Monday, February 28, 2011

Victorian Resources for the Curious Steampunk (and the re-creationist)

Greetings, dear visitor.  Please have a cup of tea, or cordial, or, if you are currently enduring the grippe, as I am, I do have a small selection of remedies you may try ... perhaps a cup of bracing Peruvian Wine of Coca (wondrous sustaining powers) or perhaps you may wish to indulge in a pinch of Siberian Catarrh Snuff (I normally don't touch the stuff, but this is guaranteed to produce immediate relief of sore throat, nasal catarrh, hayfever, or cold in the head).

I thought today I could recommend a very small sampling of interesting resources for the steampunk looking for inspiration from the past, or the Victorian recreationist seeking ideas.  I am an avid bookhound, and I would like to share with you a couple of my favourite resources for day-to-day aspects of Victorian life.

As a costumer, the first couple of things I will recommend to you relate to costuming.  Alas, these largely involve women's attire, but gentlemen, I do have suggestions for you later.

The first book is Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper's Bazar 1867 - 1898 (published by Dover). 
This book contains 1000 illustrations, giving excellent black and white drawings of the variety of fashions current during the specified years.  It's a great resource for inspiration to make / craft your own outfit.  Dresses, cloaks, hats, parasols, hairstyles, are all shown here.  Many outfits are shown in front and back views.  For those interested, children's outfits are also shown periodically.

The book second is Victorian & Edwardian Fashions for Woman 1840-1949, by Kristina Harris (published by Schiffer).
This text is geared for the fashion collector, to give information on authenticating garments and on appropriate pricing.  However, this book provides actual photographs (many in colour, often on modern models) of period garments.  This book is good for the dieselpunk as well as the steampunk, with its inclusion of garments from the first half of the 20th century.

Admittedly, these books are geared for women's costumes.  Alas, there is less available for men (and, as a gal, I've been spending my pennies on women's fashion).  However, men can find similar information in Men's Clothing and Fabrics in the 1890's (another Schiffer guide for fashion collectors, though admittedly limited to a single decade) and Men's Fashion Illustrations from the Turn of the Century (another Dover book).
Men's fashion information can also be gleaned from the following two resources.  

One of the best views into day-to-day living is the old-fashioned catalogue.  Two reproductions which are easily available are two North American department store catalogues, both from Chicago (and both published by Skyhorse Publishing):  Sears Roebuck & Co Catalgue from 1897 and the Montgomery Ward & Co Catalogue from 1895.
These volumes are fascinating.  In the Victorian years, you could order everything from dry goods (tinned foods, flour, sugar, salt) and drugs, to shoes, dresses, suits, coats, and undergarments, to carriages, furniture, and farm equipment, to valises, trunks, and guns.  A stroll through one of these volumes is truly a stroll through the daily life of the North American Victorian person.  Men, you can find sections in here on suits, vests, coats, shoes, shirts, hats, and undergarments.  Here's a wee taste for you:
These catalogues provide an endless supply of ideas and inspirations for makers, costumers, those seeking character ideas, recreationists, and those wanting to decorate a space or make their artwork more accurate in detail.  I lost hours wading through the sections - guns, farm equipment, cookware, undergarments, personal items, purses, luggage, carriages, fashion, furniture, pocketwatches, jewelry, hats, etc.  My favourite remains the "drug department", which makes for a highly entertaining read.  Sears Roebuck sold an alarming array of quack cures, all "guanteed immediate results" and "guaranteed harmless" (two of which I mentioned above, in today's welcome to my salon).   I won't spoil your fun by listing all my favourites.  Perhaps I will save that for a separate entry on quack cures.

Another similar resource, which I lucked into used from, is The Victorian Catalogue of Household Goods (published by Studio Editions)
This is essentially a wholesale catalogue for retailers - it lists no prices, but has detailed drawings of everyday household objects and ornate luxury items.

If you are interested in the social history of Victorian London, then I strongly recommend reading Molly Hughes' autobiography, A London Family: 1870-1900 (published by Oxford University Press).  You will likely have to look for this in used condition.
This is a combined publishing of three separate books by Mary Vivian Hughes (M.V. Hughes): A London Child of the 1870s, A London Girl of the 1880s, and A London Home in the 1890s.  This book is a very personal and somewhat rambling work, but I found it a compelling read, and it gives a view into the era from a first-hand point of view.

A modern text which gives an excellent view into domestic social history is The Victorian House by Judith Flanders (published by Harper Perennial).
This modern work gives a detailed view into the domestic life of an average English Victorian household, by taking you from room to room.  While the focus is on the new Victorian middle class, you also see glimpses of the life of the serving class, as well as the upper class.  It provides intimate details gleaned from contemporary diaries, letters, domestic texts, cookbooks, and novels.  If you like to see how the daily life was lived, I can't recommend this book enough.

This by no means pretends to be anything close to a comprehensive list of resources.  However, I thought I would share the resource book which I have discovered, and which have entertained me and provided me with extensive information about what is truly a fascinating time period.  And perhaps I will assist someone in finding the book they were looking for.

Carry on, good people, in your steampunk endeavors.  As for me, my catarrh is worsening, and I must make myself another hot tisane with honey and lemon (perhaps I shall try that Siberian Snuff ... my neighbour insists that her husband's brother swears by it). 


  1. Excellent review of a wide assortment of resource material. The catalogs are a brilliant idea.

  2. That is a fantastic collection of books. I am envious.

  3. Such a wonderful collection! I love those vintage mens clothes. Thanks for sharing.