5 Ways 19th Century England Makes the Modern World Look Tame
History is so full of sex, drugs, more sex, and then some sex that it is amazing they managed to find enough other information to teach us in school. If you believe your teachers, the Georgian era in England was a boring period full of polite country dances where the most exciting thing that happened was that George III went mad (imagine a fusion of Crispin Glover and Charles Manson). But the truth is, after they lost the colonies, the English went on a bit of a bender. In fact, the period between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 may very well have been the most debauched time in history. Here's why.
Sex and Marriage
If the movie versions of Jane Austen novels have taught you anything, it is that relationships in the early 1800s involved snappy dialogue, lots of misunderstandings, and like 50 balls a week. But Austen was a sexually repressed spinster who almost never left her hometown, so what did she know. In reality, most people during the Regency were having a ton of sex, and a whole lot of that was before marriage.
Divorce basically didn't exist in England until the 1850s, and even then only for wealthy men. So for people during the Georgian period, once you got married to someone you were pretty much stuck with them until one of you died of syphilis. But just like today, people wanted to make sure they were sexually compatible before marriage. This and the fact that birth control was basically nonexistent meant that by 1800 almost 40 percent of supposedly virginal brides were knocked up at their wedding. Almost 25 percent of first-born children were born out of wedlock completely.
This wasn't some secret that families tried to hide because of the shame. Everyone knew what was going on in every level of society, and no one cared. If anyone in the country was responsible for half the bastards running around, it was the royal family. At one point, only one of Mad King George's 13 children was legally married, yet he had at least 19 and possibly as many as 56 illegitimate grandchildren. And it wasn't like these kids were hidden away; his sons openly lived with (some of) the mothers of their illegitimate children, and it was common knowledge and reported in the press.
If you didn't want that level of commitment, there were always the brothels. Prostitution was not only completely legal, guides were published every year informing men of where to find them, and what sort of things they were willing to do, like a Michelin Guide for ass. By one historian's estimate, in London alone prostitution was the equivalent of a $2 billion a year business.
If it turned out you couldn't stand your partner after you married them, no problem; affairs were unbelievably common as well, especially among the upper classes. Spouses just turned a blind eye to the other's philandering. The Duke of Devonshire even moved his mistress into his home and lived openly with both her and his wife for 25 years, and everyone in the country knew about it. But women gave as good as they got, and the Duchess gave birth to a daughter she conceived during one of her affairs with the future Prime Minister Charles Grey. That would be like if Angelina Jolie cheated on Brad Pitt and had Barack Obama's baby AND NO ONE GAVE A SHIT.
During the Georgian period, it was considered totally normal for the detailed outline of a man's genitals to be completely visible through his trousers.
It goes back to the Ancient Greeks. In their sculptures, women tend to be wearing clothes, or at least have the bottom half of their bodies covered. But the men are letting it all hang out. And since the Western world thought that everything the Greeks did was awesome, that meant men shouldn't be ashamed of showing off their junk in public. In fact, they should be proud of it, and that lead to Georgian men wearing fitted, light-colored tights or pants that were made to let everyone see just how proud they were at any given moment.
Women, on the other hand, went from drowning in fabric to wearing light dresses that would have been lingerie only a few years before. But at some point somebody thought that, while walking around in one's underwear was all well and good, they still weren't really naked enough. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the cloth women used to make their dresses became sheerer and sheerer to the point that they were actually see-through. On top of that, many ladies stopped wearing undergarments or wore a pink body suit to emphasis their nakedity. The coolest, most fashionable women in Paris, called the Merveilleuse, were mocked by caricaturists for basically going out in public half-naked, and the women in England followed their lead.
But still it wasn't enough for the exhibitionists. Soon women were wetting down their dresses so that the fabric was even sheerer and clingier. This led to an outbreak of sickness, especially since wet dresses were just as fashionable in the winter as they were in the summer. But even when doctors warned that their outfits were literally killing them, the ladies wouldn't stop participating in their version of a 24-hour wet T-shirt contest.
Gambling has existed since at least 2300 B.C., but the Georgians made it an obsession. They ate, breathed, and slept gambling. If they ate or slept at all. Legend has it that the Earl of Sandwich invented his eponymous meal because he refused to leave the gaming tables for long enough to eat. And he will give you 4-3 odds that the filling will be ham.
Money during the Georgian period must have been coated with lava or something, because seemingly everyone was trying to throw it away at all times. Poor people played cards in pubs, but the rich wanted more opulent surroundings. When the aristocrats weren't playing roulette until dawn at their country houses, they went to the newly built clubs at which thousands of unbelievably wealthy men and women lost their life savings and inheritances. Yes, women played just as much as men, because when it comes to equality we always seem to get the shitty stuff first.
But what if you were, say, in a carriage and no one had a deck of cards. No problem, just use your imagination. People bet absolutely insane amounts of money on literally anything, like the equivalent of $300,000 on which raindrop would make it to the bottom of the windowpane first. Once a man collapsed on the way into his club and his friends immediately start betting on if he was dead or not.
You could hire instructors to teach you winning tactics for any game that had even the slightest bit of skill involved, but, just like today, having a system hardly ever worked in the end, and people lost money on a truly staggering scale. Member of Parliament Charles Fox, once the Secretary of State, lost the equivalent of almost $20 million in his lifetime, and no one batted an eye (except maybe his father, who paid off most of that debt). Not surprisingly, suicide was endemic among compulsive gamblers.
While in England you could only cheat on your wife and gamble away all your money; you had to go to Scotland for the really filthy stuff. "Gentlemen's Clubs" sprung up around the country during the Georgian period, and the tamest of them might resemble a particularly exciting bachelor party. A typical night involved eating a huge meal and getting sufficiently drunk, dirty songs and toasts, graphic discussions about sex, sharing of pornography, and naked women wandering around for entertainment.
But two clubs, both of which had royal members, went full-on hedonistic.
The Most Ancient and Most Puissant Order of the Beggar's Benison and Merryland, or the Beggar's Benison for short, was named after the blessing a woman supposedly gave to a Scottish king's penis. When you joined you would drink out of cock-and-ball shaped cups like the one above. But even that pales in comparison to the main event of the club. In the 1700s, doctors started getting obsessed with the idea that masturbation was bad for you, and it became frowned on by society. So, obviously, a bunch of rich guys got together and group masturbated onto a plate with an engraving of a penis and vagina on it as a sort of bizarre display of freedom of expression.
Meanwhile, across town at the Wig Club it was more of the same, except that the master of ceremonies wore a wig supposedly made out of the pubic hair of royal mistresses.
These days, all the dirty stuff from these clubs is kept in a museum at the University of St. Andrews, but you need special permission to see it. Not just because it is all so filthy but because, as one staff member said, "We have to be careful. We don't want the story to be, 'University where Prince William went to college has rooms full of porn!'"
Drugs and Alcohol
"But, Kathy," I hear you saying, "I believe that people are basically good. How could so many of them be a part of this debauchery?" Good question, you; and may I say that is a great shirt you are wearing. The answer is simple. Just like today, betting your house, cheating on your wife, and walking around with your genitals visible was a lot easier if you were drunk.
Gin was such a problem in the early 18th century that several laws were passed to try to control it, but this barely stopped its flow. At the height of gin's popularity, the people of London alone were drinking 11 million gallons every year, on top of the gallons of wine and beer they were also drinking. Tens of thousands of people a year died for alcohol-related reasons, including around 9,000 children. Men and women of all levels of society indulged, to the point that public drunkenness was not considered offensive or even particularly noteworthy. Instead of being frowned upon, getting drunk was considered appropriate and masculine, especially for the upper classes.
As with everything else on this list, the Prince of Wales led the charge, getting wasted most nights. He even arrived at his wedding fall-down drunk. He was caricatured as a drunken lout in the press so many times that he actually bribed some artists "not to caricature his majesty in any immoral situation." According to the Duke of Wellington, George had "three parts of a bottle of Mozelle, a glass of dry champagne, two glasses of port, and a glass of brandy" ... with breakfast.
If you couldn't afford gallons of booze a year, you could always do drugs. Specifically, laudanum. A mix of opium and alcohol, it was sold legally (and cheaply) over the counter and recommended for absolutely anything, from a cold to a heart attack. It was also given to infants, even though the addictive properties of opium were well known. Not surprisingly, there were estimated tens of thousands of opium addicts, and when one of them wrote a book about his experiences in 1821, it became a bestseller.
So, just how debauched were the Georgians? Well, historians basically agree they were so bad that the much more repressed Victorian Era was a direct response to the decades of nastiness. In other words, millions of people saw their grandparents acting like drunks and ran for their chastity belts.
For more from Kathy, check out 5 Fictional Stories You Were Taught in History Class and 5 Ways You Sabotage Your Love Life (Explained by Science).