"We Are Not Amused"

The following is an article from the book Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader.

What was frowned upon in Victorian-era England? Pretty much everything.


During the 1837– 1901 reign of Queen Victoria, Britain’s upper classes prospered, the nation’s population doubled, and a sense of romance and dignity prevailed. It was also a period marked by widespread child-labor abuse, unbridled poverty, horrifying poor-houses, overcrowded and unsanitary cities, and rampant prostitution. It was an era of great innovation in art and industry but also an era of strict moral values and adherence to propriety.

The rigid morality modeled by Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, may well have been a reaction to the previous monarch of Great Britain, Victoria’s uncle, King William IV. While the king never managed to produce any legitimate heirs with his wife, Queen Adelaide, he did father ten illegitimate children with actress and courtesan Dorothea Jordan, who was his mistress for 20 years.

Here are a few of the things that displeased proper Victorians:

• The word “leg.” It was considered too sexy and, thus, too vulgar. At the time, the preferred term, if one absolutely had to refer to a lower extremity, was “limb.”

• Calling an aristocrat by his first name. Even aristocratic children referred to each other by their last names. Adults used titles in addition to last names, and noblemen would use their aristocratic titles or “Lord.” Thus, your good friend and neighbor might be Captain Smith, Lord Smith, or Mr. Smith, but never John. Likewise, the lady of the house would be referred to by her title and her husband’s last name, or, if she was single, Miss Smith.

• Ladies keeping orchids. While the growing and collecting of orchids was a popular fad for men during the Victorian era, ladies did not take up the hobby. Why? Because the flowers were thought to bear too close a resemblance to female genitalia.

• Ladies receiving advanced education. A young lady’s education was only for the purpose of making her a suitable wife. For working-class girls, that meant domestic education. Middle- and upper-class girls were expected to learn only enough, according to Victorian writer John Ruskin, to “take into consideration a husband’s need to share his interest with his wife and conduct intelligent conversation with her,” and nothing more.

• Discussing illegitimate children. Obviously, having a child out of wedlock was scandalous. But even talking about the “plague,” as it was called at the time, was frowned upon. In 1856 alone, an estimated 40,000 children were born to unwed mothers in England and Wales. In addition to the problems associated with caring for all those illegitimate children (many were sent off to orphanages and workhouses, or to extended family to be raised), it was taboo for decent people to even discuss the problem.

• Swimming at public beaches. While gentlemen frequently swam naked in groups of other gentlemen, it was not considered appropriate for ladies to be seen swimming or bathing in public, even in the extremely modest swimwear of the day. A natural outgrowth of this prohibition was “the bathing box.” The box, usually made of a wooden frame with canvas walls and a roof, was used to change into swimwear, and then rolled down the beach right into the water. A lady could then exit the bathing house through a rear door and then swim with some protection against being seen from shore.

• Smelling bad. Victorians really did believe that “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” and viewed those who were not clean as sickening—“breeding a social pestilence in the very midst of our land,” wrote playwright and journalist Henry Mayhew. The poor in particular were prone to smelliness, because although indoor plumbing existed in Victorian England, very few of the poor had access to it. It’s estimated that in 1894, only about five percent of the houses in industrialized towns had a bath. Although cleanliness was next to impossible for most of the working classes, smelling bad was still a no-no.

• Stuffing vs. dressing. Did you grow up thinking that the name for bread crumbs that were cooked inside a bird was “stuffing” and the stuff that was cooked outside of it was “dressing”? Not exactly: The word “stuffing” dates back to the mid-16th century, but in the Victorian era it was replaced with “dressing” because “dressing” a bird was far less suggestive than “stuffing” it.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader. The 26th annual edition of Uncle John’s wildly successful series is all-new and jam-packed with the BRI’s patented mix of fun and information.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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England lead the world into the Industrial Revolution. As such, it created a middle class like never before. Some non-nobility even made vast fortunes. Quite a few Victorian customs were a way to keep such wealthy riffraff out of polite society.
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