A Victorian woman and her life, style and beauty

Sex, Secrets, and Sanitation in the Victorian World you Never Knew

Attention, time-travelling daydreamers (I know that includes me, don’t worry). Sometimes it’s deliciously fun to imagine living in a time that was quieter, slower, and presumable far more romantic. But, just as Woody Allen so brilliantly captured in Midnight in Paris, once in a while us Golden Age-thinkers need a reality check. This book I’m about to introduce you to offers a perfect dose of realism, complete with comic relief and a slew of fascinating facts.

Rare-history writer Therese Oneill has put her punny pen to paper to pull together a wonderfully wacky tome that takes readers back to the Victorian world they thought they knew, only to show them that they’ve got it all wrong. “You think you know the nineteenth century well, as a place of chivalry and honor, gilded beauty and jolly servants,” she opens her book by writing. “Dark-eyed Heathcliff has obsessed over your windblown soul in a universe where no one ever has to poop.” She continues to reveal countless tidbits of information no one thought to ask about life as a Victorian woman while they were daydreaming about life in the days of yore, where presumably we would spend our days frolicking in meadows and our nights charming potential beaus at the ball. How did people bathe? Go to the loo? Tend to their “monthlies”? These are the questions that Oneill answers in her entertaining new book, Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners.

THREE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE REAL LIFE OF A VICTORIAN WOMAN:

1. UNDER WHERE?

Even though Victorian damsels donned about 47 layers of clothing—from chemise to corset to crinoline cage, not to mention the million-pound gown—none of those garments included a crotch. Why? “Because even though no one in Victorian society will admit it, a lady has to pee,” Oneill writes. And “closed drawers,” as they were known as, “make that practically impossible for a fully dressed lady.”

Victorian women's style and cages

2. CARING FOR YOUR ‘CURSES’

By the end of the Victorian era, mail-order catalogue shopping allowed women to purchase feminine protection products without having to show her face while she did so. But before this, Oneill, explains, women were left with hush-hush hygiene techniques such as: stuff sheep’s wool between your legs, apply sea sponges or a homemade cloth belt, or follow the do-nothing-and-let-it-flow method—none of which sound particularly comfortable, if you ask me.

Victorian women's health and menstruation pads

3. BATHING BLUNDERS

After sloshing through the streets lined with “mud” (you know what that means) and feeling the soot floating in the air settle on your skin, you’d think you could arrive back in your Victorian-era home and take a proper bath. Think again. Hygiene standards of the era were a tad behind, to say the least. “Sponge baths,” foot baths, hip baths, pluge baths, and douche baths provided options for bathing individual body parts. But, writes Oneill, “even at your best you’ll feel like you’ve just slithered in from two weeks spent camping over a natural sulfur deposit.”

Unmentionable Therese O'Neill Book Cover
Unmentionable by Therese O’Neill (Raquel Zaldivar/NPR)

Can’t get enough? Grab your copy here: Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners

Related Post: 5 New Non-Fiction Notables You Need Now

Did any of these tawdry tidbits change your perception of life as a Victorian woman? Have you come across any other fun facts? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Inside the secret life of a real Victorian woman, tawdry tidbits and all

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