I love thinking about what different decades were like and imagining what it would be like to live in them. I geek out over Downton Abbey along with the best of them. I think about the hair I’d have as a 1920s flapper (probably not a very flattering style considering my curls), the ways in which I’d get from place to place in the 1860s. I live in Gettysburg, PA, so the Civil War is never far from my mind.
But when I came across Sarah Chrisman and her partner Gabriel’s story, I was fascinated. The married couple lives as if they were in the late Victorian era—everything from wearing the clothes, to storing their food in an icebox and bathing with Castile bar soap from a company started in 1839. Basically, this couple is living history. And it’s awesome.
Their story was published on Vox this week and it already has 74K shares on Facebook. People are fascinated by their way of life. But that’s not why they initially started this project. “It’s hard to say who started it. I was the first to start wearing Victorian clothes, but Gabriel, who knew how I’d always admired Victorian ideals and aesthetics, gave them to me as presents, a way for both of us to research a culture we found fascinating,” Sarah writes.
It began with the couple collecting clothing from the period as a way to connect with history, and blossomed into a full immersion into Victorian culture. When their modern appliances broke down, for example, they would replace them with objects from the late 1800s.
“Everything escalated organically from there, and now our whole life revolves around this ongoing research project,” Sarah continues. “No one pays us for it, but we take it more seriously than many people take their paying jobs.” Part of their research project was buying a home in Port Townsend, Washington, that was built in 1988. Together the couple man the house as if it were still 1888 and they were its original owners.
“Our heat comes from 19th-century gas heaters and from an antique kerosene space heater. In the winter we tuck hot water bottles into bed with us, and even the cotton covers that I sewed for those bottles are made from period-appropriate fabric (its designs are copies of fabric patterns from the late 19th century). Our bed itself is an antique from our period of study, and since it didn’t have a mattress when we bought it, I sewed one by hand and stuffed it with feathers.”
They even research their trips using primary source documents from the Victorian era:
“Neither my husband nor I have ever had a cellphone; I’ve never even had a driver’s license. On special outings when Gabriel and I go cycling together, I ride a copy of a high-wheel tricycle from the 1880s. Gabriel has three high-wheel bicycles, and he has ridden them hundreds of miles. On our vacation just last week, we rode our high-wheel cycles more than 75 miles along a historic railroad route between abandoned silver mines. I kept thinking of an article we had read in an 1883 cycling magazine about wheelmen riding bikes just like Gabriel’s when they took a trip out to a mine.”
In many ways, the couple is doing research by living it.
“We’re devoted to getting our own insights and perspectives on the era, not just parroting stereotypes that “everyone knows.” The late Victorian era was an incredibly dynamic time, with so many new and extraordinary inventions it seemed anything was possible. Interacting with tangible items from that time helps us connect with and share that optimism. They help us understand the culture that created them — a culture that believed in engineering durable, beautiful items that could be repaired by their users. Constantly using them helps us comprehend their context. Absorbing the lessons our artifacts teach us shapes our worldview. They are our teachers. Seeing their beauty every day elevates and inspires us, as it did their original owners.”
The couple doesn’t have phones, but luckily for us, they keep a blog and have written several books on their lifestyle and the things they’ve learned by living the way they do.
Unfortunately, the couple often receives unwanted attention from people who don’t understand why they’d want to live the way they do–everything from rude comments to death threats, and physical contact. When they go on outings, they have to come up with plans for how they’ll eat their lunch in peace and how they’ll block people who try to be disrespectful.
In her blog, Sarah writes:
“Reporters often ask me what the most difficult part of my life is. They are invariably surprised when I tell them—without hesitation—that it is dealing with other people’s reactions. The journalists seem to be expecting some plaintive lament about dealing with Victorian technology, but those are the joys of my life. The hardships come from daily dealings with the ignorant.”
Well, Sarah and Gabriel, we’re speaking from the other side: keep doing what you are doing. Keep educating people about history through practice. You are awesome.
See more photos and check out more historical materials on their website.
(Photos published with permission by Estar Hyo-Gyung Choi, Mary Studio)