky.
Gabriel: Wool, especially, is amazing. You can wear wool week after week and never wash it; it’s fine.
Collectors Weekly: The Victorians were very body conscious with their corsets and elaborate hairdos. But the women didn’t wear makeup. Is that hard for you, Sarah?
Sarah: I’ve never been into makeup in the first place. On my wedding day, which was one of only a handful of times in my life when someone else has done my hair for me, the stylist was shocked that I didn’t want her to do any makeup as well. “But it’s your wedding day!” And I kept saying, “I don’t wear makeup.”
Collectors Weekly: Sarah, is it a lot of work to hand-sew and hand-wash your own clothes?
Sarah: It’s work, but it’s very enriching and fulfilling work. I would far rather be doing this than poking buttons to get everything we need and then spending three hours at the gym every day. I get my exercise this way. I don’t need to do yoga or meditation because sewing is my meditation time. And I have something to show for it.
Collectors Weekly: I wrote our overview on sad irons, and it actually made me sad because ironing seems like it was such grueling work. Do you use a sad iron?
Sarah: I would love to have some sad irons. We haven’t found any yet.
Gabriel: Yeah, we’ve been working on getting those sorts of household implements. But honestly, we’ve mostly avoided fabrics that need tons of ironing.
Sarah: I iron plenty.
Gabriel: She does iron a bit. Most of my clothes don’t need ironing.
Sarah: You just don’t see me ironing because I do it when you’re at work. Show some appreciation.
Collectors Weekly: Looking at photos of your home, it seems remarkably uncluttered for the Victorian era.
Sarah: That’s because we’re poor!
Collectors Weekly: In terms of class, what do you imagine yourselves at this time period?
Sarah: We try to be middle-class people.
Gabriel: Our income now doesn’t match up with what middle class is defined as anymore. Which fits very well into what the Victorian era was. People at the very bottom of middle class tried desperately to seem like they were toward the top of middle class. It’s amazing how many people will look at us and what we do and be like, “Oh, you must be independently wealthy.”
Sarah: I think part of the reason is because they see the things we’ve managed to slowly-but-surely accumulate, and they do a slight mental calculation. Even if it’s just subconscious, they calculate, “If I were to have those things on top of what I have now, what would it cost?” And they don’t realize it’s not “on top of.” This is “instead of.”
Gabriel: One of our strategies could be described us as “budget the luxuries” first. So we have done without a great deal of what a lot of people would consider to be “the basics.”
Sarah: Like when people ask, “What do you do when you eat at restaurants?” We say, “We can’t afford to eat at restaurants.”
Gabriel: I do drive a car to get to work, because we live too far away, because we can’t afford to live where my bike shop is. There’s no train anymore. But the newest vehicle I’ve ever owned is a 1993 model, and it just died. Now we have to pay a car shop to fix that.
Sarah: I have a vanity dresser, and I had wanted one like it since I was a small child. It took me three years to save up for it, because I would save up a little, then something would come up in the household budget, and we would raid that fund. After three years, I finally got it. When people see our things, they don’t see all of the saving and and scrimping behind them.
Collectors Weekly: What about wallpaper?
Gabriel: We have wallpaper in one room in our house that we installed when we moved in to remind ourselves what we’re going to do to the whole house when we have money. In the meantime, what we’ve been concentrating on is fixing systems that require us to get into walls.
Sarah: If any of your readers want to click on our donate button and help us get the wallpaper faster, we would love it.
Gabriel: It is coming. We had to get proper historic heaters installed. We had to get chimneys repaired. We had to do a lot of things that just aren’t compatible with keeping wallpaper looking nice.
Collectors Weekly: If a couple in the late 1880s had things like the bikes you have, would those have been symbols of wealth?
Gabriel: The bikes definitely would have been. At the time, high-wheeled bikes were valuable, something owned by the upper middle class and up. By the 1890s, they got much more affordable.
“I don’t see why people imagine that because we like old technology that we’re going to be against antibiotics. Neither are we for high infant mortality.”
Sarah: It’s an interesting example of how certain things gain value and others get much lower in value over time. Someone who was at our income bracket, back then, couldn’t have afforded the high-wheels. But because they’re a piece of technology that has dramatically decreased in value over time, we can afford them.
Gabriel: The high-wheel bicycle is now an icon of obsolescence. You see it, and it’s what you think of as outdated technology. That happened in 1890. The term “penny-farthing” was a joke term for them, coined after they fell off the top of the technological ladder.
Sarah: To give you an example of something on the other end of the scale, something that plenty of people in our income bracket would have had back then is a horse. We can’t even aspire to that.
Collectors Weekly: Sarah, can you tell me about your tricycle and how that relates to the underwear of the time?
Sarah: The underwear that women were wearing, they’re called “pantelets.” A later term for them was “split bloomers.” Picture a pair of men’s boxer shorts and slash out the crotch. They’re designed so that a woman doesn’t have to take anything off when she uses the restroom, which is very convenient. Because they allow air flow down there, they are far healthier from a gynecological standpoint. But having the lady bits exposed to the air does disincline someone to have their bottom at flash level for everyone on the street.
On the high-wheel bicycle, the seat is right at eye level, but on the tricycle, it’s lower down. The rider sits between the tricycle wheels so the skirt can’t get caught in the spokes, whereas, on a high-wheel bicycle, there would be no way to keep the skirt out of the spokes.
Collectors Weekly: Safety bikes permitted women to start riding bicycles more, correct?
Sarah: Yeah, as opposed to the tricycles.
“One of the things we like about the late 19th century is that the technology was still at a point when every person could see the resources they were using in a tangible way.”
Gabriel: The tricycles were very heavy to move around, and they were very expensive. The safety bicycles were the same weight as the men’s bicycles and a lot cheaper than the tricycles. When the safeties started coming out, more people in general started riding bikes. A high-wheeled bicycle is sized to the man’s leg length. If the wheel is too big, he can’t reach the pedals. If the wheel is too small, his knees get caught underneath the handlebars.
With a safety bicycle, you can raise and lower the seat post easily to adjust the seat height. With the high-wheel bicycle, a shop might have to stock six to eight sizes to fit everyone who came along, whereas in a safety bicycle, you can maybe stock three sizes—small, medium, large—and cover just about the same range of people.
Sarah: It made them a lot cheaper to produce because the factories only had to produce three models.
Gabriel: With only one size of wheel, which is the hardest part to make. An assembly line with standardized parts came first to bicycles long before cars. In 1895 and ’96, everyone was riding a bicycle. It was what we in the bike industry call the First Bicycle Boom.
Sarah: Because everyone was, of course, feminists can pick out their Suffragist heroes who were riding them.
Collectors Weekly: My understanding is that the safety bike gave women in general more freedom to move about by themselves.
Gabriel: It gave everyone more freedom.
Collectors Weekly: Do you ever think about the 1800s perspective of someone who was, say, a miner or farmer or factory worker?
Gabriel: We certainly do. Some of the most interesting clothes we have and the most interesting studies we’ve done have related to people in the working class, especially the people who lived in this house in the 1890s.
Sarah: We just came back from a trip to the Idaho Panhandle where we were cycling along what used to be a railroad route between abandoned silver mines and studying the history of that region. But we’re not playing roles. We’re not just dressing up and saying, [fakes haughty accent] “Oh, well, I am this.” We’re not miners. We researched them, and we’re fascinated by their history, but that’s not who we are.
Gabriel: Definitely life and jobs were hard back then. But honestly, life isn’t easy now.
Sarah: Life is terrible for miners now.
Gabriel: Our gateway to history is the study of everyday life for normal people. Some people get into this through a social-justice angle, but that’s not us. Some people get into it through politics. Some people get into it through war or military history. The focus that we bring to history is studying how technology fit into people’s lives then versus now.
Sarah: We look at politics only inasmuch as they affect the everyday people. Just like a modern person might read about the president in the newspaper, but they’re not going to actually get a chance to meet him. We always try to encourage people to approach history through what interests them. Just ask yourself, “OK, if I had lived back then, what would I think I couldn’t live without?”
Collectors Weekly: Lately, I’ve been thinking about how, as a white person, I benefit from white supremacy as white people in the Victorian era did.
Sarah: These are issues that people still deal with. There is still slavery in the world. It’s just gone underground. The irony is that a lot of the people making blanket statements about the Victorian era are wearing clothes that were made by virtual slave labor in a sweatshop in the Third World.
Gabriel: The question that these people are raising is, “If you are a white person in society at whatever time, how do you not benefit? What are you supposed to do?” Part of what we’re doing is showing people the diversity of the past. In primary sources, we’re showing examples of people who were open-minded and who understood that diversity was valuable. Those people existed in the past just as they exist now. When we study the past, we’re interested in individuals rather than grouping people together. A lot of modern writers pay lip service to the standard narrative. Yes, the Victorian era was terrible because of this and that. But I don’t feel the need for that sort of disclaimer. I think you can study any aspect of history you like without making apologies for other aspects of it.
Collectors Weekly: Do you feel you’re lacking the social context in terms of Victorian neighbors or townspeople?
Sarah: We’d love it if our neighbors joined in on this, but they’re not going to.
Gabriel: One of the things we did do before we moved to this town, which was when we decided to pursue all of this in a serious way, we looked for an intentional Victorian community. We didn’t find any.
Sarah: Part of the way we do try to fill that void is we read a lot of letters and diaries written from that period and, of course, the books.
Gabriel: And the periodicals, newspapers, and magazines, the average things people would have read.
Sarah: It’s the closest we can get. We know it’s not perfect. We’re the very first ones to say that.
Collectors Weekly: Sarah, do you think you would have been a Suffragist?
Sarah: I have a lot more sympathy with Frances Cleveland [wife of President Grover Cleveland] and the anti-suffrage movement. They felt strongly that women had a lot of power, which they would lose if they got the vote. It ties into the concept of Separate Spheres, which most modern people don’t understand. It’s a complicated concept—the idea that women are better at some things than men and men are better at some things that women. Right now and since the 1960s, it’s politically allowable to say women are better at some things than men, but it’s very unfashionable to say men are better at some things than women, even though that’s the natural corollary. You can’t have one without the other. The Victorians felt that men were physically more powerful, but that women were the morally superior sex. They thought women were inherently more intelligent about family issues and had better insight into spiritual and social issues.
Frances Cleveland and the anti-suffragists felt that politics is an inherently dirty business that’s comprised of backstabbing, muckraking, compromise, and calling the other candidate names. They felt that if women got involved in all that, they would lose the moral high ground to say, “We know more about social issues than you men.” They felt that they would lose that voice if they got into politics. And they have.
I was born in 1980. The first election I was old enough to vote for president in was the 2000 election, the election where the popular candidate who was elected by majority was not the one we got for president. So I haven’t seen so much benefit from my much-touted vote as people would like us to think.
Collectors Weekly: I know the Temperance movement started in part because women were being beaten by their drunken husbands.
Sarah: Drug abuse and alcoholism are still big issues now. It’s just the human condition. These are problems people have always faced and unfortunately, sadly, probably will always face.
Again, today, there are plenty of women who are stuck in bad marriages with bad husbands and have difficulty getting out. I don’t think it was necessarily that much worse then. The laws were a little bit more complicated and social norms about divorce were a little different. But divorces did happen. There were plenty of women who managed to divorce men and go on to live solitary lives happily.
Collectors Weekly: In terms of reproductive rights, it doesn’t seem like there’d be a lot of options for women to be in control of their bodies.
Sarah: Actually, quite the contrary. They had condoms, which had been around since ancient Egypt. In a period newspaper from our town, on the front page, they were advertising pennyroyal pills, which was a known abortifacient.
Gabriel: The code word in a lot of these patent medicine advertisements was “for married women.”
Sarah: Probably the Victorian abortifacients most well-known to modern audiences are from a folk song that was covered by Simon & Garfunkel back in the 1960s, “Scarborough Fair.” The reason “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” is the chorus is that as essential oils taken in large quantities, those herbs can induce abortion. These are things that were passed down as folk wisdom.
Collectors Weekly: If you were really living in the 1880s, what sort of social pressure would you have faced to have children at your age?
Sarah: We have that pressure now. Every couple faces that.
Gabriel: Especially at our age. But some of the categories of Victorian people who didn’t tend to have children as much were people who were, for various reasons, academics and people who were more focused on the intellect.
Sarah: The intellectuals were in the best position to understand contraception. We talked earlier about how we’re more aware of resources that are being used, and honestly, having a child is the absolute worst thing a person can do for the environment.
Gabriel: With our financial situation, there’s no way we could afford it.
Collectors Weekly: What would it be like for a kid to live in this environment where they don’t have the technology or access to pop culture that their peers have?
Gabriel: I could speak to that. I was home-schooled as a kid. I grew up without TV. I, of course, loved it. But definitely it separated me from a lot of other people.
Sarah: I grew up in a household where the TV never got turned off, so I got totally overloaded and sick of it. This is bliss.
Collectors Weekly: Do you use modern medicine?
Sarah: It’s very popular to criticize Victorian medicine. But we’ve seen plenty of things in modern medicine that have absolutely horrified us.
Gabriel: I don’t see why people imagine that because we like old technology that we’re going to be against antibiotics. Neither are we for high infant mortality. We’re in the situation, obviously given our financial status, where we haven’t had health insurance. We’re not likely to have health insurance anytime soon. We have avoided being entangled with modern medicine as much as humanly possible, not for philosophical reasons but because we can’t afford it. Neither of us have had anything serious that we had to get involved with doctors, but it’s something we hope to avoid, which is pretty much the same way the Victorians dealt with their interactions with doctors.
Collectors Weekly: Regarding history being skewed, what about the bias of period publications? You had to have a certain status to get published.
Sarah: That’s why we read the diaries and the letters. We have a marvelous, little diary from upstate New York. The woman who wrote it, a farm wife, was not a good writer by any stretch of the imagination. Yet it’s still a wonderful little glimpse into what her life was like.
Gabriel: And the diary of someone who is completely unknown is something we could afford on eBay. Those sorts of things give us windows into lives that aren’t the ones that are recorded in magazines and in nonfiction books at the time.
Collectors Weekly: So you use Google Books, we’re talking on Skype, and you have a blog and Facebook page.
Sarah: We use Google Books to access things that we could have walked down to the local book shop or ordered through the mail back in our period.
“I started asking myself, ‘If I was so wrong about this one aspect of Victorian life, what else have I been wrong about?’”
Gabriel: The computer is a useful research tool, and Google Books is an excellent resource. Remember, I was a computer science major, so I know a lot about computers. I don’t look at them as evil in and of themselves. It’s just that I see their limitations. We’re not all about trying to eliminate all modern technology from our lives. We’re just trying to use everything a little bit more consciously. We have a website because we are interested in outreach and education. We want to talk to other people, not necessarily just to put our view out there but to open dialogues about this, get people thinking and questioning.
Sarah: We encourage people to go back to the primary sources. The biggest text blocks on our website are from our antique book collection, where I’ve spent days upon days transcribing all these articles and stories and putting them on the website.
Gabriel: Especially ones that offer perspectives that people don’t think existed at that time.
Collectors Weekly: As communication has sped up through digital tech and social media, as it’s allowed local social justice issues to bubble up to a national scale.
Sarah: Exactly the same phenomenon you’re talking about, that was going on in the 19th century. Read Tom Standage’s book, The Victorian Internet. With the telegraph system, for the first time, you could get news from Europe to America at the speed of electricity, which was amazing to people. It was a chance to build all these movements, and that had its positive side and its negative side. A lot of terrorism was going on in the 19th century, very similar issues to what we deal with now. When I read the magazines from the time with people’s reactions to bombs going off at political rallies, that fear was exactly the same sort of visceral reaction we have today.
Collectors Weekly: Going in another direction, can you tell me a bit about what goes on in your kitchen?
Sarah: We have an icebox, and that requires a lot of complicated planning. We can’t get hard ice, which is frozen to a much lower temperature. That’s what they could get back in the 19th century, when ice would be delivered straight to the door. Unfortunately, nobody that we have access to sells hard ice anymore. In Ohio and a few other places with large Amish communities, they still sell it, but not here. The closest we can get is soft ice, which is ice that’s just barely frozen. It melts a lot faster than it would’ve in a Victorian icebox because it’s warmer ice. And Gabriel has to pick that up in his car.
We eat a lot of seasonal foods. In the summer, I go out and I forage for wild berries. In the spring, it’s wild nettles. We would grow more of our food if it weren’t for all the deer around here. In the 19th century, a deer in the yard meant free venison. Now, it means that our dinner’s gone. I do manage to grow a few herbs under the radar that the deer don’t notice—yet. And we have a plum tree in our backyard and some apple trees. Unfortunately, the raccoons have stolen most of our apples this year, and it makes one think how nice it would be to have a raccoon fur collar, but we can’t do that these days.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell me about your eating habits?
Gabriel: I eat meat. Sarah doesn’t. She studies a great deal about the vegetarian movement in the 19th century. Sylvester Graham [of Graham Cracker fame] was one of the first proponents, but there were more.
Sarah: There’s one little grocery store down the street from us that’s been there since the 1890s, and we go to that one the most. Then there’s another bigger grocery store in town that we go to as well.
Gabriel: Mostly, what we buy at the bigger store are staples: ice, flour, sugar, salt. We cook most things we can from scratch. We’re not buying processed foods for the most part. We do try to pick things that are in season even if the stores have everything year-round now.
Collectors Weekly: But didn’t the Victorians eat processed food, like things that came in tin boxes and cans?
Sarah: Yeah, it’s been fun to learn about what processed foods were available in our period. In some cases, these things come back. We’ve been reading about Lancaster Caramels, which Milton Hershey made before he got into making chocolate. They were vastly popular in the 1890s. For a long time, we kept wondering, “Hmm, what must those caramels had been like?” Then one day I was in the drugstore, and they had Lancaster Caramels.
Gabriel: I particularly love some of the history of Victorian condiments like Colman’s Mustard and Heinz Ketchup. The Victorians loved condiments—so do I.
Collectors Weekly: What do your friends think about what do you do?
Sarah: We have a few friends, not as many as we’d like. We’re so busy, with Gabriel working so much, and my books take a lot of time, and just keeping our lifestyle going takes a lot of time. We do have friends we’ve known for years, like my old college buddies. A lot of them are scientists, and they’re quite fascinated by what we do.
Collectors Weekly: When you have people over, what do you do? Play parlor games?
Gabriel: First, we have to find people who are interested in playing parlor games.
Sarah: Yeah, we’ve tried sending invitations out, and nobody came.
Gabriel: When we’re at home in the evenings, I read to Sarah while she’s sewing.
Sarah: That’s our favorite thing to do together. It’s always so sweet. It’s a great way to spend an evening.
(To learn more about the Chrismans and their Victorian experiment, pick up Sarah A. Chrisman’s latest book, “This Victorian Life: Modern Adventures in Nineteenth-Century Culture, Cooking, Fashion, and Technology,” or visit their website, This Victorian Life. Chrisman has previously published two other books related to this topic, “Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself” and “True Ladies and Proper Gentlemen: Victorian Etiquette for Modern-Day Mothers and Fathers, Husbands and Wives, Boys and Girls, Teachers and Students, and More.”)