Victorian Speed of Life: The Video

Having suitably intrigued you about the projection shown on Victorian Light Night and/or made you sorry you missed it, we are excited to share video footage of “Victorian Speed of Life”, the light and sound show which arose from a research collaboration between Professor Sally Shuttleworth (and the Diseases of Modern Life team), and Ross Ashton and Karen Monid, aka The Projection Studio.

The show is designed to highlight areas of Diseases of Modern Life research on the experience of the pressures of life within the Victorian period. Of the many represented, see if you can spot sequences relating to the rise of the railways, (over)connectivity via the telegraph, environmental pollution, and the retreat to sea or countryside (places which, in turn, became overcrowded sites of pollution). And if you find today’s advertising annoying, there’s a nice sample of Victorian medical adverts here to reassure you that this particular strand of information overload was shared by your ancestors… Enjoy!


A Disease-Free World: The Hygienic Utopia

This is a guest post by Dr Manon Mathias, a Lecturer in French at the University of Aberdeen. Dr Mathias has published several book chapters and journal articles on the nineteenth-century novel, particularly the works of George Sand, and her monograph, Vision in the Novels of George Sand, was published by Oxford University Press in 2016. She has also examined the relations between the novel and science, and recently published a journal article on Sand and Flaubert’s readings of Georges Cuvier’s geohistory in French Studies. She is now embarking on a new project examining the digestive system in nineteenth-century French medicine and culture.

Many take a gung-ho approach to hygiene today in the belief that a bit of dirt is good for us. Warnings of antimicrobial resistance seem to justify this position. But at the same time, poor hygiene looms large in health campaigns and adverts as the key agent in spreading colds and viruses. Food poisoning, mostly caused by unwashed hands, also allegedly costs the UK economy nearly £1.5bn a year. It was in the nineteenth century, however, that the fixation with hygiene and its links with disease first came into prominence.

Public hygiene was essential in the emergence of modern Western societies, and France and Britain were the leading nations in this field. It was also in France that the germ theory of disease was born with Pasteur’s work in bacteriology. The realisation that germs spread through human contact in particular led to an acute fear of dirt and an increased obsession with hygiene.

Hygiene in Science Fiction

begums-fortune©Images copyright Andrew Nash 2011

French and English novels from this period provide special insights into views on hygiene and disease, especially in science fiction visions of alternative societies. Leading popularisers of science, Jules Verne and Camille Flammarion, both wrote such novels in the 1880s. Begum’s Fortune (1880) by Verne features a model city of health and longevity created by French hygienist Dr Sarrasin. Despite Verne’s knowledge of the latest developments in disease and its links with hygiene, however, Bégum is more concerned with the implications for society.

Jules Verne

In Sarrasin’s ‘City of Wellbeing’, although illness is virtually eradicated, the focus on hygiene is relentless and the lifestyle repressive. The inhabitants’ psychological and emotional health goes unmentioned and at the peak crisis of the book, when the population faces extermination, they exhibit no ‘disorderly emotion’ such as fear or anger and are ‘in thrall’ to Sarrasin. In this germ-free city, the absence of dirt and disease entails the absence of passion, excitement, and independence of thought.

Camille Flammarion


ERB Text, ERB Images and Tarzan® are ©Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.- All Rights Reserved.
All Original Work ©1996-2011 by Bill Hillman and/or Contributing Authors/Owners

Flammarion’s Urania of 1889 goes yet further in its setting and take on hygiene. In this text, two Martians explain that life on earth is a ‘total failure’ due to our reliance on the body. Once the digestive system developed and we began eating other beings, we became base, monstrous and unclean. On Mars, by contrast, they feed themselves through breathing and produce no bodily dejections. But the release from the body comes at a price. The Martians are compared with electrical appliances and live without passion or sexual pleasure.

In both Verne and Flammarion’s texts, the ultimate dirty substance, excrement, is mentioned only to be denied. In Bégum, the ‘products of the sewers’ are immediately expelled and transported to the countryside. In Uranie, the lack of digestion makes excrement non-existent. Intimately bound up with this removal or absence is a rational rejection of disease and infection but also a more indirect rejection of passion, physicality and desire.

William Morris



These portrayals of hygienic utopias can be compared with William Morris’s vision of a twenty-first-century London free from filth, crime and disease. In contrast with Flammarion’s text and Verne’s Bégum, Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) offers an apparently anxiety-free view of excrement and there is a freedom and openness towards the body in this novel where desire is a central and valued force in society.

Public Health

Morris’s less troubled approach to the body might be explained by the more advanced state of public health reform in Britain. The prohibition of cesspits and linking of homes with sewers, for example, had been achieved in London by the late 1840s whereas this did not happen in France until the early twentieth century. Britain also passed its first Public Health Act in 1848 but France had to wait until 1902.

health-act-3Public Health Act of 1848 (

Excrement: residue of the past?

However, excrement is mentioned in Morris’s novel to refer back to nineteenth-century society as a place of dirt and depravity, and America is described as ‘a stinking dung heap’. Both allusions use human waste to denigrate societies distanced from the speaker in space or time. Many theorists of disgust interpret faeces as a hostile residue of the past and our revulsion towards the substance as a fear of our own death. Such interpretations are especially relevant to News from Nowhere where people know nothing of the past and are horrified by references to social history. This erasure of the past is, I would suggest, related to the negative understanding of the dung heap, and the novel creates a more complex vision of dirt and disease than at first it seems.

Although News from Nowhere offers a more positive approach to the body than Bégum or Uranie and even seems to valorise waste (with the ‘dustman’, for example, highly valued in society), the denial of the past and use of excremental imagery to vilify others reveals underlying anxieties towards the body and its ephemerality.

Scholars of history and sociology point to increasing disgust levels as constitutive of the modern Western subject. But the novels examined here do not present the phenomenon in entirely non-problematic terms. The portrayals of utopian hygienic societies reveal instead the fluctuating and contradictory nature of our modern understanding of filth, disease, and attitudes towards the human body.

Manon Mathias

The Menace of the Barber Shop

In 1904 The Lancet considered the many risks to health posed by modern life. The collecting together of more and more people in the bustling spaces of the city was, they wrote, a perfect means of disseminating infection. ‘Everything used in common must teem with bacteria, from the cab or the omnibus to the telephone’; bus conductors held coins between their teeth before pressing them into the hands of passengers; and supposedly healthy convalescent homes crowded sickly patients together like hothouse flowers.

V0019668 A barber shaving a man; another man sits in the background a

Wellcome Library, London.

Even the most innocuous of places could pose grave health risks, and The Lancet was particularly concerned with one: the barber shop. This was an establishment that catered to a large number of people in quick succession, all of them in direct bodily contact with the barber and his tools. Medical concern about barber shops was evident both in Europe and America. A doctor speaking to the American Public Health Association in 1897 recalled that he had recently seen a man in his surgery whose face was ‘covered with eruptions’. After finishing his day’s work, the doctor went to the barber’s and, as he waited his turn, saw that the man in the chair was his earlier patient. Leaving with some haste, he ‘resolved that his face should never again be shaved by a barber’.

We might assume that the central concern when discussing the barber’s role in the transmission of infection was the razor. Accidental nicks and cuts were an ideal way of transmitting potentially serious infection from one person to another, especially if equipment was not sterilized after each customer. Certainly, barbers were – from the end of the nineteenth century – more aware of such dangers. The Progressive Barber (1909) – a guide produced by the Wisconsin State Barbers’ Board – forcefully underlined the seriousness of taking good care with razors, asking readers how they would feel if they were responsible for the transmission of syphilis.


V0019622 A head of a barber made up of the tools of his trade. Engrav

A head of a barber made up of the tools of his trade. Wellcome Library, London.

More often, though, concern centred on the less evocative implements of the barber’s trade: sponges, powder puffs, towels, combs, and brushes. These were thought to aid the spread of various skin diseases, from ‘barber’s itch’ (ringworm) to impetigo and eczema. As dermatology developed more fully as a specialism in the last quarter of the century – with the establishment of the British Journal of Dermatology in 1888, for example – there was increasing interest in the epidemiology of such conditions. Doctors repeatedly drew attention to the shaving brush as a vehicle of infection. Unlike metal implements such as scissors and razors, shaving brushes were not regularly sterilized and were often used on several customers in succession, swirled around in a common soap bowl of lukewarm water.

To reduce the risk of infection ‘the principles of the operating-room [were] extended to the barber’s shop’, echoing the barber’s older role as surgeon. Metal combs – easily sterilized – began to replace bone and celluloid; styptic pencils (to staunch bleeding from small cuts) were done away with; powder puffs were discarded in favour of cotton wool; and paper towels recommended in place of cloth. By the early years of the twentieth century, the barber’s trade had a much more ‘scientific’ air about it than it had fifty years previously. The Progressive Barber provided short biology lessons to the reader, listing conditions of the skin that signified serious disease, and setting out detailed instructions for the making-up of antiseptic solutions – the barber had become a sort of public health inspector and chemist rolled into one. The manual concluded its advice with a stern warning that signified this vision of the trade as one that was au fait with modern hygienic developments: ‘Condemned Relics of the Old-Time Barber Shop’.


For much more on the history of barber’s, and the relationship between hair and health, I recommend popping over to Dr Alun Withey’s blog.