When we think of the 19th century, history can get a little idyllic. It was a simpler time, when people were more connected to the earth, when they knew how to sew and build houses and raise their own animals. Nobody was distracted and constantly glued to their screens, and everything moved more slowly. Sounds pretty nice, right?
In many ways, the 19th century was a straight up horror show. Here are 15 reasons why you should thank your lucky freaking stars that you didn’t have the misfortune to be born into this era of nightmarish awful.
15 Kids Died All The Time
These days, if you’re in the industrialized world, it’s pretty uncommon for kids to die. Your expectation when you have a kid, by in large, is that the kid will live into adulthood. Obviously tragic accidents and diseases happen, but it is generally considered a shock when a child dies. Not so in the 19th century. Around one third of kids born in that century died before they reached adolescence: most families had lots of children, and it would have been considered unusual for at least one of them not to die. Childhood is generally thought to be a time of peace and safety, but nobody told that to kids in the 19th century. If you’ve ever walked by an old timey graveyard and wondered why there are so many small headstones, that’s why. That’s truly scary stuff for us, all the way here in the 21st century. You can only imagine how terrifying it was for the people who had to live through it.
14 In Fact, People Died All The Time
Kids weren’t the only ones screwed over by a low life expectancy. If you managed to make it to adolescence, and, if you were *really* lucky, adulthood, a whole slew of dangers awaited around pretty much every corner. Life expectancy for the period of the 19th century as a whole was 40 years for men and 42 years for women, which is pretty terrifyingly low. Causes of death included diseases like cholera, smallpox, and tuberculosis, as well as the general stressors of poor diet, ridiculously bad medical care (and don’t you worry, we’ll get more into that later), accidents, urban squalor, and just generally being super stressed out that you live in the total garbage century that is the 1800’s. The low mortality rate meant that, at 20, you were basically middle aged, so say goodbye to all that time to figure out what you’re doing with your life. Not optimal, to say the least.
13 And When They Died, People Took Pictures With Them
Okay, so lots of people are dying, pretty much all the time. So what do we do? Let’s take pictures with them! That makes perfect sense and is definitely not the stuff of nightmares! Those of you familiar with all things creepy may be acquainted with the concept of death photography, also called post-mortem photography. Back in the day, photos were a hard thing to come by: cameras were expensive, clunky, and only operated by professional photographers. Therefore, if someone died (especially if that someone was a child), you might not have any pictures to remember them by. Perfect solution: pose them like they’re still alive, often with their family members, and remember them always in that fashion--as a creepy, super dead ghost doll. Usually the dead people would be posed like they were sleeping, but sometimes they’d sit them up and paste fake open eyes over their closed dead ones. As if they needed one more way to make the whole endeavor creepy af.
12 Kids Also Worked In Factories
Okay, so you’re a kid in the 1800’s. You have a really terrifying likelihood of death before adulthood, but everything else is pretty okay, right? Wrong. If you were poor enough and lived in a city, your little kid self is going to work in a factory. These factories were dangerous, with big machines and pretty much nothing in the way of safety regulations around them. Kids would get paid next to nothing to risk their lives in grueling conditions, with abusive task masters and long, exhausting hours. And if you think they might get things like breaks, weekends, days off, or vacations, think again. It was all work all the time. Oh, and because they weren’t getting an education (because they were too busy, you know, doing back breaking labor), they had no real chance to move up in the world, so they pretty much could only continue working at the factories or doing other similarly unpleasant manual labor.
11 Horse Transport In Cities Was Horrifying
Horse transportation, you know, like carriages and stuff, is usually depicted in movies and in our general imagination as the most romantic form of transportation. It’s like those fancy horse and buggies in Central Park, only all the time, right? How cool would that be? The answer is very, very uncool. First of all, let’s talk poop: those little attachments to catch the poop on today’s wagons did not exist. That resulted in poop from horses littering the streets pretty much everywhere you went. Upper class women and men literally wore shoes with lifts on them because the streets were so coated in horse poop. Aside from the poop, another fun fact they don’t tend to discuss about horse travel is that they sometimes died. Like, just keeled over and died in the middle of the street. And because horses are so big, there was no quick or easy way to get them out of the street. This meant that people would often just leave the dead horse where it fell, where it would rot, bloat, and sometimes explode because of the build up of gasses in its abdomen. Lovely!
10 Everything’s Awful For Ladies
In general, looking back on history, if you’re a lady, things aren’t great for you. The 19th century is no exception to that rule. Women were basically the property of men, be it their fathers or their husbands. They had no real options except to have kids – and to keep having kids – and many had to maintain both a household and a job at a factory. Women were expected to be submissive, and the fashion of the day did a good job as being as constricting as possible, between huge hoop skirts and corsets so tight they would constrict breathing and warp the ribs. If you stepped out of line, your husband had every right to put you “in your place”. Women had very minimal access to education, and wouldn’t get the vote until the next century (good job, progress!), so weren’t even really considered full citizens. Oh, and if they thought you were too interested in sex, they could diagnose you as a hysteric and remove your uterus. Funsies!
9 Medicine Was Terrifying
If we’re talking medicine here, we’re going to want to apply some very serious air quotes, because what passed for medicine in the 19th century was pretty awful, including a number of painful procedures that usually didn’t even cure what they set out to cure. Most people had no idea where their organs were and figured there was something wrong with their “humours” instead of, like, the flu, or heart disease. People didn’t really get how disease was transmitted, and treatment largely consisted of forced puking, pooping, or blood letting to clear “impurities” from the body. Oh, and anesthesia wasn’t invented till the 1840’s, so if you had to have surgery, you were doing it wide awake. Added bonus: because dentistry wasn’t really a thing yet, your barber was also your dentist! Or, rather, the guy who pulled your teeth when they rotted. Same goes for small surgeries like adenoid and tonsil removal. Who doesn’t want a quick surgery with their haircut?
8 Wars All The Time
Something that might surprise you? The United States was involved in over 60 wars and major military battles between 1800 and 1900. This included, of course, the ridiculously bloody and horrifyingly violent Civil War, but also the Spanish American war, the Philippine American War, the War of 1812, the Mexican American War, and a whole lot of wars with Native Americans where they were like, “Hey, can you not murder us and steal our land? Thanks.” War conditions in the 19th century were basically hell, multiplied by a million. It was dirty, often hand-to-hand combat, with limited resources and primitive weapons. And, as aforementioned above, medicine was basically a joke, and so field medicine, already hard in even the best circumstances, was brutal. Non-anesthetic amputations, for instance, were quite common. And the fighting force sometimes included kids, giving us yet another reason to believe that life for a kid in the 19th century was pretty much a very, very bad time.
7 Everyone Was Smelly
One thing consistently forgotten or ignored by those period movies set way back when, in which beautiful people dance in ball gowns and court each other and fall in love, is that hygiene was not really so much of a thing back in the day. People took baths MAYBE once a week, and some people relied only on “hip baths” (basically washing from a bucket). When they did bathe, soap wasn’t really used on a widespread basis, so it was just water and a sponge for the vast majority of the stinky populace. Also, there was no shampoo or deodorant, so body odor was just an assumed thing. Though some people tried to hide their stank with perfumes and flower petals under the arms, it wasn’t all too effective. Oh, and let us also remember that tooth brushing (let alone toothpaste and mouthwash) was not a thing, so stink breath was basically the norm as well.
6 If You Lived In A City, Life Sucked
The average city dweller has a whole bunch of complaints when it comes to urban living. It’s hot in the summer, and smelly, too, and everything is super crowded. Us lucky folks in the 21st century, however, forgot how bad it used to be living in the city for most people. It’s pretty much any and all of our problems, multiplied by a million (which, one starts to see, is sort of a trend when it comes to comparing that nightmare century to ours.) Life in the tenements, for instance, where people would go when they first got to this country and where 2.3 million people – or, ⅔ of all New Yorkers – lived by the end of the century, was absolutely squalid. They were cramped, like multiple families to a single room apartment cramped, had no indoor plumbing or heat, and were poorly lit (if lit at all.) Plus, there was often no ventilation, which meant that when one person got sick, everybody got sick.
5 If You Lived In The Country, Life Sucked
Okay, so tenement life was rough and hard. It must have been a lot better out on the frontier, where there was space and fresh air and less horse-corpse-and-poop-clogged streets, right? Wrong again. Remember that living in the country meant subsistence farming, which meant you grow what you eat. Fair enough, but what happens when the rain decides to peace or some weird crop disease comes out of nowhere and wipes out your corn? Guess what, bud? No more food! This is not to mention the fact that rural outposts were by nature very isolated, meaning that if people got sick and you needed medicine, there was every chance that you wouldn’t get it in time. Then there’s the general suckery of no heat, running water, or electricity, but that’s sort of common fare. Oh, and in all likelihood, you’d know only the same few people all your life--including the person you eventually married. It’s nice to come from a close knit place and stuff, but incest really isn’t a cute look.
4 Sometimes Diseases Would Just Show Up And Kill Everybody
As we’ve said before a number of times, medicine was really quite a horror show all throughout this century. This included the understanding of infectious disease, which, as you may have guessed, wasn’t all too great back then. Nobody knew what germs were, never mind how they spread, and basically just had to kinda throw their hands up when they got sick, like, “Welp! You got us stumped!” And even if they did find out that diseases were caused by germs, there were no antibiotics to treat them with – those only came around later on. That meant that the entirety of the 19th century was plagued by infectious disease epidemics, which would ravage entire populations and sometimes entire continents. We’re talking cholera (a disease where you basically poop yourself to death), smallpox (think chicken pox but terrifyingly deadly/disfiguring), yellow fever (a disease you get via mosquito bite where you literally bleed out of your eyes and mouth), syphilis (which LITERALLY EATS YOUR FACE OFF AND BORES HOLES IN YOUR BRAIN) – you name it.
3 Sometimes Fires Would Come and Burn Down Your Entire City
Like medical professionals, the geniuses in the 19th century in charge of architecture and urban planning weren’t exactly up to par when it came to human safety. During the Industrial Revolution, cities went up crazy quick, and, because there was no precedent, people did not realize that there are certain precautions you can take to make sure fires don’t completely destroy entire neighborhoods and cities when they happen. Therefore, when fires did happen (and they always will happen), they were massive. Think of literally any even remotely sizable city in the United States, and there was at least one “great fire” there during the 19th century. Fires meant huge death tolls, not to mention entire neighborhoods and sometimes cities completely displaced, with their homes and all of the things they owned gone. This wasn’t helped by the lack of fire fighting technology: pretty much all people could do when a fire started doing it’s fire-y thing was kinda attempt to throw buckets of water on it, but mainly just stand back and be like, “All right, fire, I guess you got this one. Good luck.”
2 If They Thought You Were Crazy, You Were Screwed
Things have progressed pretty far when it comes to how we deal with mental illness, but you don’t truly understand how far until you look at how it was treated in the 19th century. First off, pretty much anything could make people think you were crazy. Have you decided you don’t believe in God? Crazy. Are you a woman who isn’t super jazzed about your place in the world? Crazy. Are you an immigrant? Crazy. Are you poor? Crazy. Did you sneeze wrong? Crazy! But even if you legitimately had mental issues, they weren’t going to get any better with the so-called “treatments” offered back then. You would be restrained, starved, put in insulin comas, told you were morally inferior, get electro-shocked, you name it. And there was really no end in sight, because mental illness was largely seen as a basic defect that was incurable. So you’re in this for life!
1 Slavery Was Still A Thing
Lest we forget, during a majority of the 19th century, people were still held as actual slaves. This is shocking even now, and the horrors of slavery are some of the worst things any human being could endure. There was the indignity of being someone else’s property, which meant you could be bought or sold at their leisure, and which also meant that they could buy or sell your wife, your husband, and/or your children at any time, with no regard for what that separation would mean to you. Then there’s obviously the forced labor, and the abuses that would happen up to and including death. If there’s anything that truly makes the 19th century horrifying, it’s that people were legally allowed to own people – a notion that is truly nightmarish. Oh, and the kicker? Once the emancipation proclamation made slavery illegal, former slaves would still have to endure horrific racism and disenfranchisement, as would their descendents for generations to come. Up yours, 19th century, you garbage fire.