How To: Survive and Thrive in the Victorian Era

Survive and Thrive in the Victorian Era

I don't know how many of you had this experience in your youth, but when I was a kid, I used to actively think about what would happen if I suddenly woke up in a fantasy land, or were to pass through a portal into another space and time. I knew it wouldn't really happen, but when you're a kid, these can be important issues to you. So I slept with my glasses on every night, just in case.

Photo from George Pal's The Time Machine.

Clearly, I've put a lot of thought into these things. Realistically speaking, then, what would happen if you or I were transported back in time to Victorian-era England? Do we have the skills necessary to survive and thrive? Could we use our knowledge of the future to make a life for ourselves, or even change the course of history itself?

Inauspicious Start

Congratulations! You've taken a one-way trip to the Victoria era! In fact, you're currently standing on the streets of London. Unlike in the movies, you can't see the entire city from above, so you're instantly lost. You have no friends or relatives, and no one to rely on. The streets are full of people busily going about their business, but none of them pay a bit of attention to you.

The first thing you notice is the smell. Chamber pots (the equivalent of toilets) were routinely emptied outdoors into the street or a nearby alley, not to mention that it was common practice for men to urinate outside against a wall, or in an alley. If you wind up anywhere near the Thames river, you'll notice immediately that the river is practically being used as a giant, open-air sewer.

There's also the heavy smell of coal in the air, and if you look very closely, you may be able to see small, black particulate matter in the air. This is the byproduct of the coal-burning factories located in town. There's a reason why Victorian men wore capes or overcoats outdoors, and it's because if they didn't, their nice outfits would be dirty before they even arrived at their location. That's another reason that no one was supposed to go outdoors without a hat.

Hungry or thirsty? I hope not! Any money you're carrying is worse than useless, so you'll have to rely on any valuables you're wearing. Do you have any solid gold, or sterling silver? Maybe, maybe not, but if you do have some and want to sell it to get some starting capital, prepare for three eventualities:

  1. Getting ripped off. You have no idea what the exchange rate of precious metals in the Victorian era is. Hell, I'm a Victorianist, and I don't even know that. The jewelers of the time could be pretty mercenary, too, so if you walk in looking like you don't know what's what, they will not hesitate to give you a bill of sale, so to speak.
  1. Being pickpocketed. Pickpockets were absolutely rampant at that time, so watch your pockets. If your stuff gets stolen before you can sell it, you're up the creek.
  1. Being accused of theft. If you are A) nonwhite or B) non-male, prepare to be hassled. Even a white male, depending on their clothing, may have a hard time. Still, given that you would almost certainly have a foreign accent, they may just write it off as you being a foreigner. However, a black man, for example, would likely be accused of theft if he walked into a jeweler's carrying anything that looked too expensive for him.

In fact, being nonwhite is just really going to screw you.

Discrimination today can be harsh at times, but that's absolutely nothing compared to how awful it was in London during the Victorian era, in which they essentially had institutionalized slavery. It wasn't outright slavery like we had for awhile in America, but it was pretty bad.

It wasn't entirely based on the color of your skin, at least ostensibly not, but it was instead based on how much money you had. They had something called "Debtor's Prison" in which you got sent to jail for being poor. Then they make you work to pay off your debts, which sounds fine in theory. Except that they make you pay for your own incarceration, so in reality you're only earning a tiny, tiny fraction of a regular salary, such that many simply never escaped. Suicide was a common way out of Debtor's Prison. It was so bad that they were eventually abolished in 1869.

So, let's hope you arrive after that, because just carrying expensive things without looking the part would probably get you tossed in there, with "looking the part" requiring you to be a "white male".

Frankly, if you don't have any money, the best thing to do is probably to find a church and try to get help there. Hope you've brushed up on your bible verses!

Making Headway

Oh, before I go any further, let's deal with any anachronistic things you may have on you, like your cell phone. Trying to sell your cell phone is probably a bad idea. There's no source of easily-available AC power (not to mention that you probably don't have your charger on you), so your phone will die pretty soon. Once it dies, it's just a weird-looking brick, but before then you could potentially either sell it as a curiosity (it has no real use without a network), or you could get arrested for having it. Better to err on the safe side, and just keep it to yourself for the time being. We'll deal with this more later. Same with a digital watch.

If you happen to have a really nice modern, self-winding analog watch, that might fetch a pretty penny.

Anyway, let's assume you now have some money in your pocket. Now what?

Finding a place to live should be a priority. This is a task that will be vastly easier or more difficult depending on how you look, so I recommend buying some period clothing before doing anything else. Once you actually look the part, it'll be much easier to make people believe that you're an American who just arrived in England, or perhaps a foreigner from somewhere else. This was a time of record diversity in London, so people were pretty used to foreigners. They didn't like them or trust them, though, so be prepared to be discriminated against. The best way to handle that is to be extremely polite, and always err on the side of being deferential.

Your best friend for finding a place to live is one of the myriad newspapers of the time. There are a whole slew of them, so you may want to ask a street vendor which one would have the best advertisements for places to live.

Frankly, once you look the part, it should be pretty easy to find an apartment, especially if you have the money up front. Generally speaking, most landlords would take in almost anyone who had enough money, provided that you're not trying to stay in too nice a place. The nicer an area is, the more likely that the landlord will be discerning, so I'd aim a little low for now. There's always the prospect of moving later, once you've gotten a feel for the era.

Now for a note on the food. England has notoriously bland food, but that's not the part that's going to be the most important to you. What will be very important is the bacteria in their food.

You're lucky that you're coming from here and now, because it's pretty likely that your immune system will be mostly compatible to the bugs of the Victorian era. In fact, many of our modern bugs are so strong compared to the ones in Victorian times that a Victorian-era person would be in much more likely to die from coming forward in time than you are going back. Still, any time you visit a new place, you're in microbial danger, so once you have a place to stay, it's time to start acclimating yourself to the local bacterial flora and fauna.

It's doubtful that you would get so ill that your life would be in danger, but preparing to poop your guts out, metaphorically speaking, is a good plan at this point. It may take a few weeks for your system to fully acclimate, and it is entirely possible that you will feel like you want to die in the interim. Stick with it, though, and your system will adapt well enough. Try not to think about what's in the water (which you should not forget to drink lots of), and enjoy their lack of air conditioning while you convalesce.

Moving Up in the World

Now that you have a place to live, some money, and a working digestive system, it's time to try to actually make something of yourself. Can you successfully take advantage of your knowledge of the future to accomplish something in the past?

Statistically speaking, probably not. Look at Nikola Tesla for inspiration/depression: he was working at the end of the Victorian era, and even with a ridiculously thorough knowledge of math, he was still largely unable to affect change in the world without spending literally decades trying. He also didn't do a very good job at monetizing his inventions.

So you come along with your passable knowledge of mechanics and electronics, but without knowing the math behind them. What do you tell someone you want to invest in you? "Well, I'm from the future, and I know that cars are a pretty big thing, so let's make some cars."

"Great!" they'll say, "Can you draw me up the plans for a working petrol engine?" And you'll say, "Ah, erm... Let me get back to you on that."

You can't make a computer because they only have rudimentary circuits in that time. Can you tell them how to make a computer from the ground up, and justify why it would be worth it? We take computers for granted now, but people were very resistant to change during the Victorian era, which is ironic because it was a time of some of the most rapid technological change ever experienced by mankind.

Tell you what: Why don't you make an airplane? All you have to do is beat the Kitty Hawk folks to the punch, right? And they only flew a few hundred feet. The trick to flying is in the shape of the wing, which creates more drag above it than below it, essentially creating lift. You can recreate that, right? Well, maybe not. Even knowing the exact wing shape, you'd still need to spend years working on a demonstration piece before anyone would believe you.

What can you do? The vast majority of modern jobs have no real past analogue, and people frequently forget that inventions can't just be easily reverse-engineered. For example, if you find Thomas Edison and give him your cell phone, it wouldn't be a huge help to him because the materials used in your cell phone are at the very least decades beyond their current production methods. In order to have your cell phone reproduced, you need a purity of materials unknown at that time, not to mention the ability to have miniature capacitors, circuits, memory, and who knows what else. Also, Edison would probably steal your phone and then deny it, because he was an ass.

What Edison would look like while you are there.

You could try to bank on future events, like... What? The only big event that most people know of from that time is World War 1, and that's not for many years to come. Queen Victoria dies in 1901, but do you know the exact date? If not, no one will take you seriously.

Well, surely you could contribute to the field of medicine, right? They were pretty backward at that time. At the very least you could introduce antiseptic surgery and save a bunch of lives. Oh, wait, no, Joseph Lister already did that in 1867.

What we're finding is that, problematically, the collected knowledge of the Victorian era is equal to or greater than the average knowledge of one citizen of the future. If you have a hands-on skill, you may fare better, such as being a plumber, mechanic, electrician, etc. Or even better if you're an engineer, because then maybe you'll know the math behind your field, though I hope you can recite the formulas from memory.

So what's the best bet for an average person? Find a famous historical person or company that you recognize, and invest in them. Give Edison a loan early on in his career. Invest in Western Electric, or Westinghouse, or any famous company involved in electricity. If you do it right, you'll get a pretty good return on your investment, though I suggest you avoid investments with notoriously bad returns, such as Nikola Tesla or James Joyce.

Prep Kit

That's not a very fun plan, is it? Investing? Well, if you don't have any hard information, there isn't much else you can do. It has the biggest return on the least knowledge; all you need is their name. However, there's one thing you can carry on you that will help you immensely: a Kindle, or some other electronic book reader.

Why a book reader, you ask?

Well, think of the things you could put on that Kindle: Victorian history, electronic engineering formulas, basic aerodynamics, internal combustion engines, and more. The sky is the limit. Make sure you get a book reader that isn't back-lit, though, because you want to get as much battery life out of it as possible. With the way the e-ink is set up, it uses hardly any battery power to be on, and only uses power to turn pages. So with that single Kindle, you can copy each page out onto paper by hand, and then have a permanent copy of it. Alternately, learn how to make a simple hand-crank generator that will allow you to charge its battery.

Either way, you'll have a huge amount of cultural currency at that point, and can do almost whatever you want. As they say, knowledge is power. Though be careful about wagering money on when someone is going to die, lest they start to think you had something to do with it.

So long as we're looking at a wish list of things to bring, remember what I said earlier about a self-winding analog watch? Yeah, wear one of those. They weren't perfected until the 1950's, but they'd be within the grasp of a Victorian watchmaker, so you could make their day by showing up with one. It doesn't even need to be made of precious metal.

A sword cane isn't a bad idea for self defense, though I recommend against a pistol for a lot of reasons. However, if you regularly carry a semi-automatic handgun, it might serve you well later. There's no real technology in those guns that couldn't be reproduced in the Victorian era heavier and less efficiently (provided you know how to make nitrocellulose, the heart of modern gunpowder), so that may be a good source of income for you. Barring that, a folding pocket knife isn't a bad idea, either.

Beyond that, just keep your wits about you, and you should be okay. Clean any cuts or wounds you get with the strongest alcohol you can find, and make sure that any meat you eat is cooked all the way through. It may not hurt to keep this cheat-sheet folded up nicely in your wallet, either:

Good luck!

EDIT: Since publishing this article, a few things have been brought to my attention, the most important of which is the severity of the microbial danger a modern person would be in. While there are many bacteria we would be mostly safe from, there are tons of others that modern people are hardly ever exposed to, such as tuberculosis and dysentery. In reality, the bacteria of the time would make the past nearly unlivable for a modern person without access to constant supplies of modern medicines.

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