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MISCONCEPTIONS

7 Misconceptions About the Victorian Era

Kerry Wolfe
A portrait of Queen Victoria of England and her family in 1846.
A portrait of Queen Victoria of England and her family in 1846. / Culture Club/Getty Images
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When you think of the Victorian era, your mind likely goes to stiff soirées filled with humorless elites stuffed inside corsets. But that picture isn't completely accurate (well, the corsets are accurate, but they weren't quite so brutal to wear). The people of the time were just as likely to make a joke as any wannabe comedian on Twitter today. And they were far from the sexless dead fish that period dramas would lead you to believe—and that goes double for the era's namesake monarch, Queen Victoria, who even detailed the escapades of her wedding night in her diary. Read on as we debunk some misconceptions about the Victorian era, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: The Victorians were inveterate prudes

The Victorians have a reputation for being overly prude and sex-averse, largely thanks to Queen Victoria’s buttoned-up public image. But their art and literature say otherwise. Queen Victoria herself had an entire collection of nude paintings, and she and her husband, Prince Albert, delighted in giving each other risqué artwork as birthday gifts. According to her own diaries, Victoria was a pretty passionate lover. When writing about her wedding night, she said, “I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening! MY DEAREST, DEAR Albert sat on a footstool by my side, and his excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before.” She did not, as the saying goes, just “lie back and think of England.”

And Victorian literature featured its fair share of eroticism. One particularly famous book was My Secret Life, which was filled with a man’s vivid accounts of his sexual adventures. There were even how-to books: one, subtitled An Infallible Guidebook for Married and Single Persons, In Matters of The Utmost Importance To The Human Race, was essentially the Victorian version of Sex for Dummies. The book, which is filled with some pretty dubious advice and information, even encouraged married couples to have passionate sex, claiming that any children conceived would be most like the parent who had the most intense orgasm.

2. Misconception: The vibrator was invented to help “hysterical” women

Another common misconception claims a Victorian doctor invented the vibrator to help “hysterical women.” According to popular myth, doctors cured women of “hysteria” by manually bringing them to orgasm. One doctor, his hands tired from having to sexually stimulate so many women, created a vibrating device to make his job easier. But there isn’t much evidence to support the idea that Victorian doctors used vibrators—or masturbation at all—for hysteria. A Victorian doctor is credited with inventing the electric vibrator, but not for genital stimulation.

Joseph Mortimer Granville came up with the buzzing contraption in the 1880s. This first vibrator was basically an early version of the muscle massage guns people use today. It could supposedly cure a whole assortment of ailments like pain and spinal disease, but it was meant for men. Granville didn’t suggest using the vibrator on hysterical women—or any women at all. This whole myth basically stems from a 1999 book, and the book’s author has since said it was never intended to be taken as a fact.

3. Misconception: Prince Albert had a Prince Albert

According to legend, Prince Albert pierced his penis with what was then known as a “dressing ring.” He, and other fashionable men, would supposedly hook these rings to one side of their trousers to prevent any “unsightly bulging” when they wore tight clothing. It’s also said Prince Albert used the ring for hygienic purposes. However, there’s no actual proof the prince consort ever had such a piercing. The origin of this legend remains unknown. One person who we do know helped spread it? Doug Malloy, a big piercing proponent in the 1960s and 1970s. Malloy printed the story in his pamphlet Body & Genital Piercing in Brief—which, it should be said, contained more myth than fact—and the tale continued to spread from there.

4. Misconception: Victorians were humorless

See—smiling!
See—smiling! / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In addition to supposedly being prude, it’s often said that Victorians had no sense of humor. But they were just as fond of a good joke as people are today. The magazine Punch, founded in 1841, was entirely dedicated to humor and satire. Newspapers, books, and the theater all featured various jokes and puns, too. Victorians joked about the same kind of stuff we do today: politics, famous people, family stress, and other aspects of everyday life were fair game. Some punny Victorian-era zingers to try at your next open mic night include: “Who is the greatest chicken-killer in Shakespeare? Macbeth, because he did murder most foul” and “What is the difference between a butcher and a flirt? One kills to dress; the other dresses to kill.”

A big reason people think the Victorians were so humorless is because their jokes didn’t always age well. A lot of the content featured in Punch, for example, may not make sense to those unfamiliar with the political events being satirized. And some of the era’s jokes were downright offensive, as they could have pretty racist, sexist, or classist themes.

When a lot of people think of serious Victorians, they think of the unsmiling people often found in photographs. There were some exceptions to this stern rule—photos of smiling Victorians, including Queen Victoria herself, exist in the archives—but it is true that most photographs of the era show close-lipped subjects. There are a few theories as to why. A common one is that in the 19th century, having your photo taken involved more than the quick click of a button—posing for a daguerreotype in the 1830s meant a person had to be still for around a minute and a half; that exposure time had shortened dramatically to under 10 seconds in the 1850s. As such, people didn’t smile in pictures because it was difficult to hold the pose for a long stretch of time.

But by the late 19th century, exposure time had gotten pretty short and people still weren’t smiling, which leads to another theory behind the somber stares: Early photography was similar to painting, which also saw its subjects favoring grim looks over plastered grins. Back then, a big toothy smile was more associated with lewdness and loudness—not traits the aristocrats wanted to portray in their portraits. Yet another theory proposes that people didn’t smile so they could hide their unattractive teeth. This idea has some critics, though. This was a time before widespread dental healthcare, so having a mouth full of gnarly teeth was normal, and not something people felt the need to hide.

5. Misconception: Queen Victoria embodied priggishness

Queen Victoria has a reputation as a particularly humorless monarch. After all, the quote “We are not amused” is attributed to her. According to one 1887 book, a group of people were laughing and chatting when Victoria grimly uttered the soon-to-be-famous line. But the most popular legend claims she said it in response to a raunchy joke. Alternate versions of the story exist, but none come from a primary source; each version is relayed as if the story had previously been passed onto the writer by someone else. But it’s likely the queen never said that line at all—in a 1976 interview, her 93-year-old granddaughter, Princess Alice, said Victoria herself told her she never said it.

A lot of Queen Victoria’s reputation as a somber, serious woman comes from the decades she spent mourning Prince Albert’s death. Albert died on December 14, 1861, at the age of 42. Doctors originally suspected the prince consort had died of typhoid fever, though modern scholars have debated that diagnosis. Albert’s untimely demise devastated Queen Victoria. She spent the next 40 years publicly and privately mourning her late husband.

6. Misconception: Queen Victoria was the first bride to wear white

Queen Victoria has a long association with the color white. She did, after all, popularize the white wedding dress. But she wasn’t the first public figure to wear white on her wedding day. More than two decades before Victoria’s wedding, there’s an account of Princess Charlotte’s wedding dress, describing it as “a slip of white and silver.” And Victoria didn’t choose the color to showcase her purity, as many believe. White fabric was more expensive to maintain and clean, so if anything, wearing white was a symbol of her social status. Back then, only the wealthy could afford to maintain pristine white clothing. According to one biographer, Victoria also chose white to better show off her gown’s delicate lace.

7. Misconception: Corsets made women pass out onto fainting couches

Corsets were not quite as unbearable as you've been told.
Corsets were not quite as unbearable as you've been told. / GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Corsets were pretty common throughout the Victorian era, and they were not the deadly torture devices often portrayed in period film pieces—though, of course, some people did cause damage by cinching them too tight. But if a typical corset hurt the person wearing it, that simply meant it hadn’t been fitted right. Women also didn’t need a whole flock of assistants to fasten them into a corset—they were often perfectly able to slip into the garment themselves. Too-tight corsets also didn’t cause women to frequently faint. Contrary to popular belief, women weren’t constantly flopping onto fainting couches because their clothes were suffocating them—and back then, fainting couches weren’t even a thing; that type of furniture was called a day bed.

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