The late 19th century saw the first steps into what we'd call modern life with comforts like electricity, automobiles, and movie theaters. (Remember those? Probably not). And we should be very grateful to our Victorian ancestors for serving as early adopter guinea pigs, working out the kinks of modern living one charred corpse at a time.
Since 'tis the season, let's look at Victorian domestic life through the lens of Home Alone as it appears that every 19th century home was built by a Dickensian Kevin McCallister. Imagine you've climbed your grappling hook to the top of a middle-class townhouse, ready to stuff your burlap sack with all its riches. That is, if you manage to cross the first deathly hurdle: the staircase.
To squeeze the 19th century's booming orphan-prone population into city areas, houses were built much taller and narrower than before. And to maximize space, almost all staircases were designed to be as steep as possible. Especially those leading to lower quarters were often made of the cheapest, bendiest wood with no handrail and steps so short and far apart you'd need that grappling hook again to descend them. As a result, death by falling down a comically tall flight of stairs was a fate that thousands of Victorians met.
f you manage to survive your tumble down, your first impulse might be to turn on those newfangled electric lights to regain your bearings. That's the last mistake you'll ever make.
Clean and bright, electricity was seen as quite safe in the late Victorian era. But with no safety regulations in place, electrical wiring was uninsulated and ungrounded. One wrong move near one of Edison's inventions could send enough voltage through your body to kill a circus elephant. And death by electrocution was the best-case scenario. Those already zapped once would often try to insulate their wires by wrapping them in highly flammable materials like lead, cloth, and even paper -- which is a bit like trying to secure a live grenade by dropping it in a mason jar full of ball bearings.
So now you can't feel your extremities, and you and most of the ground floor are on fire -- time to run to the bathroom and douse yourself with the nearest source of water. But you may want to give the bathroom a quick whiff before you leap in clothes blazing. Otherwise, this might happen:
Since early flush toilets were connected directly to the main sewer system with no type of seal, methane and hydrogen sulfide gases could leak back into the bathroom through the toilet. With poor ventilation, enough buildup could cause the faintest spark to blast you to the great white porcelain bowl in the sky.
And if you didn't want to go out in a poopy blaze of glory, you could always put yourself out with the curtains. Or the floor tiles. Or any of the dozen items in the average Victorian home that was made out of asbestos, then dubbed the "wonder material" for its many safe applications. You could also cool your burns by opening that refrigerator doohickey … and huff in a cloud of ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide, the gases used to keep your cooked goose cold.
Because while there are plenty more bone-shattering ways that you could die in a Victorian house, the real killers were the many ways the unfinished modern home could poison the body. That's a lot more depressing compared to flashy explosions and elaborate death tumbles. Probably why we don't find out in Home Alone 3 that Harry and Marv developed multiple sclerosis after ingesting too much asbestos and paint varnish chasing some small sadist around a dilapidated Victorian manor.
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Top Image: Our Own Magazine, 20th Century Studios