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. Afterward, 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
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
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 anthropomorphic 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
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.
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.
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 perform tricks like 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
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
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."
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2021.