19th Century Crazes and Fads

19th Century Crazes and Fads


Improved media and affordable mass communication made the 19th century as susceptible to fads and crazes as modern society. A growing middle class had access to funds, free time, and the ability to travel: which meant that people not only had the time to indulge in new things, they were able to take them with them when they travelled to show off how in touch they were with the cutting edge of society. Some were bizarre, others simply novel, and others have passed down to modern times as enjoyable pastimes.

From silly crazes, like headless photography, to the fasting girls of the 19th century (who claimed not to eat at all) came and went. Mostly, because some participants were exposed as frauds and others, like pedestrianism, (a forerunner to racewalking)  just got dull and old.

Princess Alexandra of Denmark

The 19th century had plenty of strange ailments; from potter’s rot to chimney sweep’s scrotum. However one of the most thunderously daft crazes was the Alexandra Limp. Young women all over the British Isles were suddenly struck  down, It preyed on the young, the capricious, the suggestible and the status-obsessed. Or, to put it another way, the fashionable. There were no physical grounds for the spreading infirmity.

Alexandra of Denmark was the bride of the Prince of Wales, and a 19th Century fashion icon. The clothes she wore were copied as well. The chokers she wore to conceal a scar on her neck were copied. And when a bout of rheumatic fever left her with a pronounced limp… Well, that was copied too. In the well-do-do hotspots of Britain, toadying women began clumping about in a style that suggested they’d recently stood barefoot on discarded Lego.

At first, it was a DIY affair. Women would simply grab odd shoes to help them totter effectively. But canny shopkeepers soon realised there was a pretty penny to be made from what otherwise would be retail’s most unshiftable line – wildly mismatched footwear, with one high heel, and one low.

What did ordinary people make of it all? Not a great deal, if this 1869 report from the North British Mail is anything to go by. “A monstrosity has made itself visible among the female promenaders in Princes Street,” it seethed. “It is as painful as it is idiotic and ludicrous.”

Taking my customary walk the other day, observant of men, women and things, I met three ladies. They were all three young, all three good-looking, and all three lame! At least, such was my impression, seeing as they all carried handsome sticks and limped; but, on looking back, as everyone else did, I could discover no reason why they should do so.

“Indeed, one decent woman expressed her pity in an audible ‘Puir things!’ as she passed, but I was enlightened by hearing a pretty girl explain to her companion, ‘Why that’s the Alexandra limp! How ugly!‘”

And then, as is the way of these things, fashion moved on. The game was probably already up by the time a race-horse was given the deeply unpromising name of Alexandra Limp.

A far more worthy craze was the love of stereoscopic photography. It rapidly became a worldwide craze after the Great Exhibition of 1851. Cheap viewers and mass-produced stereographs brought startlingly vivid images within reach of a mass audience, making this the form in which most people first encountered photography – a fact largely ignored in conventional photographic history. Like the commercial suppliers of Magic Lantern slides, stereograph publishers offered systematic coverage of many subjects, even claiming that to ‘visit’ remote countries by stereo was better than risking the journey. 

Brewsters Refracting Stereoscope

For those who have never seen the images, stereoscopic photographs provided an early type of 3D image using  a principle called stereopsis, or binocular vision. When viewed side by side simultaneously, the image comes to life as a single picture with added depth. It was invented in Sir Charles Wheatstone. In 1832, but improved upon in the

1840’s when Sir David Brewster tweaked the design in to what he called a refracting stereoscope. At the Great Exhibition of 1851, Brewster exhibited his refracting stereoscope to Queen Victoria who was immediately taken by it. We all know that once royalty fancies a product, the public is soon to follow, and follow it did! Within three months, over 250,000 refracting stereoscopes were sold along with over a million stereoscopic prints. By this time, stereoscopic prints were made via the collodion process because of it’s nature to easily duplicate prints. In 1856, the London Stereoscopic Company had pushed mass production of stereo cards into most middle and upper class homes. With their success, the company began sending photographers around the world to create stereo cards of over 100,000 different places and views. This contributed to solidifying photography’s place as a tool for education, a tool for discovering, and a tool for recording people or places as a record to be viewed at a later time. Some people found that  the viewing gave them headaches and some were frustrated by the stereoscope viewer itself. After all, it is slightly unnatural to go from viewing one scene with two eyes to two scenes in two eyes. It can be hard work for the brain to “marry” the two separate images into one, not to mention not everyone has perfect vision as well as some have varying astigmatism that could all affect viewing ease.  In 1861, with the help of Joseph L. Bates, Holmes designed a hand held stereoscope viewer that allowed individual adjustments for viewing distance and solved his headaches. It had the bonus of being lighter-weight and cheaper than Brewster’s contraption and since it wasn’t patented, copies flooded the market and it became the most popular version. The stereoscope remained popular until waning in the 1870’s with the financial crash of 1873. Many photographers were put out of business or forced to cut costs by copying other’s stereocards (this was obviously before federal copyrights!). Unfortunately, the copying of stereocards repeatedly lead to a decline in quality and therefore a decline in viewing experience. Mostly only the largest companies survived while the small companies disappeared. This lead to a climate of corporations beginning to control what imagery was dispersed and began the rise of publishing controlling the visual language of cultures. In the 1920’s the Keystone View Company survived the depression by focusing on the education sector.  They made stereo views until the rise of the color television in the mid 1960’s. I can also safely venture a guess that many of you reading this article are familiar with one of their products from your childhood: the View Master 3-D which was a plastic stereoscopic viewer that had images on little paper mounted round discs. You can still find these toys in stores and novelty shops today.

Billy The Kid Playing Croquet

Croquet is a really old game. It’s so old nobody can quite pinpoint how old. It’s thought to have started around the 13th century in France, but some indications show it is far older than that. In 1850, British toymaker Isaac Spratt came up with the name “croquet,” published rules for play, and began mass production of equipment. His efforts introduced croquet to the world where it was an instant favorite with people from all walks of life. Croquet hit the peak of popularity in the 19th century. It was the perfect sport for everyone. It could be played anywhere, by anyone of any age, and needed no special skills. Women were a big reason croquet became successful. In the 19th century, women had few opportunities to be independent. Few women had jobs, freely voiced their opinions, or dared to compete in anything – especially sports. So when the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book featured a story recommending croquet as a healthy outdoor family activity, there was an explosion of interest. Women began hosting croquet parties instead of garden parties, and everyone enjoyed the novelty of an activity where entire families could take part. The croquet craze also changed clothing styles. Women still were wearing long dresses with wide skirts. Such an outfit not only made it hard to see a croquet ball, but also to swing the
mallet. These skirts also led to questions of cheating. Men, who found themselves
out-played, accused women of using their long skirts to hide or move balls during play. As a result women’s fashion became more form fitting, and skirt lengths became shorter – for the first time allowing a lady’s ankle and foot to be revealed. Many people did not approve of the changes brought about by croquet. When clergymen began preaching against croquet because they felt it was a source of gambling, cheating, and open flirting between men and women,the game quickly lost its popularity. However devoted players kept it alive, introducing croquet at the 1900 Olympics in Paris and again at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri, where an all-American version  called
“roque” was played.

Croquet wasn’t the only activity which caught the public imagination as other items on this blog feature both cycling and skating. Both gave women freedom to travel, move, and compete in a way which made them demand both more independence and dress reform. These activities have stayed with us, and become so mundane, it’s easy to underestimate the impact they had when women who had previously been pretty much closeted within their families, suddenly spread their wings and went off without chaperones or parental restraint.

Mesmerism positively gripped Victorian London in 1838.

The practice of using the ancient technique of hypnosis for medical purposes takes its name from the 18th-century German physician Franz Mesmer. The mesmerist of Moore’s story was a society doctor called John Elliotson, a man who has been almost forgotten today.

Elliotson was a self-made physician who rose quickly to the top of his profession. Clever, tough and ambitious, by the age of 40 he was professor of medicine at London University. He was instrumental in founding the North London Hospital (later UCH) for the London poor. A brilliant lecturer, he campaigned to break the hold of the self-selected oligarchy which ruled the medical establishment. He championed new discoveries, such as quinine and the stethoscope, and the understanding of allergies, such as hay fever; and he introduced real improvements in hospital practice. He was drawn to mesmerism as a cure for epilepsy but, as Moore clearly shows, he soon became fanatical about it.

Elliotson’s subject was a 17-year-old working-class London girl named Elizabeth Okey, who supposedly suffered from epilepsy. When he hypnotised her, she fell into a trance and then began to perform strange antics. She talked, opened her eyes and behaved in a uninhibited way. Her personality completely changed. Normally shy and demure, Elizabeth flirted and joked and appeared not to feel electric shocks.

Elliotson’s séances at UCH were public performances, and people flocked to watch Elizabeth. Dickens was entranced by her. Elliotson was a man obsessed. He mesmerised Elizabeth several times a day for many months. As her behaviour became ever more barmy and outlandish, the doctor-patient dynamic shifted. Increasingly, it was Elizabeth who called the tune, telling Elliotson to leave her alone and predicting what she would do next. ‘I never saw such a d—d fool in all my life,’ she declared. She advised Elliotson how to treat her and went on ward rounds diagnosing the other patients. Stranger still, her younger sister Jane, also an epileptic, was mesmerised and replicated Elizabeth’s behaviour even when apart from her.


To the Victorian medical establishment Elliotson’s relationship with the Okey sisters was deeply unsettling. The role reversal between physician and patient was bad enough, subverting as it did the professional and social authority of the doctor. Worse still, Elliotson had become an impresario, breaking all the rules of medical research. His séances were not scientific demonstrations but freak shows. The constant performances made Elizabeth very ill — she was delirious for the most of the time when she wasn’t mesmerised — but Elliotson ignored her worsening condition. So credulous was he that it seems never to have occurred to him that she might be acting.

His nemesis was his friend and colleague Thomas Wakley, the founder editor of the Lancet. After performing tests which purported to prove that Elizabeth Okey was faking (actually the tests did no such thing), Wakley published a vicious attack in the Lancet, denouncing the sisters as fraudulent actors. Elliotson stubbornly refused to admit he was wrong. The last straw came when the Okeys walked round the wards at UCH predicting which patients were about to die. Their prophecies came true. The sisters were expelled, mesmerism was banned and Elliotson was forced to resign from the hospital he had founded.

What was really going on with the Okey sisters is still unclear. It’s possible that they were deliberately acting, but this is only part of the story. Moore speculates that at first the mesmeric trances were genuine. But as they were urged on by Elliotson the sisters subconsciously tried to ‘please’ him by more and more bizarre antics. Remarkably, they survived all this and went on to live normal lives.

Elliotson was destroyed by professional jealousies and his own stubbornness, and his fall discredited mesmerism as a therapy. Outside the public hospitals, however, provincial doctors continued to practise it. It gained traction as way of dulling pain, and doctors performed operations using it as an anaesthetic. But it was no competition for the new chemical anaesthetic drug of chloroform which, unlike mesmerism, put the doctor firmly in control of the patient.

Mummy unwrapping was a craze, contained to the rich, which combined the era’s fascination with science and death. The host would buy a mummy from an auction or a specialist dealer with contacts in Egypt, then the invites would go out. As they described what they were finding to an audience, a host would take off the body’s bandages to see what was hiding underneath, in the name of both scientific discovery and entertainment. These events happened at the height of Egyptomania—a sweeping craze where people’s interest in this aspect of ancient history grew to incredible heights. Some events—namely the ones by a surgeon called Thomas Pettigrew—attracted around 3,000 people. Pettigrew wasn’t the first person to unwrap a mummy, but he was the first to turn it into a spectacle.

All things spooky were a special obsession for the 19th century mind. Table turning, seances, fortune telling, mediums, and spiritualism were all popular pastimes. In one way they provided comfort for the bereaved at a time where death was everywhere.  In another they were a breeding ground for fakery and crime as confidence tricksters lined up to separate people from their money. Some, like the Fox sisters, were very sophisticated. Others were less so.

Francis Ward Monck was investigated by psychical researchers and discovered to be a fraud. On November 3, 1876 during the séance a sitter demanded that Monck be searched. Monck ran from the room, locked himself in another room and escaped out of a window. A pair of stuffed gloves was found in his room, as well as cheesecloth, reaching rods and other fraudulent devices in his luggage. After a trial Monck was convicted for his fraudulent mediumship and was sentenced to three months in prison.

Mina Crandon with her “spirit hand” which was discovered to be a made from a piece of carved animal liver.

In 1876, William Eglinton was exposed as a fraud when the psychical researcher Thomas Colley seized a “spirit” materialization in his séance and cut off a portion of its cloak. It was discovered that the cut piece matched a cloth found in Eglinton’s suitcase. Colley also pulled the beard off the materialization and it was revealed to be a fake, the same as another one found in the suitcase of Eglinton.In 1880 in a séance a spirit named “Yohlande” materialized, a sitter grabbed it and was revealed to be the medium Mme. d’Esperance herself.

In September 1878 the British medium Charles Williams and his fellow-medium at the time, A. Rita, were detected in trickery at Amsterdam. During the séance a materialized spirit was seized and found to be Rita and a bottle of phosphorus oil, muslin and a false beard were found amongst the two mediums. In 1882 C. E. Wooc was exposed in a séance in Peterborough. Her Indian spirit control “Pocka” was found to be the medium on her knees, covered in muslin.

In 1869 an American physician named Cyrus Reed Teed, whose very own brand of medicine which combined the 19th century obsessions of alchemy, zaps of electricity, and doses of magnetism, electrocuted himself so badly that he passed out. At least he would have electrocuted himself if the word had been invented. It actually didn’t come into usage until 889 in the US, just before the first use of the electric chair, and it originally referred only to electrical execution and not to accidental or suicidal electrical deaths Which is just as well, for when he came to, he realized he was the living incarnation of Jesus Christ. Not only that, he also decided that the Earth is actually an inverted sphere: We line the inside and look in on, not out to, the rest of the universe. He was not the first to claim the earth was hollow and it was a common superstition in the 19th century, even spawning a famous science fiction book. 

Reed Teed started a cult called Koreshanity in Florida to convince the world of his geologic discovery. And on a beach near their commune, for five months the Koreshanites deployed the rectilliniator, a device of their own creation, to scientifically measure that the Earth is in fact concave. Naturally, it was a success.

Which brings us on to our last Victorian craze – Utopian Communities. Primarily an American phenomenon, throughout the 19th century, groups of people believed that if they just could get away from all the sin and confusion in the world, they could form the perfect society, a utopia on earth. None of these communities worked, but at least some left their mark, like the Oneida colony which created fine cutlery, and the Shakers, who made huge advances in furniture design. Women failed to enjoy the full benefits of the cooperative society. Instead, as Abigail Alcott noted, women did most of the work while the men passed the day in deep conversation. The Oneidas are notable in their attitude to women in that the community offered many ways for Oneida women to remain autonomous and powerful. Their highly contested system of “Complex Marriage,” essentially a free love system in which all members of the Community were married to one another, allowed women to control whom they shared their time with, and, most importantly, with whom they were sexually intimate. This system also called for the practice of “Male Continence,” wherein male members were forbidden from climaxing during sexual intercourse, protecting women from accidental or frequent pregnancy and allowing the experience to remain dedicated to female pleasure. Thus, pregnancy in this community became a choice, not an obligation, and children were communally raised, allowing women to have not only a choice in when and how frequently they had children, but also the opportunity to enrich their own lives instead of dedicating all of their energy and attention on their children and their husbands.

John Harvey Kellogg

Other societies were not based on religion, but were secular and dedicated to health. Much of Victorian concern with health focussed on their obsession with the bowels and purgatives, but others were concerned with cruelty and others harked back to the days of a pre-industrial agrarian society. Although it is a truly ancient diet, it began to be embraced by the mainstream in the 19th century. Although many poorer people had largely vegetarian diets out of necessity, the upper and middle classes began to embrace it in growing numbers in  the 19th century. The first (western) vegetarian cookbook was published in 1812 British Vegetarian Society was founded in 1847. Class played prominent roles in the Victorian vegetarian movement. There was somewhat of a disconnect when the upper-middle class attempted to reach out to the working and lower classes. Women were especially visible as the “mascot”. When late-Victorians sought to promote their cause in journal, female angels or healthy English women were the images most commonly depicted. Two prominent female vegetarians were Elizabeth Horsell, author of a vegetarian cookbook and lecturer, and Jane Hurlstone. Hurlstone was active in Owenism, animal welfare, and Italian nationalism as well. Though women were regularly overshadowed by men, noted the newspaper the Vegetarian Advocate, that women were more inclined to do work in support of vegetarianism and animal welfare than men, who tended to only speak on the matter. In a domestic setting, women promoted vegetarianism though cooking vegetarian dishes for public dinners and arranging entertainment that promoted the cause. Outside of the domestic sphere, Victorian women edited vegetarian journals, wrote articles, lectured, and wrote cookbooks. Of the 26 vegetarian cookbooks published during the Victorian Age, 14 were written by women.

In the United States, Reverend William Metcalfe, a pacifist and a prominent member of the Bible Christian Church, preached vegetarianism.He and Sylvester Graham, the mentor of the Grahamites and inventor of the Graham crackers, were among the founders of the American Vegetarian Society in 1850. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of corn flakes fame), a Seventh-Day Adventist, promoted vegetarianism at his Battle Creek Sanitarium as part of his theory of “biologic living”. In Russia, Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) was the most outstanding supporter of vegetarianism. Vegetarianism was frequently associated with cultural reform movements, such as temperance and anti-vivisection. It was propagated as an essential part of “the natural way of life.” Some of its champions sharply criticized the civilization of their age and strove to improve public health. A newspaper reported in March 1880 that a vegetarian restaurant had existed in Manchester for some years and one had just opened in Oxford Street, London.

This list is by no means definitive, but it is intended to give a glance of the complex and multi-layered society of the 19th century. It was one which looked backwards as well as forward, to science as well as superstitions, and to tradition as well a innovation. And that is what makes it so interesting.