I love the Victorian era. So I decided to live in it.
My husband and I study history, specifically the late Victorian era of the 1880s and ’90s. Our methods are quite different from those of academics. Everything in our daily life is connected to our period of study, from the technologies we use to the ways we interact with the world.
Five years ago we bought a house built in 1888 in Port Townsend, Washington State — a town that prides itself on being a Victorian seaport. When we moved in, there was an electric fridge in the kitchen: We sold that as soon as we could. Now we have a period-appropriate icebox that we stock with block ice. Every evening, and sometimes twice a day during summer, I empty the melt water from the drip tray beneath its base.
Every morning I wind the mechanical clock in our parlor. Each day I write in my diary with an antique fountain pen that I fill with liquid ink using an eyedropper. My inkwell and the blotter I use to dry the ink on each page before I turn it are antiques from the 1890s; I buy my ink from a company founded in 1670. My sealing wax for personal letters comes from the same company, and my letter opener was made sometime in the late Victorian era from a taxidermied deer foot.
There are no modern lightbulbs in our house. When Gabriel and I have company we use early electric lightbulbs, based on the first patents of Tesla and Edison. When it’s just the two of us, we use oil lamps. When we started using period illumination every day, we were amazed by how much brighter the light is from antique oil lamps than from modern reproductions.
Our heat comes from 19th-century gas heaters and from an antique kerosene space heater. In the winter we tuck hot water bottles into bed with us, and even the cotton covers that I sewed for those bottles are made from period-appropriate fabric (its designs are copies of fabric patterns from the late 19th century).
Our bed itself is an antique from our period of study, and since it didn’t have a mattress when we bought it, I sewed one by hand and stuffed it with feathers.
I bake all our bread from scratch, using a sourdough culture I keep constantly bubbling in the back corner of our kitchen in a bowl that belonged to my grandmother. When I want whipped cream or an omelet, I use an antique rotary eggbeater; when we want to grind something, we have a Victorian food chopper as well as mortars and pestles.
Whenever I’m inside my house I have an antique chatelaine hanging from my waist — a marvelous 19th-century accessory that combines elements that would remind a modern person of a charm bracelet, multi-tool, and organizer all in one. Mine usually holds a notebook, pincushion, and scissors, but I also have attachments for it ranging from a thimble holder to a matchbox, a coin box, or a pair of tweezers.
I bathe with a bowl and pitcher every morning, and for a nice long soak I use our cast-iron clawfoot bathtub. I wash my hair using Castile bar soap from a company established in 1839. (Shampooing with Castile soap is a piece of beauty advice I found in a Victorian magazine from about the time our house was built.) My hairbrush is a 130-year-old design, and my toothbrush has natural boar bristles.
Neither my husband nor I have ever had a cellphone; I’ve never even had a driver’s license. On special outings when Gabriel and I go cycling together, I ride a copy of a high-wheel tricycle from the 1880s. Gabriel has three high-wheel bicycles, and he has ridden them hundreds of miles.
On our vacation just last week, we rode our high-wheel cycles more than 75 miles along a historic railroad route between abandoned silver mines. I kept thinking of an article we had read in an 1883 cycling magazine about wheelmen riding bikes just like Gabriel’s when they took a trip out to a mine.
The process didn’t happen all at once. It’s not as though someone suddenly dropped us into a ready-furnished Victorian existence one day— that sort of thing only happens in fairy tales and Hollywood. We had to work hard for our dreams. The life we now enjoy came bit by bit, through gifts we gave each other. The greatest gift we give each other is mutual support in moving forward with our dreams.
Even before I met Gabriel, we both saw value in older ways of looking at the world. He had been homeschooled as a child, and he never espoused the strict segregation that now seems to exist between life and learning. As adults, we both wanted to learn more about a time that fascinated each of us. But it took mutual support to challenge society’s dogmas of how we should live, how we should learn. We came into it gradually — and together.
It’s hard to say who started it. I was the first to start wearing Victorian clothes, but Gabriel, who knew how I’d always admired Victorian ideals and aesthetics, gave them to me as presents, a way for both of us to research a culture we found fascinating. I was so intrigued by those clothes that I hand-sewed copies I could wear every day.
Soon after, I gave Gabriel an antique suit of his own, but tailoring men’s clothes is a separate skill set, and it took him a while to find a seamstress who could make Victorian men’s clothing with the same painstaking attention to historic detail that I was putting into my own garments.
Wearing 19th-century clothes on a daily basis gave us insights into intimate life of the past, things so private and yet so commonplace they were never written down. Features of posture, movement, balance; things as subtle as the way my ankle-length skirts started to act like a cat’s whiskers when I wore them every single day.
I became so accustomed to the presence and movements of my skirts, they started to send me little signals about my proximity to the objects around myself, and about the winds that rustled their fabric — even the faint wind caused by the passage of a person or animal close by.
I never had to analyze these signals, and after a while I stopped even thinking about them much; they became a peripheral sense, a natural part of myself. Gabriel said watching me grow accustomed to Victorian clothes was like seeing me blossom into my true self.
When we realized how much we were learning just from the clothes, we started wondering what other everyday items could teach us.
When cheap modern things in our lives inevitably broke, we replaced them with sturdy historic equivalents instead of more disposable modern trash. Every birthday and anniversary became an excuse to hunt down physical artifacts from our favorite time period, which we could then study and use together.
Everything escalated organically from there, and now our whole life revolves around this ongoing research project. No one pays us for it, but we take it more seriously than many people take their paying jobs.
The artifacts in our home represent what historians call “primary source materials,” items directly from the period of study. Anything can be a primary source, although the term usually refers to texts. The books and magazines the Victorians themselves wrote and read constitute the vast bulk of our reading materials — and since reading is our favorite pastime, they fill a large percentage of our days.
There is a universe of difference between a book or magazine article about the Victorian era and one actually written in the period. Modern commentaries on the past can get appallingly like the game “telephone”: One person misinterprets something, the next exaggerates it, a third twists it to serve an agenda, and so on. Going back to the original sources is the only way to learn the truth.
We’re devoted to getting our own insights and perspectives on the era, not just parroting stereotypes that “everyone knows.” The late Victorian era was an incredibly dynamic time, with so many new and extraordinary inventions it seemed anything was possible.
Interacting with tangible items from that time helps us connect with and share that optimism. They help us understand the culture that created them — a culture that believed in engineering durable, beautiful items that could be repaired by their users.
Constantly using them helps us comprehend their context. Absorbing the lessons our artifacts teach us shapes our worldview. They are our teachers. Seeing their beauty every day elevates and inspires us, as it did their original owners.
It’s a life that keeps us far more in touch with the natural seasons, too. Much of modern technology has become a collection of magic black boxes: Push a button and light happens, push another button and heat happens, and so on. The systems that dominate people’s lives have become so opaque that few Americans have even the foggiest notion what makes most of the items they touch every day work — and trying to repair them would nullify the warranty.
The resources that went into making those items are treated as nothing more than a price tag to grumble about when the bills come due. Very few people actually watch those resources decreasing as they use them. It’s impossible to watch fuel disappearing when it’s burned in a power plant hundreds of miles away, and convenient to forget there’s a connection.
When we use resources through technology that has to be tended, we’re far more careful about how we use them. To use our antique space heater in the winter, I have to fill its reservoir with kerosene and keep its wick and flame spreader clean; when we want to use it, I have to open and light it. It’s not a burdensome process, but it’s certainly a more mindful one than flicking a switch.
Not everyone necessarily wants to live the same lifestyle we have chosen, of course. But anyone can benefit from choices that increase their awareness of their surroundings and the way things they use every day affect them.
Watching the level of kerosene diminish in the reservoir heightens our awareness of how much we’re using, and makes us ask ourselves what we truly need. Learning to use all these technologies gives us confidence to exist in the world on our own terms.
And that, really, is the resource we find ourselves more and more in need of. My husband and I have slowly, gradually worked to base our lives around historical artifacts and ideals because — quite frankly — we love living this way.
People assume the hard part of our lifestyle comes from the life itself, but using Victorian items every day brings us great joy and fulfillment. The truly hard part is dealing with other people’s reactions.
We live in a world that can be terribly hostile to difference of any sort. Societies are rife with bullies who attack nonconformists of any stripe.
Gabriel’s workout clothes were copied from the racing outfit of a Victorian cyclist, and when he goes swimming, his hand-knit wool swim trunks raise more than a few eyebrows — but this is just the least of the abuse we’ve taken.
We have been called “freaks,” “bizarre,” and an endless slew of far worse insults. We’ve received hate mail telling us to get out of town and repeating the word “kill … kill … kill.” Every time I leave home I have to constantly be on guard against people who try to paw at and grope me.
Dealing with all these things and not being ground down by them, not letting other people’s hostile ignorance rob us of the joy we find in this life — that is the hard part. By comparison, wearing a Victorian corset is the easiest thing in the world.
This is why more people don’t follow their dreams: They know the world is a cruel place for anyone who doesn’t fit into the dominant culture. Most people fear the bullies so much that they knuckle under simply to be left alone. In the process, they crush their own dreams.