It Happened To Me: I'm Living Like I'm In the Victorian Era -- From Corsets to Washing Bowls to Writing in Liquid Ink

This is not an easy life. People are constantly demanding that I first explain and then justify my entire existence.
Publish date:
November 15, 2013
victorian era, victorian secrets, the past

Some people feel they were born in the wrong place, or in a body of the wrong gender. I have simply always felt that I was born in the wrong time, and there is no passport nor surgical procedure to help one of my particular condition.

At the age when other children were begging their parents to leave them at Disneyland, I told my mother that I wanted to live at a museum that we were visiting -- an old Victorian mansion that had been filled with artifacts of the 19th-century as if the original family were still there and might walk in at any moment. She had looked around and rolled her eyes.

"If you had lived here back then," she said, “you would probably have been one of the servants."

I looked around at the polished wood on a gleaming spiral staircase.

"It would have been worth it," I told her, "to live amongst such beauty!"

She had rolled her eyes again at my high-flown, flowery language and called me a hopeless romantic.

There is an old trope in 19th-century romance stories of sweethearts who meet when the maiden is still too immature of a girl to understand the feelings which the hero arouses in her. Patient and steadfast, the young man watches from afar while she grows, blooms into womanhood, and at last confesses her love.

The Victorian era was that patient suitor in my life: a presence I adored from our first meeting, and which subsequently, over the course of a typical adolescence, I was destined to admire, dream about, strike out at, obsess over, long for, then caress and finally embrace with open arms.

In college, I gained a corporeal beau who did not mind sharing my love. He likewise carried a passion for that era within his own heart. I do not guess what other couples discuss when they walk through woods dappled by moonlight, but I know what ideas we contemplate: what the trees saw when they were young, and the stories the great world was spinning as those saplings grew to giants.

By the time a few anniversaries passed, my husband knew that the most delightful gift, the dearest treasure when an occasion of merit approached, was an artifact from that past we both adored: a book with its pages yellow but its tale still bright and merry, a dress whose long-ago owner still showed her presence in the creases of worn pockets.

Not that the course of true love ever has run smooth. We collected antique clothing and although with patience it was possible to find suits which fit my husband's measurements, for me there seemed no hope. Victorian women's clothing, of course, was always made to the measurements of a corseted body, and my natural waistline was anything but that.

When my husband gave me my first corset as a gift for my 29th birthday, I had extreme doubts -- but then, love makes us all do things we would never have expected. There was something enchanting about the image the first time I saw my corseted form in a mirror's silvered glass, as if that figure had at last banished the hex of modernity. I altered my modern clothes to fit my new form and soon I started making replicas of my Victorian clothes to wear every day, doing away with the modern garments altogether.

Now we live in a house which was built in 1888,[ in the historic district of Port Townsend, Washington, a city which prides itself on being one of America's few remaining Victorian seaports. The corner grocery where I buy my milk first opened its doors in 1895.

When I go to the county archive and ask for the nineteenth-century account ledgers from the drugstore where I buy my first-aid supplies and soap, huge sturdily-bound volumes are brought out of storage. In their pages, delicate tracery of copperplate handwriting details the purchases of the woman who lived in my house when it was new: "Per. Ox. Hydrogen, rose water, bitter almond oil, glycerine." The lists are so similar to my own shopping forays at that same business.

From a beauty advice tip in an 1889 magazine, I learned to wash my hair with castille soap. I discovered the simple joys of handfuls of white lather winking rainbows by lamplight, and pitchers of cool water to rinse the bubbles from my long blonde hair. I was surprised not only by how much longer it stayed clean than it had with modern shampoos, but also how much more readily it adapted itself to period hairstyles when cared for in this way.

I scrimped and diligently saved my pennies, cutting every budgetary corner I could, and at last took that carefully hoarded sum to an antiques store and purchased an item I had long coveted: a beautiful porcelain set of a matching wash bowl and pitcher, painted with wild roses.

Even as I was saving for it I knew that washing this way would conserve water, a boon to environmental concerns as well as household budget. One thinks a lot more about the water used when it is carried in a beautiful pitcher into the bedroom than when it gushes out of the wall in the same room as the toilet. The effect on my skin was a side detail but a welcome one: less acne, and softer, smoother skin.

My husband and I had always enjoyed hiking together, and so when we decided it had been far too long since our last trek, I based my hiking dress on the outfit Fay Fuller had worn in 1890 when she became the first woman to reach the summit of Mt. Rainier.

We scheduled a trip to Mt. Townsend to follow on the tails of our tenth wedding anniversary. Since the tenth is traditionally the tin anniversary, Gabriel had a most unique gift for me: a vasculum. In a wonderful example of how living in a historic way teaches us about the past, Gabriel explained that the oval-shaped tin case with its hinged side and hempen shoulder strap, was a carrying case for collecting scientific specimens, used by professionals and hobbyists alike.

Designed expressly to hold an entire orchid or fern (complete with roots) while not being too cumbersome, the gift was as practical as it was thoughtful, and it rested perfectly against my back to carry my hiking supplies as we went up the mountain.

Through great and small occasions, we continue. Learning to write with a straight pen dipped in liquid ink was a laughter-filled process through which my husband and I helped each other. I went into raptures over the centuries-old ink recipes still produced by the J. Herbin company, pressed out of the petals of real flowers to yield a haunting fragrance they inscribe upon the page. Item by item, we bring the past that touches us into our everyday lives.

Our days are resplendant with the sensations of the era we love. There are no electronic buzzings in our home, but there are the tickings of mechanical clocks which I wind every morning. As winter comes on the air will be scented more and more by the kerosene in our heater and the clean-burning paraffin oil in our lamps, counterpointed by the smell of the historic perfumes which Gabriel loves to hunt down and pamper me with as gifts on Christmas and my birthday.

Moving through all this I hear the clack-clack of tools on my chatelaine, an antique woman's accessory which holds those little helpers one always wants on hand -- a notepad, a pair of scissors (artistically disguised as a dainty dagger), and a pincushion (shaped like a book).

This is not an easy life. People seldom understand lives which are different from their own, and often do not accept them. I've received everything from hate mail, to taunts from children whose parents were actually egging them on and encouraging them to behave still more badly.

People are constantly demanding that I first explain and then justify my entire existence. Complete strangers attempt to grope my waist, and then have the gall to expect an apology when I don't let them. (I've even had the experience of a customer in a café -- a woman whom I had never seen before in my life -- demanding the owner that I be thrown out, simply because I wouldn't let her fondle me!)

And yet I refuse to let the ignorance and misbehavior of others prevent me from living as I truly am in my heart, from following my honest ideals.

This is not the critics' life, it is mine: the one I have always wanted, and feel I was destined for.

You can read more about Sarah's lifestyle in her book, "Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught me About the Past, the Present, and Myself."