When we talk about the Victorian era, our knowledge consists of all the things we’ve learned through books or movies, but the 32-year-old Poland-based artist Marzena, aka Veinity Fair, has brought a new approach through her comics. Marzena is a linguist by profession and currently works full-time as a data linguist and also does freelance editing. Even though she didn’t have much experience as a comic artist, she always liked to draw and that’s how Veinity Fair started.
“I remember doing comic-style drawings for my friends when I was young, doodling in all my notebooks (which I still do), and participating in all types of art projects in my free time. Veinity Fair is my first fully developed comic strip series and I uploaded the first episode in October 2019,” shared Marzena when reached out by Earthwonders.
What inspired her to start in the first place was the joy to share morbid trivia with friends and coworkers, but surprisingly not everyone is up to discussing pre-anesthetic era surgical methods during lunch, at least not as much as she is. Marzena also found herself doodling all types of historical characters, so she decided to combine her two favorite hobbies and share them with a larger, like-minded audience.
What inspired her to create Victorian-era-themed comics was the love to learn about history, and her fascination with the 19th century, which as she described was the time of rapid changes. “On one hand, there were numerous scientific breakthroughs, new forms of entertainment, emancipation movements, first-wave feminism, and other important events still romanticized today. On the other hand, rampant crime, blatant discrimination and inequality, horrific working conditions, and dangerous epidemics. This variety of human stories and experiences became even more apparent to me when I was doing my Master’s degree in historical linguistics and had a chance to read hundreds of letters from the era.”
As she’s been interested in the Victorian era for a long time, Marzena already have a long list of potential topics to illustrate, and thanks to Veinty Fair, the artist claimed she met many wonderful people who not only keep her inspired but also share their knowledge and expertise, so she’s not worried about running out of historical facts.
“What’s the most challenging for me is summing up these usually complex topics in just a few panels and keep it humorous at the same time. I’m also aware that many of the things I illustrate are still being debated by historians and might turn out to be inaccurate, so I’d encourage the readers to treat the comics with a grain of salt and reach out to other sources when they want to learn more.
When it comes to drawing comics, I used to draw everything by hand, scan it, and then put it together on my laptop. Now I’m using Procreate, which is definitely more efficient. I still draw some characters by hand though, as I find it more satisfying to do it in a more traditional way and inking the pieces is quite relaxing,” explained the artist for Earthwonders.
Scroll down below to see these comics by Marzena and learn something about the Victorian era that you probably didn’t know before.
After her husband’s death, Mary Shelley kept his calcified heart in a desk drawer. And even though some modern scholars believe it was just his liver, Mary herself was convinced that she had Percy’s heart. Quite a suitable keepsake for the author of Frankenstein!
In 1889, Caroline Hampton was a talented young nurse working at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was the chief nurse in the medical team working with William Halsted, one of the founders of the hospital and a well-known surgeon. After a few months of assisting in the operating room, Caroline was on the verge of resigning from her position due to painful eczema and dermatitis she had developed as a result of following Halsted’s strict hygienic procedure that included disinfecting hands and instruments with multiple chemical solutions. The surgeon didn’t want to part with his favorite assistant, so he came up with a brilliant idea:
“In the winter of 1889 and 1890, I cannot recall the month, the nurse in charge of my operating room complained that the solutions of mercuric chloride produced a dermatitis of her arms and hands. As she was an unusually efficient woman, I gave the matter my consideration and one day in New York requested the Goodyear Rubber Company to make as an experiment two pair of thin rubber gloves with gauntlets. On trial, these proved to be so satisfactory that additional gloves were ordered. (…) After a time the assistants became so accustomed to working in gloves that they also wore them as operators and would remark that they seemed to be less expert with the bare hands than with the gloved hands.”
The use of rubber gloves saved not only the nurse’s hands but also patients’ health – the hospital reduced the post-op infection rates from 17% to 2%. A few years after Halsted introduced his invention, the gloves were improved and sterilized by our champion of the germ theory of disease – Joseph Lister.
The only thing the gloves didn’t save was the nurse’s position at the hospital. Caroline and William fell in love and got married in June of 1890. At that point, she had to resign from her job, as it was seen unfit for a married woman to continue to work. It is said that their marriage was quite successful, and they were seen as a pair of eccentrics, enjoying the company of their pets and unusual hobbies.
Have you ever wondered where does the phrase “blowing smoke up your ass” come from? Unlike other sayings, this one is quite… literal. We have to go back a little bit further in time than usual, though.
In the eighteen century, it was quite common to attempt resuscitation of the “apparently drowned” by blowing tobacco smoke into the rectum, which was supposed to warm up the unlucky victim and stimulate their body. At the birth of the method, the smoke had to be blown through a tube by mouth, but, thankfully, later special bellows were introduced to help out with the task.
The Royal Humane Society of London (previously called The Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead from Drowning) provided tobacco smoke rescue kits which were distributed along the river Thames. At this point, you may ask yourselves “Why didn’t they think about performing mouth-to-mouth”? As it turns out, the mouth-to-mouth method was known by many people, especially midwives, but was considered “vulgar” at the time.
Do you suffer from headaches, sadness, low energy, high energy, hearing loss, anxiety, pain, hallucinations, or any other problem AND you have a uterus? This can only lead to one diagnosis: hysteria! Hysteria (from the Greek ‘hystera’ = uterus) began as the idea of the uterus moving around the body, causing all sorts of physical and mental troubles on the way. The first mentions of the wandering womb date back to 1900 BC. Throughout the ages, hysteria remained an umbrella diagnosis for a variety of issues women faced, from more ‘reasonable’ ones (different ailments) to everything seen as ‘unwomanly’ behaviors, like being short-tempered, not wanting to marry, or not being interested in having children.
As the history of hysteria spans thousands of years, the exact nature of the illness varies depending on the time period we’re looking into. Apart from the wandering womb, other reasons for hysteria included the imbalance of humors in the uterus, too much sex, not enough sex, childlessness, and even … demonic possession. Many beliefs, folk medicine, and superstitions surrounding these ideas survived in the minds of common folk for centuries, even when more scientific methods were taking hold.
The shift from the physical to more psychological background of hysteria in the 18th and 19th century was a small step forward, however, as it was still a catch-all diagnosis for diseases that should have been studied separately and, unfortunately, often a tool for controlling women who did not want to conform to the societal expectations. In extreme cases, ‘hysterical’ women were forced to spend the rest of their lives in asylums or undergo completely unnecessary surgical hysterectomies. The unwillingness of physicians to study female medical problems and sexuality combined with the blind belief in the well-established practices of the past led to the creation of dozens of bizarre therapies and cures, which we’ll be exploring in the following weeks.
Dr. Mütter was an exceptional 19th-century surgeon who pioneered many techniques that helped burn victims and people with extreme deformities, labeled by others as lost causes and “monsters” (it was a medical term at the time!
Mütter himself suffered from several illnesses throughout his life, which made him very sympathetic to patients’ lot. He used to explain the procedures to patients and prepare them for surgeries both physically and mentally. He boasted to be one of the fasted surgeons in the U.S., an important feature in the pre-anesthesia times and wrote a book on special techniques used during such surgeries. This didn’t prevent him from becoming the first surgeon to administer ether anesthesia in Philadelphia and adapt his methods over time according to the newest discoveries.
Mütter was also a colorful figure known for extravagant style and expression, something that Europeans loved about him and many Americans … not so much. Today he’s best known for an enormous collection of medical specimen and oddities you can admire at the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
How’s your hysteria today? I have good news for you, it turns out all you need to do is relax. Drink a lot of milk, stay in your room, don’t do anything, just rest. Throw out that painting brush, don’t listen to any music, don’t have any conversations with anyone, you need to RELAX. What are you doing with that book? Put it down, no intellectual activities for you, just RELAX. For how long? Half a year should do the trick.
The rest cure, proposed by Silas Weir Mitchell around the 1850s, was a popular treatment for hysteria and other mental disorders diagnosed in the Victorian era. The “treatment” revolved around avoiding any physical and intellectual activity to extreme levels, where even having a normal conversation or reading a book was seen as too strenuous for “hysterical” women. Among Mitchell’s patients, were several famous women, like Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The latter, who suffered what we would call today postpartum depression, was prescribed to “Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.” Gilman famously used her awful treatment experience as an inspiration for writing “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
As you can imagine, the bed rest cure not only didn’t help but even contributed to the worsening of female patients’ condition. Many women ended up being forcefully administered into asylums afterward. At the same time, Mitchell advised his male patient’s lots of outdoor exercise.
As we already know, the Victorians were obsessed with a ghastly pale complexion which was supposed to give them a more aristocratic look. This also included stigmatization of freckles as they were associated with the working class and outdoor labor in general. In part, freckles were also seen as a health problem resulting from the overproduction of yellow bile by the liver. One of the ways to treat this ‘problem’ was to bring balance to the four senses of humor, either by purging or bloodletting.
Those unwilling to lose their blood over freckles could purchase products that were supposed to “gently” get rid of freckles. However, even pharmacists at the time spoke against these products, as they often contained highly invasive and poisonous ingredients like arsenic or lead. And while the first results could have been promising (rashing and peeling skin would reveal some lighter skin beneath), the long-term effect included permanent skin damage and heavy metal poisoning.
You may ask, “if they really wanted to hide freckles, wouldn’t it be easier and safer to just put on some makeup?” Unfortunately, color cosmetics fell out of favor at the time, when Queen Victoria deemed it vulgar and unfit for respectable ladies.
During the 19th century, London population almost tripled, making it the largest city in the world. The metropolis also became a true paradise for rats. These clever rodents quickly took over not only the complex sewer system but also the buildings above it. You could find them anywhere, from pipes and basements to attics and anywhere in between. Getting rid of that many rats was not an easy task and people would hire professional rat-catchers to help them solve the problem.
The most famous rat-catcher of the time was Jack Black, a man who boasted to work for the Queen herself and strolled the London streets in his flamboyant, colorful uniform. Black used a number of methods to catch and dispose of the rats, but he mostly relied on his trained ferrets and black tan terriers. The ferrets would pursue and “flush out” rats from the underground, and the dogs could track ferrets’ by smell and also kill rats on command. Rat-infested households were a bit problematic, as ferrets could get stuck in the nooks and crannies of the buildings. Because of that, Black had to catch the rats by hand or use more traditional rat traps. Being a prolific entrepreneur, he also experimented with training other animals to help him in vermin disposals, such as raccoons, badgers, and even a monkey!
The beloved American writer is best known for his gothic poems and short stories full of mystery, lost love, and macabre. He is also considered to be the father of detective fiction and contributed to the popularization of science fiction.
While his convoluted and tragic love life is often discussed, Poe’s early life was plagued by other misfortunes as well. Orphaned by the age of two, he was taken in by John and Frances Allan. Edgar and Allan didn’t see eye to eye and often quarreled, especially over money. Feeling unsupported by the foster father, Edgar turned to gamble to pay for his education at the University of Virginia. This plan however backfired, leaving Poe with serious debts. After begging John for money, clothes, and basic necessities numerous times, he finally had to resign from the university and joined the army under an assumed name. He was only 18 at the time.
Earrings, rings, necklaces, brooches, you name it – everything can be woven out of hair or at least contain locks of hair.
The practice was prevalent throughout the Victorian era, with higher classes adopting the trend first thanks to goldsmiths and other artisans offering high-quality jewelry that could be personalized by adding a beloved person’s hair and precious materials. Such mementos could not only be a way to keep your family and friends close, but also objects of mourning. The mourning hair jewelry became especially common after the death of Prince Albert, when Queen Victoria decided to wear a locket of Albert’s hair around her neck, thus popularizing this way of showing love for the deceased. Around the same time, hair work became a common pastime for women of lower classes. Ladies would learn how to create these intricate items from each other or could use patterns printed in women’s magazines.
“Madame X” was an infamous portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, painted by John Singer Sargent. In the painting, Virginie, a Parisian socialite known for her beauty, is wearing a sleek black dress. She has perfectly styled hair, and the paleness of her skin beautifully contrasts with the dark background. It seemed that the piece would become a great success for both the artist and the model.
And yet, the portrait was met with a very controversial reception at the 1884 Paris Salon. The viewers commented on the revealing dress cut, the shoulder strap inappropriately falling down on the shoulder, the weird position of the model, and her morbid paleness. How could it be? After all, it was still the society that applauded the sickly look caused by romanticized tuberculosis. What is more, the dress design wasn’t more revealing than other popular evening gowns at the time. It seems that a large part of the scandal was … gossip.
The 1884 Salon was a particularly mundane exhibition with almost no notable paintings. Moreover, visitors had to go through many rooms to see “Madame X”, which could have altered their moods. Besides, the majority of the patrons belonged to the bourgeoisie and could have been more critical of the aristocratic Madame Gautreau flaunting her jeweled straps and high fashion. It was also enough for a few respected people to openly describe the piece of art as ‘immoral’ to create an atmosphere in which anyone who disagrees could be seen as ‘immoral’ as well. The newspapers quickly jumped on the bandwagon, criticizing the painting, Madame Gautreau, and Sargent. They even printed caricatures! As you can imagine, at that point, new Salon visitors were already expecting to see something scandalous, even before seeing the painting themselves!
The scandal was so blown up out of proportion that Virginie’s mother threatened Sargent with a duel, and Sargent himself moved to Britain (after repainting the unfortunate strap, as can be seen in the portrait today.). After the initial backlash, the lives of Gautreau and Sargent went back to normal. The first remained a fashionable Paris figure, and the latter became a highly sought-after artist.
According to an old Scottish tradition, called ‘First Foot’, the first person who enters your household after midnight foretells the fortune for the new year. The best candidates are dark-haired men bearing small gifts, as they are a sign of prosperity and good luck. Fair-haired men are not as good apparently and seen as bad omen.
While the tradition can still be observed today, it was especially popular in the Victorian era, as the Queen was in love with everything Scottish and popularized Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) traditions among her subjects. During the time, the midnight guests were expected to bring such symbolic gifts as whiskey, coal, shortbread, spices, and black bun.
Safety coffins designs were mostly created during the 18th and 19th centuries, when the fear of being buried alive was quite common, due to numerous epidemics and popular fiction. There were several designs of safety coffins, but the most popular one seemed to be the one with a bell. The idea behind this contraption was simple – if you unexpectedly wake up inside a coffin, you can pull a rope attached to a small bell that in turn would alarm anyone keeping a watch in the graveyard. While there are numerous designs of safety coffins, we don’t really know if they were ever commonly used apart from the chilling literary fiction.
In the pre-germ-theory world, dirty clothes, unwashed linens, festering wounds, and limited access to clean water were pretty standard for a hospital experience, followed by outbursts of such diseases like rubella or cholera. Unfortunately, many surgeons contributed to this situation by not washing their hands, not disinfecting surgical instruments, and… glorifying their blood-soaked frock coats and surgical aprons.
You see, it was believed that the dirtier the surgical attire, the more busy and successful its owner was. Some surgeons even wore clothes that had previously belonged to retired staff members as a sign of respect and keeping traditions alive. Those who wore “butcher’s aprons” mostly did so to protect their private, nice clothing and didn’t wash them anyway. As you can imagine, this pus- and blood-soaked, never-washed items were basically rotting and gave out a putrid smell which was lovingly referred to as “the good old hospital stink.”
The situation slowly began to change in the mid-19th century, when several doctors (e.g. Joseph Lister, Ignaz Semmelweis, Thomas Dent Mütter) tried to popularize washing the surgical attire and promoted the idea of cleanliness in general, for which they were often ridiculed.
Is there any image more Victorian than a lady collapsing on a fainting couch after learning troubling news? The expectation that women would swoon whenever their emotions were heightened was so common that a bottle of reviving smelling salts could be found not only in a lady’s purse but also a British constable’s pocket. More affluent women carried smelling salts in the form of soaked sponges closed in decorative, often silver containers called vinaigrettes. At the time smelling salts had already been known for centuries, but the knowledge of how they restored consciousness was not as widespread. While Victorian doctors and scientists knew about the effect ammonia gas had on the respiratory system, many people still believed the strong odor of salts helped by encouraging the wandering womb to come back to its place, echoing Hippocrates’ theories on female hysteria.