Living History or LARPing? The Case of Vox’s Modern Victorians

By Alex Andrioli ’18

Sarah A. Chrisman and her husband, Gabriel, love the late Victorian era. Like many lovers of history, the Chrismans have a specific time period they enjoy studying more than others. For them, it’s the 1880s and 1890s. However, they take their research a little more seriously than most. They don’t just take their work home with them, they live their work.

In an article for Vox, Sarah Chrisman wrote, “Everything in our daily life is connected to our period of study, from the technologies we use to the ways we interact with the world.” She and her husband live in Port Townsend, Washington in a house that was built in 1888. They have replaced many modern appliances with “period-appropriate” appliances like the electric refrigerator that came with their house when they bought the property. They now have an icebox that they stock with block ice that dribbles into a drip tray that requires being emptied once or twice a day depending on the season. Along with this icebox, the Chrisman house is stocked with a mechanical clock that needs to be wound every day, fountain pens and ink, electric light bulbs that are based on the original patents of Edison and Tesla, oil lamps, mortars and pestles, a hairbrush that has a 130-year-old design, and toothbrushes that have natural boar bristles. These, among other items, are what make up the Chrismans’ Victorian paradise.

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An 1885 painting depicting a woman playing tennis in fashionable Victorian clothing. Did the woman in this painting have the same opinion of her clothing as Chrisman? “I became so accustomed to the presence and movements of my skirts, they started to send me little signals about my proximity to the objects around myself.” Painting by Sir John Lavery, via Wikimedia Commons. Sir John Lavery. “A Rally.” 1885.

The couple wears clothes from the time period on a daily basis, which Chrisman claims gives “insights into intimate life of the past, things so private and yet so commonplace they were never written down,” like “features of posture, movement, and balance.” A vast majority of what they read are books and magazines that were published during the period as opposed to books and magazines being about the period. Chrisman affirms that “modern commentaries on the past can get appallingly like the game ‘telephone’ . . . Going back to the original sources is the only way to learn the truth.” The clothes, reading materials, and the objects and appliances around the house help the Chrismans understand the culture of the era and keeps them in touch with their surroundings. Chrisman notes, “Much of modern technology has become a collection of magic black boxes: Push a button and light happens, push another button and heat happens, and so on.” She explains in the article that modern technologies make it hard for users to realize the hard work that goes into making those appliances work, along with the energy and resources that are being used up. Chrisman states that she and her husband are more aware of the resources they use when they use Victorian appliances, like their antique space heater in the winter, and are careful of how much they use because of it.

The Chrismans admit they are living their dream because they do not allow for their bullies to put them down. They are constantly threatened to be chased out of their town, receive letters containing frightening messages, and are called an array of insulting words. Many folks have been attacking the Chrismans online for their lifestyle, as well.  Rebecca Onion of Slate sees Chrisman’s article as “irritating” because wearing clothing “doesn’t transport the wearer to the times past” and that the past is not just made up of “things” to surround yourself with in your place of residence. The Victorian era, Onion proceeds, was made up of a “web of social ties” and tensions that affected how people acted and treated others, and that the people in that period could be just as hostile to people with differences just like people in the present. Other online writers that are hating on the Chrismans also focus on the fact that they are only concentrating on the pleasant aspects of Victorian culture like cycling, clothing, reading, and housekeeping.

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An 1890 photo of a woman rowing a boat while wearing attire similar to Sarah Chrisman’s daily wardrobe. Does a modern woman that chooses to wear this sort of clothing allow for her to gain a better understanding of Victorian life or is it just tasteless? Photo courtesy of National Media Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.

Whether you want to call Sarah and Gabriel’s lifestyle living history, LARPing (live action role playing), or just plain weird, one must consider that reenactors basically do the same thing. People do this kind of stuff on the weekend as a hobby or even as a job, like in the National Park Service. The one thing that ties reenactors to the Chrismans is that they are all passionate about what they do; the Chrismans just took it one step further. Though they will never get the full Victorian experience, wearing the clothes, using period-appropriate appliances, studying the reading materials of the time, etc., allows them to get some sort of glimpse into the late Victorian lifestyle. They are discovering and personally experiencing aspects of life the Victorians didn’t record for historians to find and archive. It is not all for naught! So what if they are essentially full-time reenactors? If that’s what makes them happy, then let them live their life. They understand that the Victorian era will never be fully replicated, but they are pretty darned close to it.


Sources:

Conaboy, Kelly. “7 Easy Steps to Living Like It’s the Victorian Era.” Gawker (blog), September 9, 2015. Accessed September 15, 2015. http://gawker.com/7-easy-steps-to-living-like-its-the-victorian-era-1729608684

Parsons, Zack “Geist Editor”. “I love the Flintstones Era. So I decided to live in it.” Something Awful (blog), September 11, 2015. Accessed September 15, 2015. http://www.somethingawful.com/news/victorian-couple-flintstones/

Prosk, Adam. “To Hell with Vox’s Victorian-Living Idiots.” The Concourse (blog), September 10, 2015. Accessed September 15, 2015. http://theconcourse.deadspin.com/to-hell-with-voxs-victorian-living-idiots-1729873090

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