Inventions that didn’t change the world: a history of Victorian curiosities
In an era when Britain led the world in technological innovation, a host of lesser inventors were also hard at work. Registering designs for copyright was quicker and cheaper than the convoluted patenting process; anyone with what they thought was a good idea could register a design. All manner of bizarre curiosities and their careful drawings were lodged with the Designs Registry (now held by The National Archives). Julie Halls looks at the world of lesser-known Victorian inventions and the historical context which gave rise to them. You can also listen to an audio-only version.
Julie Halls is The National Archives’ specialist for registered designs and is the author of Inventions that didn’t change the world (Thames & Hudson, 2014).
Good afternoon everyone. My name is Julie Halls and I’m the Records Specialist for registered designs here at The National Archives.
This afternoon’s talk is to mark the publication of my new book, Inventions that didn’t change the world. It showcases some of The National Archives’ most amazing documents, designs for inventions registered for copyright in the Victorian period. When I first saw these huge volumes of designs, I was absolutely fascinated by them. Most of these inventions have never been seen by anyone but a few determined researchers, and it’s been really rewarding to be able to bring them to a wider audience.
The Victorian period was one of amazing inventiveness, and many of those new technologies changed the way we live – such as the steam engine, railways, the telephone and the light bulb. However many amateur inventors were also inspired by the culture of innovation that existed to come up with their own ideas, many of which never saw the light of day. For every great idea there were many more that sank without a trace. In many ways they’re even more interesting than the major inventions, because they shed light on the interests and preoccupations of people at that period – the small, everyday annoyances they had to deal with, problems they wanted to solve, or ways of doing things better – sometimes rather misguided. They‘re the inventions I’ll be talking about today.
I’ll give some background about how we come to have all these often weird and wonderful designs, about the culture that gave rise to these ideas, and about the inventions themselves and how they fit into their historical context.
Men like Isambard Kingdom Brunel and George and Robert Stephenson were national heroes, and the sense of excitement and widespread interest in technological innovations was reflected in the growth of popular magazines and journals aimed at ordinary mechanics and artisans as well as highly qualified engineers. There was an intense interest in how things worked, which crossed the barriers of class. Publications such as the Mechanics Magazine, Popular Science Monthly and The Engineer, contained highly technical articles about the latest inventions and technological developments, and lively letters pages demonstrated that readers had a sound understanding of the subject.
At the same time, Victorian morality included a powerful belief in individualism, self-respect and self-reliance – there was a feeling that people should make their own way in the world. Each issue of the Mechanics Magazine, for example, had on its title page a morally improving quotation designed to inspire its readers.
The 1839 issue announced: ‘The wants of society call for every man’s labour. No one is permitted to be a blank in the world. No rank nor station exempts any man from contributing his share to the public utility and good. This is the precept of God; this is the voice of nature; this is the just demand of the human race one upon another’.
All of this provided fertile ground for enterprise and enthusiasm, and the inventions registered at this time show how the culture of innovation filtered through society, so that ordinary people felt inspired to try to take their ideas forward.
These designs were registered for copyright under what was called the Utility Designs Act of 1843. This came about primarily as a result of the expense and difficulty inventors found in patenting their ideas during the first half of the nineteenth century. The system had become notoriously expensive and inefficient, and there were concerns that it was holding back innovation. An inventor would have to negotiate a labyrinthine system, taking his design to as many as 10 different offices, with a fee payable at each, and petitions, warrants and bills were prepared several times over, signed and countersigned, before a patent was approved. In his short story ‘A Poor Man’s Tale of A Patent’, Charles Dickens asked: ‘Is it reasonable to make a man feel as if in inventing an ingenious improvement meant to do good, he had done something wrong?’
A solution came about in the form of the 1843 Act, which was for ‘any new or original design for any article of manufacture having reference to some purpose of utility, so far as such design shall be for the shape or configuration of such article’. Under the Act, proprietors were given three years’ copyright protection at a cost of £10, as opposed to up to £400 for 14 years’ protection for a patent.
Although the Act was meant to apply to the appearance and not the function of useful objects, which was still supposed to be patented, in practice it was widely perceived as a cheaper and quicker form of protection than the convoluted patent system, and the law struggled to make a distinction between the two. Thousands of inventors chose to register their designs, resulting in the unique documents we hold at The National Archives.
To copyright a design the inventor had to take or send to the Designs Registry, originally based at Somerset House in London, ‘two exactly similar drawings or prints of the design made on a proper geometric scale’. He, or less often she, would also need to provide the title of the design – quite often deciding on a pseudo-scientific name for what could often be quite a mundane object. Explanatory text also had to be included, saying what the purpose of the design was and what was new about it.
Although some inventors produced their own drawings and applications, many used the services of a patent or registration agent, resulting in some very professional and sometimes beautiful drawings submitted as part of the application process, like this one for a Mechanical Poultry Feeder by the patent and registration agent J C Robertson & Co. The poor duck or chicken had semi-liquid food pumped into it via a machine operated by a treadle. The description tells us that ‘after a little experience a person can by these means feed about 100 fowls in an hour. The operation should be repeated twice a day. In about 8 or 10 days fowls fed in this way become fat and in good condition.’
The design was registered by Alexander Bollenot, a cook. We see a lot of registrations by people inventing new machines or gadgets relating to their own professions.
Because the Designs Registry was part of the Board of Trade, a government department, these volumes of designs eventually came to The National Archives for safekeeping.
The concept of ‘home’ in the Victorian period assumed great significance, especially for the expanding and newly affluent middle classes. Home came to be seen as both a refuge from the pressures of life and also as a reflection of social status.
The wealth generated by industry led to a huge increase in consumerism, and this was reflected in people’s homes. It was a period when ostentatious display was not only acceptable but expected – people were anxious that their homes should reflect their social status and wealth began to be measured by the acquisition of material goods.
It was a fraught area – you had to live up to your status but avoid being inappropriately pretentious. The influential lifestyle writer Mary Stickney Ellis thought it ‘Scarcely necessary to point out the loss of character and influence occasioned by living below our station’. People fell into social categories, and the items they owned helped to signal their place in the hierarchy.
This was fertile and receptive ground for the proliferation of gadgets that appeared for household items. The word ‘gadget’ itself originated in the nineteenth century.
Among the middle classes dinner parties were the most popular social event, providing the perfect opportunity to display taste and propriety. The flip side of this was that they were also a social minefield, with endless opportunities to make embarrassing faux pas that might have an impact on the host’s reputation. More and more types of cutlery and other accoutrements were introduced. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 the cutlery section contained a multitude of utensils used by middle-class diners, including fish knives and forks, fish carvers, game carvers, dessert knives and dessert forks. Etiquette was the subject of heated debates in the many lifestyle journals and manuals of the period. According to the advice writer Mrs Loftie, writing in the journal Art at Home in 1876, there was heated debate over ‘the knife and fork question’, and ‘a serious question anxiously debated at dinner parties as to the superiority of three prongs to four. The ‘three prongians’ hold their own against the ‘four-prongians’ except in the matter of young peas’.
No problem was too small to address – the ability to spear a pickled onion effectively, or suspend your grapes from an Epergne, were obviously problems shared by enough concerned hosts and hostesses for inventors to look for solutions and then copyright their designs. We’re told that the Extending Table ‘supersedes all dining tables with sliding frames, and will undergo 20 different changes…’
One of the most significant developments in the home was improved sanitation, had effects far beyond questions of social status.
Many people experienced a flush water closet for the first time at the Great Exhibition. They were a source of great interest – so much so that Parliamentary Papers recorded that they ‘strongly impressed all concerned in the management with the necessity of making similar provisions for the public wherever large numbers are congregated, and with the sufferings which must be endured by all, but more especially by females, on account of the want of them’.
Until the 1870s, the middle and upper classes would wash in their bedroom or dressing room, at a washstand on which stood a basin and ewer. Water would be brought up from the kitchen, bucket by bucket. From the 1840s more expensive properties began to pipe hot water upstairs, and by the 1870s hot water pipes began to appear in middle-class homes.
Separate bathrooms and water closets increased in popularity as the century progressed, and by the 1880s they were installed in many homes. Many commentators recommended daily cold baths, and soaking in hot baths was considered morally suspect. Baths of a similar shape to our own are found among the designs, but they claim various vague therapeutic purposes, and are linked to the craze for hydropathy, or hydrotherapy, referring to the bathers as ‘patients’. The ‘hydro-vapour bath’ has what is described as a ‘sitz’ bath with a flexible covering which closes around the neck of the patient to prevent vapour from escaping. The description tells us that: ‘A patient may be submitted to an instantaneous ablution of cold or tepid water, whilst immersed in the steam or vapour bath, without any exposure of the body to the atmosphere.’
Although the shower, or as it was known, shower-bath, wasn’t common in middle-class homes until the 1890s, there are some very early examples of the shower concept among the registered designs. Many, like the ‘hydro-vapour bath’ used cold water contained in a tank – a cord was pulled to release a rush of water onto the user’s head.
The ‘omni-directive shower bath’ is remiscent of one described by the engraver Gwen Raverat in a memoir of her Edwardian childhood. She describes the family bathroom in her grandparents’ house, which ‘had a sort of grotto containing a shower-bath at one end; this was lined with as many different stops as the organ in King’s Chapel, and was as difficult to control as it would be for an amateur to play that organ. Piercing jets of boiling, or ice-cold, water came roaring at one from the most unexpected angles, and hit one in the tenderest spots.’
With the growth of surburbia and suburban gardens during the Victorian period, gardening became a popular middle class recreation, and this is reflected in the designs registered at that time.
The Victorians tended to make moral judgements about every aspect of life, and there was general agreement that gardening was a virtuous, and even Christian, activity, the seasonal growth of plants being the work of God.
At the same time the rather self-righteous middle-classes encouraged gardening among the working classes, believing it would keep them out of the pubs, reduce political unrest and improve their morals. Allotment societies were promoted and horticultural societies set up; by the end of the century a garden was considered an essential part of life.
This gave scope for ingenious outdoor inventions, including an instrument for picking hard to reach fruit, a gadget to protect peaches, and a device for killing insects on trees that looks as if only a gymnast could successfully put it into place. The tree needs to be completely covered before some sort of chemical is pumped in to destroy the trapped insects.
New inventions in the home gave rise to a number of health and safety issues. Contemporary newspapers reveal how the middle classes in particular worried about their safety and security. This included fear of crime, fire, drowning, and accidents in the home, which became more common as a result of new technologies. Many of the hazards they worried about were exacerbated by urban living, and many were scares created in part by the press as it competed for sales. Real or imagined, these problems presented inventors with opportunities to think up new and imaginative – although sometimes less than effective – solutions.
The growth of cities, and the increase in the size of commercial buildings and places of entertainment, including factories, warehouses, tenements and theatres, meant that individual fires could cause greater loss of life and property than ever before. Firemen became heroic figures, and even the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, famously kept a fireman’s uniform at Charing Cross fire station so that he could attend any major fires in London.
The new household technologies that were becoming increasingly popular were a common cause of house fires. Kitchen ranges, when they were first introduced in the early part of the century, could sometimes explode, as could geysers, or small boilers, installed in bathrooms to heat water. Oil and gas lamps were hazards, and hearth and chimney fires were also common.
This hair-raising contraption consists of a system of ropes and pulleys ‘by which persons may remove themselves or be removed from the window of one house to that of the next, or from one floor to another, or if found more convenient the basket or cradle may be lowered to the ground’. There are numerous other designs for fire-escapes, many of which look more dangerous than the fire the person was trying to get away from.
As well as fire, fear of drowning was widespread, and in fact statistics do show a huge increase in incidents of drowning, reaching a peak of around 4,000 in 1878. This may have been due to the increased popularity of trips to the seaside and to the countryside more generally. In the middle of the nineteenth century only about a tenth of those who actually made their living on the sea could swim, and this figure was much lower among the general population. Although this design for a life raft looks picturesque, the instructions for assembling it are so complicated I’m sure the ship would have sunk long before it had all been put together.
It wasn’t until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that the importance of teaching people to swim began to be recognised. In the meantime, inventors came up with all sorts of ideas to keep those venturing into the water safe. There appears to have been a certain embarrassment about the wish to take safety precautions on the water, and ‘life preservers’ were often disguised as braces or waistcoats. Perhaps it was considered unmanly to be concerned about safety, although this seems not to have worried the wearer of the ‘apparatus for saving lives from drowning’, who is wearing a mass of different floats and buoys, including in his hat and shoes, as he wades into the water fully clothed. A novice swimmer might have struggled with the cumbersome-looking design for swimming apparatus and life preserver.
Crime was also fertile ground for inventors, as hair-raising stories of horrible murders and robberies were enthusiastically reported in the press. There are many gadgets for keeping people safe, perhaps none more ingenious – although one suspects little used – than the anti-garroting cravat. The design was registered at a time when there was a major panic about incidents of garrotting, meaning at that time a form of mugging where the victim was held around the neck and robbed. Not surprisingly, this sometimes proved fatal. The scare coincided with the end of the system of transporting criminals to the colonies. Large numbers returned home with a form of conditional pardon called a ‘ticket of leave’. There was widespread fear of ‘ticket-of-leave men’, as they became known, who were believed to be responsible for an increase in violent crime. In 1862 the MP for Blackburn, Hugh Pilkington, was the victim of a garrotting robbery. A celebrity victim increased the sense of panic and triggered widespread discussion about methods of self-protection. This was the same year the anti-garroting cravat was registered.
Despite all the technological advances of the age, the Victorians could not escape the appalling diseases and epidemics that plagued the nineteenth century, and they could be said to have been obsessed with health. This manifested itself not only in a well-founded fear of contagious disease, but also in crazes for various systems of medicine, what we would call alternative or complementary therapies, like hydropathy, which we looked at earlier.
Throughout the nineteenth century immense energy was devoted to scientific research into health and medicine, but at the same time traditional beliefs about medicine and how the body worked persisted. New devices such as the stethoscope, ophthalmoscope and thermometer allowed an unprecedented insight into the internal workings of the body, and work was being carried out to understand the major diseases and how they were spread. Between 1800 and 1870 more than 70 hospitals were founded, including the London Fever Hospital and the Kensington Children’s Hospital.
But alongside this activity, old systems of medicine continued to an extent that seems surprising in an age when such strides were being made in other areas. Bloodletting was still widely practiced. An imbalance of bodily fluids, or humors, was thought to be responsible for a range of ailments, and it was thought that inflammations were caused by an excess of blood. Leeches were used to treat everything from headaches to prostate problems. When used internally – for example, to treat tonsillitis – they were attached to a piece of string to ensure they couldn’t be swallowed or otherwise go astray. There are contemporary references to ‘a mania for leeches’, and their over-use resulted in a shortage, which, along with understandable squeamishness, led to the development of artificial or mechanical leeches like the ones pictured here. One maker of artificial leeches wrote about their advantages over a real leech, saying: ‘In the first place the appearance of the animal is repulsive and disgusting, and delicate and sensitive persons find it difficult to overcome their repugnance to contact with the cold and slimy reptile. This is especially the case when it is a question of their application about or within the mouth. Then again, their disposition to crawl into cavities or passages results sometimes in very annoying accidents.’
Those in search of dental care entered risky and uncertain territory, as the number of designs for the toothless suggest.
The improved masticating knife and fork allow the user to cut the food into tiny pieces, making it easier to eat. Regulation of dentists was very slow to take effect, and dental work was usually carried out as a lucrative sideline, usually by tradesmen like blacksmiths. There was no code of ethics, and unscrupulous advertisements claimed miraculous abilities for these dentists at temptingly low fees. In reality removal of teeth was the main cure for toothache: a contemporary definition of a dentist was ‘one who cleans and extracts teeth’. A life with few if any teeth was the outcome for many.
Eyecare too was in its early stages. At the beginning of the century eye surgery seems to have been a risky business. In 1822, Professor Antonio Scarpa, a respected professor of anatomy, wrote that: ‘a man must destroy a hatful of eyes before he can become a good operating occulist’. Thankfully this situation improved, and as the century progressed the extraction of cataracts became one of the major improvements in the prevention of blindness. Advances were also made in spectacles, these early bi-focals being one example. The invention of the ophthalmoscope, an instrument for examining the inner structure of the eye, allowed a much greater understanding of eye disease.
The greatest scourge of nineteenth century Britain was contagious disease. Existing medical practice was totally unequal to the devastating series of epidemics that afflicted the country, including influenza, cholera, typhus, typhoid, smallpox and scarlet fever. Tuberculosis was also rife – between 1838 and 1840, for example, it was responsible for about a quarter of all deaths.
Contagious diseases created terror. Their spread was exacerbated by industrialisation and the movement of people from the countryside to the cities, where they lived in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. For most of the century the way these diseases spread was a mystery, and the treatments administered were often hideously misguided in the light of what we know today.
There were four major outbreaks of cholera in the nineteenth century. It was a completely new disease in Britain, previously unknown outside India, but it spread around the globe as a result of population movements, largely of troops and as a result of commercial activity. Victims suffered such severe diarrhoea and vomiting that rapid dehydration caused their skin to become a blue-grey colour – the disease was sometimes referred to as the ‘blue terror’.
The treatments for cholera were many and ineffective. They included laudanum, an opium tincture, often combined with calomel, which was made from mercury and was a powerful laxative. It was thought that this would get the cholera poison out of the body.
The cholera belt, two examples of which we can see here, seems like the most unlikely protection. But it was thought that a chilled body could cause disease, and that keeping the stomach and abdomen warm could protect against it. It was also thought to protect against miasma, or ‘bad air’. Before the work of Doctor John Snow established that cholera was a water-borne disease, it was believed to be carried in the air and breathed in. Soldiers travelling to hot countries were issued with cholera belts as part of their standard kit, and found them extremely hot and uncomfortable to wear.
The Victorians could be grateful that as the century progressed they could benefit from the introduction of anaesthetic – before the 1840s most patients had to endure excruciating pain if they needed surgery. Dr John Snow went on to pioneer the use of anaesthesia, administering chloroform to Queen Victoria for the birth of her 8th and 9th children in 1853 and 1857. She enthused in her journal: Dr Snow administered that blessed chloroform, and the effect was soothing and delightful beyond measure’. There are a number of registrations for different types of inhaler around this period, as surgeons were keen to try the new discoveries. This one was registered by William John Bowden, a Hertfordshire surgeon.
One of the defining features of the nineteenth century was an increase in travel. At the beginning of the century most people remained close to home, rarely travelling further than was necessary to go shopping or to socialise. By the end of the century, not only could people travel between major cities with ease, but with the advent of steam ships and transatlantic telegraph cables, it seemed that the whole world was within reach. The British Empire was expanding and it was an age of international exploration and adventure. Every aspect of travel created opportunities for inventors.
The railways transformed the Victorian economy and society, bringing new opportunities for commerce and travel around the world. At home, day trips to the countryside were now easy for city dwellers, and seaside towns flourished as trips to the coast became a popular and affordable recreation. At first glance this design called ‘The carriage telegraph’ looks as if it’s making use of the still relatively new technology of the electrical telegraph system, but in fact it uses a system of wires and handles that allow people inside the carriages to signal to the Guard sitting rather perilously on top of the train.
As railway travel became more commonplace, journeys grew more comfortable. Trains had gas lighting, and the added comforts of railway blankets and foot warmers, which could be hired for the journey. The rather mundane nature of the railway blanket – which, the description proudly tells us can also be worn as a cloak – is in contrast to the grandiose stationery used by the patent agent that drew up the specification. Other accoutrements devised by our inventors include the pillow cap for travellers, to cushion the head if you wanted to lean back for a nap, and the combined umbrella and carriage key. In the early years of rail travel carriage doors would be locked for security. Only after a number of serious rail accidents did this practice stop, as people found themselves locked inside carriages and unable to escape.
Much further from home, people from around the world, of all social classes, joined the gold rush in the hope of making their fortune, travelling to the gold fields of North America, Australia and South Africa. There are a number of related designs registered at that time, including the Gold-washing cradle, which separates gold from other material, and the design for a gold-diggers dwelling.
Immigrants to the gold fields often experienced great hardships, losing their savings and their health. Canvas cities of tents sprang up, as there was nowhere for people to live, and families often subsisted in abject conditions. As ever, inventors were quick to spot an opportunity. The gold-digger’s dwelling is a kind of flat-pack house, with separate parts screwed to each other by pins and sockets, as the description tells us. It goes on: below the flooring are secret places for depositing valuable property. L is a shelf for stowing things, or may be used as a sleeping place for children’.
The Victorian period was a great age of exploration. Explorers were lauded in the newspapers, and boys’ magazines, in particular, thrilled their readers with stories of courage, adventure and derring-do.
The exploits of Arctic explorers were widely reported, and the ‘flying aerial machine adapted for the Arctic regions’ was designed at a time when interest was especially high. In particular there was a race to find a trade route through the Northwest Passage – and to find the expedition of Sir John Franklin, which disappeared while searching for the route in 1845. Rescue missions continued until 1859. In fact, as you’ve probably read, one of Franklin’s ships has only recently been found. The date of registration of this design, in 1855, suggests that the inventor thought he had found a solution to navigating Arctic terrain, although the first really successful airship wasn’t built until over 40 years later. The text that accompanies the design tells us that treadles turn the wheels that power the machine, and the wheels themselves would contain gas to make them lighter. A suspended room holds beds for three people, supplied with air by an ‘elastic pipe’, and metal plates underneath the aerial machine would allow it to be propelled along the ice.
As well as enjoying day trips by train, those with more money and leisure time than their grandparents could have dreamed of had a host of other activities to fill their spare time.
The second half of the century saw what can only be described as a sporting mania, and national bodies for the supervision and co-ordination of all the major sports were formed in the 1860s and 1870s, with rules and regulations for sporting fixtures put into place.
There are a particularly high number of inventions relating to tennis and croquet, reflecting their popularity as social activities that could be enjoyed by everyone, not just men. Games parties and sports clubs provided cover for flirtation and courtship, helping to explain the popularity of these activities. Lawn tennis, invented by one Major Walter Wingfield, was considered by a writer in the Edinburgh Review to be ‘the most perfect of games’. One could watch as the ball was ‘patted to and fro in lofty arcs by pretty young ladies, tripping gracefully to simple strokes which complaisant young gentlemen ran about to recover from their random directions and make them easy to return’.
The snappily titled ‘new and useful design for an instrument to be attached to lawn tennis rackets for picking up balls from the ground’ is one of the relatively few inventions registered by a woman, Mrs John Thomlinson, while on the left is a belt to hold the spare ball whilst playing. The scoring system, like many of these eccentric designs, looks likely to be far more complicated than it would be for the players to keep the score in their heads.
Croquet was first played in Ireland in 1852 and quickly became popular, with the first tournament being held in 1866. The Gentlemen’s Magazine even ran a series of articles on the Science of Croquet, with illustrations showing how to adopt what it called ‘vicious stances’.
Like tennis, it allowed young men and women to interact in a socially acceptable context, and it became a huge craze, celebrated in music hall songs and lampooned in Punch magazine. The Umpire croquet register, with a method of keeping score on the croquet stick itself, and the croquet clog, to protect the lawn, are just two of many croquet related inventions.
The world of work was transformed for most social groups in the nineteenth century, and it would be impossible to cover all the inventions relating to aspects of work in this talk. The move away from agricultural work, governed by the hours of daylight, to new types of work in factories, offices and shops, meant that people now had standardised hours of work. Then, as now, people had trouble getting up in the morning.
This gave rise to various inventions for waking people up, including the early calling machine, registered in 1852. It involves attaching the person to be woken up to the machine by a length of tape. As a lever attached to the clock goes up, a weight moves downwards, so that when the correct time is reached the weight pulls on the tape attached to the person and wakes them up. It sounds like a shock to the system, but might be preferable to an electronic alarm.
As manufacturing machinery became more sophisticated, more and more processes became industrialised, so that as well as the major industries there were increasing numbers of smaller factories making consumer goods. This is reflected in the inventions registered for copyright, which attempt labour-saving solutions to a range of tasks.
The ‘Cordwainer’s Standing and Sitting Machine’ is a device for makers of shoes. The description that accompanies the beautiful illustration tells us that the object that ‘enables persons to work either in a sitting or standing position: it likewise affords to the workman every facility of accommodating the positions of his work to himself and to exert his strength in a more convenient and favourable manner’.
There was a huge increase in office-based clerical jobs in the nineteenth century, as the boom in trade and the new sophistication of banking methods meant that every invoice and ledger entry had to be written by hand. This is reflected in a large number of inventions relating to office work, such as the Universal Reservoir Inkstand and the Oblique Pen-holder, the purpose of which is ‘the obtainment of a superior facility in writing, giving the steel pen numerous advantages now only obtained by the Quill’.
The Telekouphonon, or speaking telegraph, was also displayed at the Great Exhibition. It was a speaking tube of a kind that became quite widely used in offices and larger homes. It had tubing made of gutta percha – a kind of latex produced from the sap of Gutta Percha trees, which was only in use for a relatively short period because the trees were destroyed in such great numbers to produce the material. The machine had mouthpieces of ivory, hard wood, or metal, and was fitted with whistles to attract attention.
The retail sector expanded massively over the nineteenth century. Although the lives of the shop assistants, a new type of nineteenth century employee, were gruelling, from the point of view of customers, it was a golden age of shopping. Plate glass began to be used, which reflected the gas lamps arranged outside shop windows, and window dressing grew ever more skilled and artistic. A writer in the magazine the Fortnightly Review for January 1895 laments: ‘We are not able to stand against the overwhelming temptations to buy which besiege us at every turn’.
The growth in consumerism led to increasing competition and a big growth in advertising. Magic lanterns projected huge images advertising everything from Pear’s Soap to London’s tourist attractions onto giant curtains and onto the sides of buildings, and posters were plastered across every available site. Celebrity endorsements became popular – Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement, was recruited to sing the praises of Hill’s Cigarettes and Bovril beef extract, and Oscar Wilde rather improbably lent his name to Madame Fontaine’s bosom beautifier, with the slogan ‘Just as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, just so sure it will enlarge and beautify the bosom’.
The streets became filled with various types of advertising vehicles, which often caused traffic to grind to a halt in already congested areas of towns and cities. A number were registered in the middle of the century, including the Epanalepsian Advertising Vehicle, which had a roller on which the advertising would appear, as the description tells us ‘in the appearance of a broad and endless belt’.
Like other aspects of Victorian life, dressing to impress meant wearing clothes that were appropriate to one’s social station and conforming to a strict set of rules. Although fashion and etiquette changed over time, at any given moment advice books, magazines and journals clamoured to tell people what they should be wearing, where they should be wearing it, and at what time of day. Getting it wrong or taking an individualistic approach to dressing was to risk ridicule or social rejection.
Between 1750 and 1850 men’s dress changed radically from powdered wigs, lace, knee breeches and stockings, to dark frock coats, subdued colours and top hats.
Throughout the nineteenth century no respectable person would go outside without wearing a hat, and for most of the Victorian period, top hats were worn by middle class men. The Duplex Hat allows its wearer to ring the changes by converting the top hat into a kind of bowler hat.
The Bona Fide Ventilating hat reflects long forgotten problems associated with the wearing of top hats. They were quite hot and heavy, and since most men wore hair oil at that time, quite an unpleasant atmosphere could build up inside the hat. There are a number of registrations for solutions to this problem, including this one, which has a kind of grille system so that ‘perspiration can be carried off from the interior’, as the description tells us.
There is a flurry of inventions making use of elastic, a newly discovered material, including the Cantab braces, also shown at the Great Exhibition, which, as the description tells us, ‘yield to any strain and maintain the trousers of the wearer in perfect fit under all positions’.
The Amphitrepolax boot – another example of the use of a pseudo-scientific name to describe quite a mundane item – is an example of a discreet way to economise. It features a rotary heel, which can be turned a complete revolution, hence always ensuring a ‘perfectly flat and even-worn heel’.
The purpose of the Sunette Umbrella or Parasol, although it would help to maintain the Victorian lady’s fashionable white complexion, has rather mystifying peepholes made of glass – clearly this was registered in the era before consumer testing.
Not surprisingly, money-saving items such as shirt fronts were popular among clerks and shop assistants, who were expected to maintain a respectable appearance on very low wages. The shirt-front could hide a dirty shirt, or cover up a shirt made in a colour other than white. Striped shirts were cheaper, and so tended to be bought by poorer customers – they didn’t gain respectability among the upper classes until the turn of the century.
The ‘Volunteer reversible trowsers’ have a different colour on each side, and can be turned inside out. The purpose of the design, we are told, is to ‘render a pair of trowsers reversible, so suitable for military men, tourists, and others’.
Although men might have been advised not to let their interest in their appearance show, the market for men’s accessories grew enormously as the century progressed. Merchants saw middle-class men as an untapped market, and advertised extensively to try to capture their interest. There are numerous registrations that show the Victorian’s love of ingenious gadgets that combined different objects within a single item. The purpose of the cigar cane, as the accompanying description tells us, is to ‘obviate the inconvenience of carrying in the pocket the cumbrous cigar boxes now in use’. The ‘cigar-holding pencil case knife’ sounds like a must-have accessory.
Women’s dress changed dramatically over the course of the 19th century, moving from the high-waisted, loose fitting Empire line at the beginning of the century to a bell-shaped skirt with a fitted bodice and small waist in the mid-century, to the S-shape, popular from the 1870s onwards. This silhouette required a full bust, a small waist and a bustle supporting a large amount of fabric at the back of the dress.
Achieving the right shape depended on the use of stays, known later in the century as corsets, which became an essential feature of a Victorian woman’s life from puberty onwards. Not to wear them was to risk being considered a ‘loose woman’. It has been estimated that the average corset exerted a force of 21 pounds on the organs, although fashionable tight-lacing could increase that to as much as 88 pounds. The fashion for an exaggerated hourglass shape led to various attempts to make the bust look bigger. The ‘corset with expansible busts’, registered in 1881, is fitted with rubber bags which are provided with a short tube with a ‘suitable mouthpiece whereby the busts may be expanded as required when the corset is on the body’.
Women were also expected to have long, luxuriant hair, and the portable rotary hair brushing machine was an attempt to take the strain out of keeping that wonderful mane tidy – although it looks like quite a cumbersome object to keep next to the dressing table.
I hope this talk has given you an insight into these amazing documents and the social context that gave rise to them – I’ve certainly found it a fascinating subject to research. Thank you.