Tax Your Brain With 5 Victorian Riddles

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iStock

The Victorians loved a good parlor game. Charades and blindman’s bluff were well-known enough in the 19th century to find their way into Dickens’s novels, and there were always games like Are You There, Moriarty? and Reverend Crawley to help pass time on a rainy Victorian afternoon. But when they weren’t trying to guess who was hiding a slipper behind their back or snatching some scalding-hot raisins out of a bowl of burning brandy, the Victorians also had an appetite for word games, riddles, and logic puzzles, countless anthologies of which were published at the time.

So how well would you do pitting your wits against these five classic Victorian riddles? The answers are at the foot of the page, but no cheating.

1. THE BISHOP OF WINCHESTER’S RIDDLE

The son of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, Samuel Wilberforce became Bishop of Oxford in 1845 before being elected Bishop of Winchester in 1869. Best known in his day for his opposition to Charles Darwin and for a slippery manner in debates that earned him the nickname “Soapy Sam," Wilberforce was also a prolific writer of riddles—arguably the most well-known of which was as follows:

I have a large Box, with two lids, two caps, three established Measures, and a great number of articles a Carpenter cannot do without. Then I have always by me a couple of good Fish, and a number of a smaller tribe, beside two lofty Trees, fine Flowers, and the fruit of the indigenous Plant; a handsome Stag; two playful animals; and a number of smaller and less tame Herd. Also two Halls, or Places of Worship, some Weapons of warfare, and many Weathercocks. The Steps of an Hotel; The House of Commons on the eve of a Dissolution; Two Students or Scholars, and some Spanish Grandees, to wait upon me. All pronounce me a wonderful piece of Mechanism, but few have numbered up the strange medley of things which compose my whole.

What is being described here?

2. “CAPTAIN OF A PARTY SMALL”

A collection of puzzles entitled A New Riddle Book For The Amusement and Instruction of Little Misses and Masters was published in England sometime in the mid-19th century by an author known only as “Master Wiseman.” Among the dozens of puzzles contained in the collection was this classic riddle about “the captain of a party small,” the original version of which is thought to date back to the 18th century. What is being described?

I’m captain of a party small,
Whose number is but five;
But yet do great exploits, for all,
And ev’ry man alive.
With Adam I was seen to live,
Ere he knew what was evil;
But no connexion have with Eve,
The serpent or the devil.
I on our Savior’s Laws attend,
And fly deceit and vice;
Patriot and Protestant befriend,
But Infidels despise.
Matthew and Mark both me have got;
But to prevent vexation,
St. Luke and John possess me not,
Tho’ found in ev’ry nation.

3. HALLAM’S RIDDLE

First published in 1849, this famous riddle was at some point credited to just about every major 18th and 19th century writer from Richard Brinsley Sheridan to Lord Byron, but the name by which it became best known was that of the English historian and legal scholar Henry Hallam. In actual fact, the puzzle is now believed to have been the work of Dr. Edward Denison, Bishop of Salisbury from 1837 to 1854, and given its religious overtones is now also known as “The Bishop’s Riddle.” What is being described here?

I sit on a rock whilst I’m raising the wind,
But, the storm once abated, I’m gentle and kind;
I’ve kings at my feet who await but a nod,
To kneel in the dust on the ground I have trod;
Tho’ seen to the world, I’m known to but few,
The Gentile deserts me, I’m pork to a Jew;
I never have passed but one night in the dark,
And that was with Noah alone in the Ark;
My weight is three pounds, my length is a mile,
And when I’m discovered, you’ll say with a smile—
That my first and my last are the pride of this isle.

4. PLAYING CHICKEN

Published around 1900, One Thousand And One Riddles With A Few Thrown In was an anonymous collection of poems and logic puzzles, many of which took the form of seemingly simple single-line questions. “Which of the feathered tribe would be supposed to lift the heaviest weight?” asked one such question—the answer to which, of course, was the crane.

One of the collection’s trickiest and least-obvious challenges, however, was this bizarre brainteaser. You’ll have to be well-versed in Shakespeare in order to work out:

Who killed the greatest number of chickens?

5. ROSSETTI’S PROBLEM

The poet Christina Rossetti is arguably best known for her sonnet "Remember," and for the lyrics to the Christmas carol "In the Bleak Midwinter." But besides her poetry Rossetti was also a prolific writer of riddles, many of which were published in children’s nursery books and anthologies in the mid-19th century. Among the dozens of riddles Rossetti published is this one:

There is one that has a head without an eye,
An there’s one that has an eye without a head:
You may find the answer if you try;
And when all is said,
Half the answer hangs upon a thread!

SOLUTIONS

1. The human body. Each section (flagged by each capitalized word) in the Bishop’s description is a somewhat cryptic clue to a different part of the body. The “large box,” for instance, is the chest. The “lids” and “caps” are the eyelids and the kneecaps. The “three established measures” are the nails (which a carpenter also couldn’t do without), the hands, and the feet, each of which is the name of a unit of measurement. The “soles” of the feet and the “mussels” of the body are the “good fish” and the “smaller tribe” of creatures. The “two lofty trees” are the palms, while the “fine flowers” are the irises and the tulips (i.e. two lips). The “indigenous plant” is a clue to the hips (i.e. rosehips); the “handsome stag” is a clue to the heart (i.e. hart); and the “two playful animals” are the calves. Hares and hairs are played on in the reference to “a smaller and less tame herd” of animals, while the “two places of worship” are the temples. The arms and shoulder blades are the “weapons of warfare”; the weathercocks are veins (i.e. vanes); the “steps of an hotel” are the “inn-steps” of the feet; and the “ayes” and “noes” voted in the House of Commons are a reference to the eyes and nose. Lastly, the “two students” are the pupils, and “some Spanish grandees” might be known as the “ten dons.”

2. The letter A. The small party in question are the letters A, E, I, O, and U.

3. A raven. The original solution to this problem has been lost, and for many years debate raged as to what the correct answer was. One popular explanation was that the riddle was a clue to the Christian Church, with various Bible verses picked out to explain curious clues like “my weight is three pounds” and “my length is a mile.” But that explanation still left certain clues and parts of the verse unexplained. Finally, in 1923, the author and puzzle-setter Henry Dudeney proposed a solution that seemed to answer all parts of the problem: a raven. Ravens were once believed to forecast the weather; they were worshiped and revered by ancient peoples; they’re rarely seen, though familiar to most people; they are forbidden as food in the Old Testament; a pair accompanied Noah on his ark (where one was left alone after Noah released its mate); they weigh roughly three pounds, and can fly a mile with ease. The first and last letter of the word raven, finally, is RN: the abbreviation of the British Royal Navy, considered the “pride of the British Isles” in the 19th century.

4. Claudius. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father explains that Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, did “murder most foul.”

5. Pins and needles. One has an eye, the other does not—and only a needle can be threaded.

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

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Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Black Friday is finally here, and Amazon is offering great deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

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Instant Pot/Amazon

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Roomba/Amazon

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Video games

Sony

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Microsoft/Amazon

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Apple/Amazon

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HBO/Amazon

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Amazon

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Casper/Amazon

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Ganni/Amazon

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A Hair-Raising History of the Flowbee

The Flowbee revolutionized the highly suspect idea of cutting one's own hair.
The Flowbee revolutionized the highly suspect idea of cutting one's own hair.
I Love Fun, YouTube

Like many great ideas, there is some confusion surrounding how California-based carpenter Rick Hunts was struck by inspiration for the Flowbee. The infomercial sensation of the late 1980s is a vacuum cleaner attachment that straightens hair, munches on it with clippers, and then sucks the trimmings into the canister.

In one version, Hunts is beguiled by a television show he saw in 1979 that demonstrated a person getting their hair cut while hanging upside-down, freeing their locks for clipping. Another has Hunts using a vacuum to get sawdust from his workshop out of his hair and having an epiphany.

The latter sounds more like the kind of mythologizing that accompanies inventors—one questions the wisdom of using a vacuum to remove sawdust from their hair rather than simply showering—but it doesn’t matter much. However he came upon the notion, Hunts’s vision of an at-home substitution for a barber was the Soloflex of hairstyling. It promised convenience, affordability, and the novelty of boasting your hair had been trimmed by a Hoover upright.

Hunts’s device, which he initially dubbed the Vacucut, took six to seven years to develop. By one estimate, he went through four prototypes—the last one involving 50 modifications—before he perfected the vacuum attachment. (Hunts’s children—or, more specifically, their hair—were used for testing.) The Vacucut took hair anywhere from a half-inch to six inches in length and, thanks to the suction of the vacuum, pulled it straight in the same way a stylist holds hair between their fingers. Once extended, clippers inside the attachment trimmed the excess, which wound up in the vacuum.

It required no skill and no additional pairs of hands; the length was adjustable using the included spacers. Owing to the air flow and the fact the device made a buzzing noise similar to a bee, Hunts decided to rename it the Flowbee, with a bumblebee-esque black and yellow color scheme.

Hunts, who raised more than $100,000 from investors and even sold his cabinet shop to obtain additional funds to mass market his creation, clearly felt the Flowbee would be a slam-dunk. He approached major personal grooming companies like Conair, Norelco, and Remington to see if they’d be interested in the Flowbee. He also approached beauty salons to see if they’d consider selling them to customers. He later recalled that all of them said the idea was nuts. In the case of the salons, they were afraid the Flowbee might actually work as advertised and see a reduction in foot traffic from people content to cut their own hair. 

Dismayed, Hunts took to trying to move product out of his garage. He also went to county fairs, where he would have a volunteer come up on stage. One side of the person’s head would be trimmed with scissors, the other side with the Flowbee. The results were comparable, and Hunts began selling a modest amount of inventory at $150 each.

The reaction of the county fair crowd may have been on Hunts’s mind when he saw an infomercial one evening for a food-sealing product. The program-length paid advertisements were really just barker shows broadcast to a mass audience. The Flowbee, Hunts knew, needed to be demonstrated. So Hunts spent $30,000 to produce and buy airtime for a 30-minute spot that began airing in 1988. Soon, the entire country was watching people aim a vacuum nozzle at their heads and clip their own hair.

The Flowbee entered popular culture, getting mentions in films like 1992’s Wayne’s World, where Garth (Dana Carvey) is menaced by a Suck Kut, and on shows like Party of Five. Imitators like the RoboCut and the Hairdini appeared to bite into market share, but the Flowbee enjoyed brand recognition. A Flowbee Pet Groomer was introduced, and Flowbee barbershops were considered. By 1992, the Flowbee was being sold in major retail chains. By 1993, Hunts’s San Diego-based company, Flowbee International, had sold 200,000 units. By 2000, the number was 2 million. While that may not sound like a lot, consider that this was a vacuum cleaner attachment selling for $69.95 to $150 retail that was intended for use on one’s head.

While millions of people enjoyed the Flowbee’s kitsch appeal, some people thought it sucked. Stylists believed it lacked the artistry of a professional, while others complained it wasn’t effective on hair longer than six inches or on curly locks. It was also difficult for the Flowbee to trim the sides or around the ears. George Clooney, however, swears by it; in December 2020, he admitted that he's been using one to cut his own hair for decades.

While they no longer air infomercials, Flowbee International is still in business—and has seen increased interest in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic as people avoid salons and look for alternatives to becoming Howard Hughes. Unfortunately, health concerns have prompted a cessation of activity at the Flowbee factory in Kerrville, Texas. They don’t intend to ship new product (which now sells for $99) until things settle down. The RoboCut, however, is still shipping.