Euphonia of Philadelphia

I found this story on an episode of QI (series N, episode “Next”).


In 1845, a German inventor named Joseph Faber built a machine called Euphonia of Philadelphia that attempted to simulate human speech. It also had the face and torso of a woman.

The machine had bellows for lungs, a tongue, a larynx made out of wires, reed and levers, and it was operated by a keyboard. There were 16 keys, plus one to open the glottis, and foot pedals. Sounds that came out of Euphonia included laughing, whispering, and singing “God Save the Queen”.

This machine fell right into the Uncanny Valley, though, and it freaked people out. The tongue rolled around in the machine’s mouth and the voice it produced was raspy and creepy.

Faber, who was frustrated with the limits of the machine, destroyed it twice. He destroyed it once and then rebuilt it. He destroyed it a second time and committed suicide.


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Green Sponge Balls

I heard this story on an episode of QI (series N, episode “Next”).

Many of you know that there was a huge Victorian craze for collecting things and scrap-booking. The biggest of these crazes was autograph collection, which we hear about all the time. However, there was also an enormously popular type of collection and scrap-booking that we almost never hear about: seaweed collection.

It was an especially popular pastime amongst wealthy women (as were most collections, really) and even Queen Victoria had a seaweed collection. Despite the fad’s brief popularity, it had an enormous impact. Some species of seaweed, like the green sponge ball, were so coveted and over-collected that it completely damaged the species. As far as I’m aware, there are no longer any green sponge balls anywhere near the UK to this day, as that species in particular never recovered from its Victorian popularity.

Somewhat tangentially, it was around this time that the very first book of photographs was  published. In 1843, Anna Atkins (who is often thought to be the world’s first female photographer), published Photographs of British Algae. It was privately published and quickly overshadowed by William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, which was published commercially eight months later.

Only 17 copies of Atkins’s book are known to exist today (and some of those are in various states of completeness).

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False Ears

Just a really quick one today. This story was originally in the Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 6 April 1867.

False ears of flesh colour india-rubber have been invented for the use of ladies with large ears. They are used in front of the real ears, which are drawn back and concealed under the hair“.

A quick Google has not revealed any images of this beauty produce, assuming they ever actually existed in the first place. If anyone can find me any images, I will happily upload the images here!

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BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 4 Years

Yesterday was my four-year anniversary for this blog! Wow, I have spent a considerable amount of time cussing and talking about dicks. As I said on this anniversary a couple of years ago, this blog “started out a place for me to vent, since I have to be so painfully professional and analytical in my day-to-day work as a PhD student. Sometimes you just need to drop an f-bomb or 75.”

It’s been a big year for me, and for the blog. My PhD studies are now over, I’ve published a total of four articles in academic journals, hosted two international conferences, am working on turning my thesis into a book, and–most importantly–got a job as a university lecturer in English literature. It’s been a wild ride and I’m not entirely sure I could have gotten through it with my sanity in tact if I didn’t have this blog.

If you’d like the 20132014, or 2015 Years In Review, here they are!

As for this year? Well, here are some highlights:

1.) We’ve have some hilariously Bad Book Covers: Pamela, Ivanhoe, Anne of Green Gables, Vanity Fair, Turn of the Screw, She, and The Jungle Book.

2.) I’ve also introduced, with my friend @VictorianMasculinity, a series called “Victorian Snark Theatre 3000”. We’ve recapped Dracula 2000Vanity FairThe Man in the Iron Mask, and The Raven. Coming up soon is Titanic, so keep an eye out for that.

3.) There’s been some weird sex stuff, like grown-ass men who fall in love with children and then get scared by public hair. Or another who died getting a blow-job from his mistress. Oops. Or one gentleman who decided to be the utmost authority on porn.

4.) We’ve also seen some badass women, like Catherine the Great and her terrifying vagina. Or one rural beauty who shot a guy in the face at a ball, rather than take any of his shit. French author Colette had a performance so raunchy that it scandalized even the Moulin Rouge. The fabulous Countess Castiglioni spent her entire fortune on having her photograph taken in hundreds of elaborate costumes (which she used to threaten her estranged husband). The Marchioness of Londonderry gave snobbery a new meaning. There was one scientific woman who carried a kangeroo fetus around in her purse. And another who crashed through the glass ceiling of natural history.

5.) I also looked into more mundane (but still hellishly interesting) aspects of Victorian life. What did the Victorians do with their rubbish? Why was the Victorian era not as clean as Hollywood tells us it was? Where did the Victorians store things if they had no storage space? How did they clean their carpets or bedding? How did they exterminate pests and vermin? What were the rules for mourning? How did they raise their children? What were some examples of Victorian pregnancy tests?

6.) There’s been some odd encounters with animals. One woman was rescued by a lobster. Two elephants were viciously, ostentatiously killed.

7.) In addition to the Bad Book Covers posts, there are a couple of examinations of artwork in the nineteenth century. One shows erotic sexy fun-times with a manic horse. Another, the ridiculous downfall of a respectable wife. Or one brave woman’s near-trampling by horses to get the perfect perspective for her painting. And we can never, ever forget mass mermaid erotica.

8.) There’s always some good examples of fucked-up “science”, like the fear of “tropical ovaries“. One medical cure-all treated everything from cancer to elephantiasis, but not hard corns. Novels apparently cause anxiety. One disreputable family “proved” the claims of both of the opposed eugenics and social welfare movements. The ‘pleasures’ of the water-cure were illustrated in twelve hilarious movements.

9.) We saw some ugly Victorian jewelry, too! Including berthas, earrings made from taxidermied bird heads, Queen Victoria’s bracelet, which was set with the baby teeth of all her children (nope nope nope), and some incredibly expensive jewelry made to look like flies (whyyyyy???).

10.) There were some aristocratic dudes who led perfectly strange lives.

11.) There were also plenty of divas in the form of courtesans.

12.) Finally, we looked at nineteenth-century murders-by-poison, including: arsenic, cyanide, digitalis, hemlock, monkshood, nicotine, opium, phosphorus, strychnine,

These are, by no means, all of the posts I wrote this year, so enjoy a bit of a catch-up if you missed anything.

I’m going to keep up my Monday-Wednesday-Friday posting schedule and will happily keep this going for a fifth year!

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Nora Hildebrandt

I hear this story on an episode of QI (series N, episode “Naval Navigation”).


Nora Hildebrandt was America’s very first professional tattooed lady (that we know about, anyway). She had 365 separate tattoos, and she claimed that she received them after she was captured by Sitting Bull and his tribe, who tied her to a tree and gave her a new tattoo every day for a year.

In reality, her dad was a tattoo artist and gave her all of the tattoos as a way of promoting his business. I suppose like a living design book. I sincerely hope he also gave her the tattoos because she wanted them.

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Geneviève Lantelme

I am continuing my posts about nineteenth-century courtesans from Susan Griffin’s The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of their Virtues (2001). The following story is about Genevieve Lantelme (or Lanthelme), who was a French actress, socialite, and courtesan.

boldini_mademoiselle_lantelme genevieve_lantelme_by_leopold-emile_reutlinger_-_008-b

In 1906, Genevieve Lanthelme was the mistress of a man named Alfred, who had recently put Lanthelme in a fashionable apartment and furnished it expensively.

Lanthelme was probably very surprised to receive a visitor one day: Misia Sert, Alfred’s wife.  Misia entered the house and was searched for weapons by Lanthelme’s maid (presumably introducing herself as Alfred’s wife had given the maid some indication that she should expect an ugly confrontation).

“Misia, a theatrical producer and powerful presence herself, studied Alfred’s lover closely. Copying her style of dress, she had rehearsed a dramatic appeal. ‘You have a woman’s heart,’ she had planned to say, before she demanded, ‘Give him back!’ But she was never able to deliver her lines” (87).

Lanthelme greeted Misia warmly, showered her with compliments, discussed Misia’s upcoming theatre projects, and asked Misia if she could help her in any way. “Flustered, Misia simply said she had come to speak about her husband.

“‘There is nothing at all to worry about,’ Lanthelme began; ‘he hardly interests me.’

“But then she changed her approach.

“‘My dear, you can really have him – on three conditions: I want the pearl necklace you’re wearing, one million francs – and you.’

“Shocked, Misia removed her necklace immediately and, ignoring the last request, promised that Lanthelme would receive a million francs from her in a few days. But moments after she returned to her hotel, she received a package containing the necklace. Inside was a note written on cyclamen-colored paper, in which Lanthelme proposed, ‘I have decided to forget the money and return the necklace. I am holding you only to the third condition‘ (88)”.

I have no idea if a liaison between the two women ever happened, but Wikipedia tells me that a few years later, Alfred (presumably) divorced Misia and married Lanthelme in 1909.

However, their marriage was not to last long: Lanthelme died in very mysterious circumstances in 1911 when she fell from her husband’s yacht and drowned. Her death was ruled accidental, but many people speculated that her husband murdered her.


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The Earth is Flat

I’ve been reading Umberto Eco’s really fun text, The Book of Legendary Lands (2013) and discovered a fun Victorian fact.

Everyone knows that in the medieval era, everyone thought the world was flat, and Columbus discovered the Americas in part because he was trying to circumnavigate the globe, to prove it was round, and to end up in India, right?

Except all of this is wrong. 

Eco tells us that people have known the world was spherical since ancient Greece. “Parmenides seems to have guessed its spherical nature, while Pythagoras held that it was spherical for mystical-mathematical reasons [and] subsequent demonstrations of the roundness of the Earth were based on empirical observations: see the texts by Plato and Aristotle. Doubts about sphericity linger in Democritus and Epicurus, and Lucretius denies the existence of the Antipodes, but in general for all of late antiquity, the spherical form of the Earth was no longer debated” (11).

Eco goes on to list a great number of scientific and literary sources from antiquity, through the classical age, the early dark ages, all the way through the high middle ages, that accept as a matter of common knowledge that the Earth is round.

“Naturally, Ptolemy knew the Earth was round; otherwise he would not have been able to divide it into 360 degrees. Eratosthenes also knew this, because in the third century BC, he had made a pretty good calculation of the length of the terrestrial meridian . . . . So why has it long been believed, and why do many still believe to this day . . . that the original Christian world had abandoned Greek science and returned to the idea of the flat Earth?” (12).

The answer, as you may have guessed, is because of the Victorians. The Medieval Revival in the nineteenth century was huge, as were discoveries in archaeology, sociology, and history. People were obsessed with their origins and histories, so naturally the medieval era became a particular source of interest.

However, despite their intellectual leaps forward, the Victorians were wonderful revisionists. They are the reason why we all seem to think that Vikings had helmets with horns on them (Vikings never wore anything like that), and they were also the reason why we think nude statues from the Renaissance were sculpted with olive leaves over their genitals (they weren’t–the leaves are bits of plaster that the Victorians put over the private parts long after the fact, for the purposes of modesty).

Eco writes, “Nineteenth-century secular thinkers, irritated by the fact that various religious denominations were opposing evolutionism, attributed the idea of the flat Earth to the whole of Christian thinking (both patristic and scholastic). It was a matter of demonstrating that, just as they had been wrong about the spherical form of the Earth, so the churches could be wrong about the origin of species.

So they exploited a Christian author of the fourth century, Lactantius (in his Divine Institutes). Because the Bible describes the universe in the form of the Tabernacle, and hence in a quadrangular shape, Lactantius opposed the pagan theories about the roundness of the Earth” (12-13).

So, basically, a few Victorian writers and thinkers, frustrated with religious resistance to evolution, found the ONE fringe medieval Christian dude with some completely wackadoo ideas about a flat Earth, held him up as a standard for the entire medieval Church, and said, “Well, if the Church was willing to believe this nonsense, they can clearly be wrong about other stuff! Like evolution!”

This is despite the fact that most medieval people, and certainly all educated people associated with the Church, would have absolutely believed in the scientific evidence from centuries past that the Earth was round.

As a side note, the author Lactantius also didn’t believe in the Southern hemisphere, because he couldn’t comprehend how you would be able to walk “upside down” without falling off the Earth. Even though this was a concept that most people at the time had no problem understanding.

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