Creating a convincing setting in a story, or a sense of time and place, helps readers escape to a whole new dimension. There are a lot of articles out there with advice on how to research a historical novel, and different writers approach it differently. If you’re writing a Victorian novel, this is just one quick way to get inspired.
Victorian romances are popular, and it’s also a common setting for mystery novels. Victorian details can also help with many steampunk novels. My first published novel was set in Victorian England, and I remember how much time it took to think about and research small details.
I’m breaking this list down into images, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations. These details are focused on England and particularly on London, and to a lesser extent on the United States of America. Pin it for future inspiration!
Streets filled with pedestrians and carriages… Here’s what that looked like in several European cities late in the Victorian era.
In late Victorian London, the traffic could get pretty congested.
Bicycles… For much of the Victorian era, most bicycles had those huge front wheels. Women rarely rode them, because with their big skirts, it was too hard to mount and dismount. In the 1880s, they began manufacturing bicycles with equal size tires and adult-size tricycles, which women and children could easily ride. Bicycling became hugely popular before the turn of the century.
Soot… Everyone knows about the famous fog in Victorian London, but it might have been more accurately referred to as “smog.” In industrial cities, there was a lot of soot in the air from factory chimneys and coal-burning homes. In Bleak House, Charles Dickens wrote of “Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun…”
Whitened front steps… A maid in a nicer house would scrub and whiten the front steps every single morning.
Ladies’ fans… In a hot, crowded ballroom, you might see many of these waving back and forth. They were often made of silk, but sometimes made of paper, with hand-painted or printed scenes. Here’s an article about the secret language of fans.
Flies… In general, there were more flies indoors back then because they didn’t have good screens.
Rooms full of framed pictures… And other decorative objects. This wasn’t a time for minimalism.
Terrariums… These were first known as “Wardian cases,” named after a guy named Ward who came up with the idea, and they were pretty popular, especially for ferns. You can read a little more about them here.
Christmas trees… Christmas was not a big deal at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and a huge celebration by its close. Christmas trees were often put in a tub with sand or rocks to hold it up, and smaller ones could be attached to flat boards for display. I’ve seen lots of Victorian illustrations of smaller trees set on tabletops. Victorians decorated Christmas trees with gilded apples and walnuts, popcorn strings, dolls, paper cones filled with candy or almonds, and of course, lighted candles, which seems like a huge fire hazard.
Scrapbooks… People used these to collect greeting cards and pictures, sometimes with a particular theme. Here’s a great gallery of Victorian scrapbooks.
Handbills… On Victorian city streets, people would hand out flyers advertising performances, restaurants, and sales. Sometimes they also invited people to political meetings, praised or condemned politicians or laws, or conveyed general announcements, such as news about a cholera outbreak or a wanted criminal on the loose. Putting “Victorian handbills” into Google images will pull up hundreds of examples.
Little dogs… Victorian ladies loved their lap dogs, and some of them took the little beasts everywhere they went. (I can relate, although my three little rescue terriers aren’t nearly as posh as fashionable Victorian pets were.) This article has a bunch of great portraits of Victorian women with their dogs.
Extravagant hats for ladies… These were a big deal. You can learn all about them throughout the decades here.
Hair receivers… Many Victorian ladies had little porcelain containers on their dressers where they put the hair that collected on their hairbrush. They’d use the hair to stuff pincushions or to make a “ratt,” which sounds a lot like a early version of a Bumpit. I have to say this completely grosses me out. You can read more about hair receivers here.
Sentiment rings… These rings were gifts from men to women they loved. They had several gemstones, and the first letter of each spelled out a message. The most common message would be “regard,” with a ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, another ruby, and a diamond lined up.
Open caskets at home… Many funeral services in the home, with an open coffin so people could see the body. If the funeral was at a church, the casket would often be closed. You can read more about Victorian funeral customs here.
Flocks of sheep… Still a familiar sight in the countryside for many people, though I never see them in my part of the U.S. For details about a Victorian farm, this BBC show is a great resource.
Street musicians… In London, musicians played all kinds of instruments on the street, including the accordion, the fiddle, the clarinet, the cello, the harp, the hurdy-gurdy, and the barrel organ. There were a lot of Italian street musicians in particular.
Factory whistles… Telling people it was time to go to work.
McCutcheon’s Apple Products in Frederick, Maryland, got this steam whistle from an older steel mill. I’m not sure how old it is, but I think it’s probably similar to the sound of steam whistles used by Victorian era factories.
Household bells or gongs… In many houses, these would tell you it was time for a meal, or even time to dress for dinner. In David Copperfield, there’s a warning bell that that rings a half hour before the actual bell for breakfast.
Coaches… The rattling of coaches and carriages, along with horse hooves clopping on streets, was so loud in some cities that people had a hard time hearing sermons in church on Sunday mornings. Here’s the sound of a rattling stage coach. I’m not sure why this video and the next one are so long, but maybe it’s for people who want to fall asleep to it.
Steam locomotives… the railroad industry exploded during the Victorian era.
Crowing roosters… These would have likely woken you up in the country.
Street sellers… In a city, men, women, boys, and girls selling watercress, oranges, fish, fruits, vegetables, flowers, walnuts, newspapers, and all kinds of other things would shout or even sing about their wares. Tradespeople would do the same about the services they offered. You can read a little more about it here.
Sewing machines… By the late Victorian era, many households had these, allowing women to make and mend clothes more quickly. The early Singer machines sounded somewhat similar to modern ones.
Otto of roses… This expensive and popular perfume was made from the petals of rosa centifolia. You can read more about it and other Victorian perfumes here.
Excrement… The Thames in London smelled of human waste. Any city full of horses and carriages would have smelled of horse dung.
Fresh hay… A stable or barn would have also smelled of this.
Tallow candles… These were the cheapest candles, made from animal fat, and they didn’t smell great. Beeswax candles, which were more expensive, smelled better.
Tobacco smoke… Lots of Victorian men smoked pipes and cigars, particularly in gentlemen’s clubs. Sometimes after a dinner, the men would go in a different room from the women to smoke. Smoking around women or on the street, and reeking of smoke, were generally considered bad manners. You can read more about smoking in the Victorian era here.
Pears soap… This transparent soap was popular in 19th century England, and the formula of modern-day Pears is somewhat similar to the original. Hints of rosemary, thyme, and pine rosin were part of that formula until recently, and it had a delicate, spicy herbal scent.
Scented ink… A company called J. Herbin produced inks with rose, violet, and other scents in the late 19th century. There may have been other companies who did, too, but I’m not sure. You can still buy scented ink from them today (scroll down to take a look.)
Vinegar… Victorians used vinegar for a lot of cleaning jobs: floors, after they’d been scrubbed with soapy water; brass and copper, which were cleaned with vinegar plus salt; and mirrors and windows (I use vinegar for these, too.)
Mutton… Also known as sheep. We don’t eat it much at all in the United States today, but in the Victorian era, people ate it all the time.
Hot elder wine… People made this from elderberries, and the Regency period recipe I’ve seen calls for cloves, ginger, and plenty of sugar, among other things. Sometimes a dash of raspberry vinegar or other flavorings were added, so I imagine you’d have a sweet, slightly spicy, and slightly tart drink. Vendors on the streets sold this in cold weather, usually with a small piece of toasted bread that you could dunk in it.
Roasted (or baked) chestnuts… These were also popular with street vendors in the wintertime. Here’s a picture of a vendor.
Ice cream… I always think of ice cream as a modern treat, but it’s been around for centuries. Ice cream was a common thing to buy from a street vendor in the summertime. Here’s a picture!
Comfits… These are usually nuts or sometimes dried fruit, covered with a sugar shell (think of modern-day Jordan almonds.)
Corn pone… This was a specialty of the American South, made out of corn meal, milk or buttermilk, and eggs. Here’s an article about the difference between corn pone and cornbread.
Boiled calf’s head… Putting this on the table would disgust a lot of modern-day diners, but this was popular on both sides of the pond. I know that in the United States people cooked the whole head at least through the Depression era (and probably beyond), at least in rural areas.
Turtle soup, and mock turtle soup… Victorians ate so much turtle soup that they almost made turtles extinct, which is why mock turtle soup became a thing. Here are old recipes for both. From the accounts I’ve read, turtle is closer to beef than chicken in taste. If you’ve got a fancy dinner scene, this is a good choice for a first course.
Roast goose… I’ve never understood the expression “Your goose is cooked!” That’s a bad thing? Victorians loved this at Christmas especially. Roast goose is fattier than roast chicken or roast turkey.
Deviled kidneys… These lambs’ kidneys were cooked in a sauce that might contain mustard, vinegar, sherry, brandy, spices, anchovy ketchup, and even tomato ketchup (though that was a rare ingredient back then). I’ve seen a lot of variation among original recipes. They were popular with toast for breakfast for upper-class and maybe some middle-class people. I’ve read the kidneys can smell a bit like urine, which doesn’t surprise me, and it sounds like this is less of a problem when they’re very fresh.
Washing up with cold water… A pitcher and a big bowl were often in bedrooms so people could wash their face in the morning. In the winter, though, this water might be pretty cold.
Taking off a corset… Some people maintain that Victorian corsets were all tight-laced torture devices, and tell stories of organs being malformed and ribs surgically removed to create a tinier figure. Other people say these are exaggerations fed by vintage erotic fiction. Even if a corset wasn’t laced so tightly that a woman could barely breathe, it must have been a relief to take it off at the end of the day, just like it is for many women when they take off their bra in the evening. The corset might have left red marks in the skin, and a woman might be able to take deeper breaths without the corset.
Riding an omnibus… An omnibus was a large horse-drawn vehicle. Only men sat in the uncovered seats on top. An omnibus passenger was likely to be squished up against other people or poked with somebody’s umbrella or parasol. You can read more about them here.
Shaving with a straight razor… A man might have done this at home, or if he were middle class, he might have gone to the barber regularly. A rich man’s valet would often do this for him. You can read more about the sensations of a straight razor shave here.
Being hot on one side and cold on the other… Because that’s how stoves and fireplaces worked.
For more intensive research, I strongly recommend the following books: Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders, Everyday Life in the 1800s by Marc McCutcheon, and Victorian London: The Tale of a City, 1840 – 1870, by Liza Picard. For a wonderful online resource, check out Lee Jackson’s victorianlondon.org (and tip him a pound if you use his huge site — I can’t imagine how long it took to put it all together! I made a donation because I used his site for this post.)
If there’s another setting you’d like me to do, or you have suggestions about Victorian settings in novels, please let me know in the comments! And if you aren’t doing so already, follow the blog so you don’t miss future posts like this — there’s a place to sign up on the lefthand side of the page. Happy writing!