Horrible Histories: Victorian Slang

Horrible Histories is a British historical comedy series for kids that was started in 2009. A lot like Histeria! from the late 90’s, this series takes historical fact and turns it on its head to inform in amusing fashion. I featured one of their clips earlier this year entitled Victorian Inventions that you should definitely check out if you missed.

Steampunks of all persuasions will likely be interested in another of Horrible Histories’ TV clips, Victorian Slang. Check it out below:

Whether you’re in to writing, character acting or history in general, you’re likely to find this helpful for adding a bit of a historical anchor to your character. You’ll be delighted to learn that there’s many other installments of Horrible Histories, and I feel they’re a great resource and an accessible medium for learning tidbits of history, invaluable for the armchair historian. Heck, if you’ve got a sense of humor, you’re at least likely to be amused and in my opinion, that’s invaluable in and of itself.

Virtual New York City

New York City is, arguably, the seat of American culture and identity. It’s sheer size and diversity has made it the quintessential American city, and as a result, has an impressive (at least, in term of American history) legacy spanning back hundreds of years.

Virtual New York City is a website dedicated to the history and people of New York City, and is an invaluable resource for those of you interested in New York during the Victorian era. It’s maintained by the New Media Lab at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and is chock full of information that is available no where else on the internet.

This is a work in progress, and their Disasters exhibit their first of what will surely be many, so if this sort of thing interests you, be sure to bookmark it and check back often!

The Théâtrophone

Today’s is the last post, for at least a few days, of Victorian history and tech likely to be of interest to Steampunks. You can blame my history major on the recent rash of historically focused posts. I find this sort of thing fascinating and very pertinent to my interest in Steampunk, so there.

Back in the day, there was a creation called the Théâtrophone that allowed its subscribers to listen to theater and opera performances via their telephones. The Théâtrophone evolved from a Clément Ader invention, which was first demonstrated in 1881, in Paris. And to think that all this time, I thought that listening to music on our phones was something of a modern development.

A recent article on the Scientific American blog entitled In 1892 Live Music Was Just a Phone Call Away by Mary Karmelek explains the origins and functionality of the Théâtrophone.

Victorian London.org

Continuing on yesterday’s history lesson, I found another excellent resource for history lovers. This one, however, focuses on Victorian London and is packed full of interesting reading material on the subject.

Victorian London.org is an archive and resource for people interested in learning more about how life was lived in the seat of the British Empire.

What is particularly interesting about this website is all the primary resources and documentations available for your perusal. There’s all kinds of topic here for your exploration, from Religion and Science to Politics and Crime. Primary resources on so many facets of Victorian life can often times be hard to get a hold of, making Victorian London.org a invaluable site for anyone interested in the historical backbone of Steampunk.

Also of interest is the website’s extensive dictionary of Victorian terminology and slang, which both writers and character actors will likely find interesting and informative.

The Meigs Elevated Railway

Occasionally, in my wanderings throughout the internet, I stumble across some piece of weird Victorian technology that upon first glance seems better suited for a science fiction novel of the time. Like, for example, the various steam powered contraptions I featured here a while ago that actually worked. They’re part of the larger “road not taken” as steam power was replaced with electricity and diesel.

One such invention caught me particularly by surprise, The Meigs Elevated Railway was among the first monorails to be created in the United States. An article from Scientific American published on July 10, 1886 features the Meigs Elevated Railway and explains how it was constructed and works.

I was a bit surprised to realize that the history of monorails went so far back. The images associated with this article look like they were pulled straight from a period novel, too.

If you find yourself interested in these old articles, you’ll be facinated to know that this article was pulled from a much larger Catskill Archive which preserves all sorts of information pertaining to the history of the Catskill Mountains. Be sure to visit the archives.

The Polari Dictionary

Steampunk writers and actors who are interested in adding a bit of historically accurate flavor to their characters’ linguistics will be particularly interested in tonight’s post. In the Victorian era, there was a lexicon used by an impressive assortment of interesting people in Britain including actors, circus and fairground showmen, criminals, prostitutes, and by the gay subculture.

It was called Polari and though it’s origins are hard to pin down, it is believed that the slang was used as early as the the 16th century and was particularly prevalent during the 19th century. The reasons for the use of the language and the history behind it is a particularly interesting one (even by my history major standards!) so do be sure to check out Polari: A Sociohistorical Study of the Life and Decline of a Secret Language, an undergraduate dissertation by Ms. Heather Taylor of the University of Manchester.

To start sprinkling Polari into your latest character creation, be sure to visit and thoroughly peruse the Polari Dictionary.

Slightly Steampunk: The Archaeology of a Dress

Back in the Victorian period, a lot more thought and effort went into the production of clothing and fashion than our modern world has the patience to tolerate. Some of the love for a well put together wardrobe has been resurrected in Steampunk, but I’ve yet to see anything quite to level of intricacy as the topic of today’s post.

Back in 1888, a actress by the name of Ellen Terry was captivating audiences with her evocative performances of stages’ most enduring characters. Her performance of Lady MacBeth in Shakespeare’s MacBeth was as celebrated as the dress she wore:

Adorned with a thousand  jewel beetle wings (which they shed naturally) the dress was and still is considered one of the greatest theater costumes ever created. It came to reside in Smallhythe Place, Terry’s former home and survived the passage of time and several alterations.

Conservation for this 120 year old masterpiece started two years ago and was only recently completed, requiring 1,300 hours of work to preserve an essential piece of Victorian theatrical history. To read more about this impressive undertaking, check out Past Horizon’s article, The Archaeology of a Dress. There, you can read more about the melding of science and art to preserve this dress for many years to come. Here is the dress after two years of painstaking work, returned to its former beauty and glory:

The Steam Powered Automobile

Steam powered carriages and automobiles might seem like something straight from a Steampunk novel, but we actually have a long though somewhat mixed record of successful attempts at building a steam powered motor vehicle. For the entire historical breakdown, check out this article.

One of the first attempts at a steam powered automobile was the 1802 Trevithick Steam Carriage. This fully operational machine was built in an effort to address the increasing difficulty of keeping horses in rapidly industrializing urban centers where is was more attractive to use arable land to support a booming population.

Although the thing did work, the carriage was far more expensive to construct and operate than the traditional horse drawn carriages. The first model also came to a rather tragic end as it set fire to the shed it was in and was destroyed while Trevithick and Co. were in a pub celebrating the carriage’s successful first run. Bummer.

So while the technological capabilities for a steam driven automobile in the Victorian period was theoretically possible, it was largely impractical and expensive to actually execute. Steam power was largely regulated to the vehicles that could manage the large steam engine: boats and trains. Other models beyond the 1802 Trevithick Steam Carriage were attempted and even encountered some degree of success, like this 1899 Locomobile Steam Car.


For many Steampunks out there, history plays a large role in our fascination with the subculture. The notion that life and its nuances was profoundly different on so many levels during the Victorian era brings an sense of respect for antiquated things.

I’m also something of an architecture buff, which goes hand in hand with history when visiting or living in cities that have a culture of preservation. I love buildings that feel like they have character, that they came from a time when even the edifices were handmade with care and the intent to create something beautiful.

But things happen to buildings. There’s fires, earthquakes, war, failure to live up to modern safety standards… buildings become obsolete or crumble and something modern gets put up in its place. Perhaps it gets remodeled and it doesn’t recall it’s former charm. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that the world’s buildings were not always built primarily from steel and glass.

Sepiatown is a website that recalls the architecture of yesteryear, plotting photos of the old buildings on Google Maps in its former location. Browsing Sepiatown is like taking a walk down past streets as they once were. It’s one of the closest experiences you’ll have to seeing buildings long destroyed by the march of time besides hoping in a time machine and seeing it all for yourself.

Mythbusters Steam Machine Gun

The American Civil War was a horrific period in our nation’s short history as the nation turned inward and nearly tore itself apart in four horrific years of internal strife. Advancements in industry made it one of the first modern wars, as railroads, the telegraph, steamships, and mass-produced weapons were employed extensively.

One of those weapons had lived on as something of myth and legend, a supposed steam powered machine gun. Turns out there was such a thing called the Winans Steam Gun. Recently, the Mythbusters attempted to replicate the weapon to see its capabilities. Check out the video below to see the results:

The gun itself is not very effective, but does show an impressive step in steam-driven warfare. For more information on various steam driven firearms, be sure to visit the Strange Engines blog which features all manner of steam driven guns from the Civil War and “other curiosities.”