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Why Victorian Women Turned to Pseudoscience to Try to Understand Love

In the pursuit of love, women turned to raw beef masks, seances, and other beliefs not based in fact.
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For the better part of the 19th century, the Western world took on a fascination with a variety of pseudosciences, or theories that lack a basis in the scientific method, to explain the more baffling questions about human beings and the universe. "Definitions of science were malleable and hotly contested in the 19th century," says Jennifer Tucker, associate professor of modern history at Wesleyan University. "Far from being on the sidelines of intellectual life, spiritualism and other unconventional forms of knowledge often provided a means for Victorians from a variety of different social backgrounds to question scientific authority and to ask what counted as a proper science, or as a 'scientific practice.'"


While Victorians hoped to use these more spiritual scientific strategies to answer some of man's biggest questions, they also used the techniques to explore the topics that continue to fascinate us today: love, sex, and romance. "One of the great myths about the Victorian age [was] that it was sexually repressive; on the contrary, Victorian society was obsessed with sexual reform, heterosexual and homosexual love, lust, and sex (as well as of the policing of sexual desires)," says Tucker. "Love and sex were both controversial and politicized."

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Phrenology, the belief that the measurements of a person's skull reveal the keys to their intellect and personalities, is one of the most well-known pseudosciences from the era. (It is now most commonly associated as an example of scientific racism, since practitioners used it as evidence of white racial superiority.) But phrenology was also used to explain the propensities of the sexes towards love and sexual desire. Phrenologists believed that the organ of "amativeness," which controlled sexual feeling, was found at the bump of the base of the skull. The idea that men's brains were larger than women's also gave an explanation to the belief that they were more sexual. Johann Gasper Spurzheim, a German doctor and a so-called innovator of phrenology, wrote in his book Outlines of Phrenology, "In the special faculty designated amativeness, inheres that feeling which is called physical love; its manifestation depends on the cerebellum, because the appetite appears with the development of this part, and is in relation to its size. In children, for instance, the cerebellum is smaller than in adults, and in women and females it is less than in men and males." Phrenologists believed that the larger a person's amative faculty was, the more inclined towards romance they were, and the more agreeable and attractive they were towards the opposite sex. (If the size of the amative area was too large, however, the person could be prone to obscenity.) Phrenology became very popular, and many people refused to marry without first seeing a phrenological reading of their spouse.


If a girl couldn't attract a man with the shape of her head, she thought she could do so with one of the many dangerous, pseudoscientific love potions the era offered. One of the most popular beauty standards of the era was to look like a person dying of consumption, a.k.a. tuberculosis, because people considered the disease romantic. According to Atlas Obscura, women would munch on arsenic wafers to get the pale look of a dying person and put poisonous belladonna drops in their eyes, so their pupils would dilate and their eyes would water. When they wanted to decrease their wrinkles, women also covered their faces in slices of raw beef before bedtime. (The practice was a precursor to today's popular sheet masks.)

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If you managed to use it to land a man, pseudoscience could also find a home in your bedroom. A number of bizarre pseudoscientific myths about sex and fertility abounded in 19th century society. Victorian doctors believed that children inherited the personality of their parent who had the strongest orgasm during conception. For men who couldn't get it up in the bedroom, a number of aphrodisiacs existed: bulls testicles, which were thought to be high in testosterone, were popular, as well as the old standby arsenic, which was found in libido pills. For women who couldn't get any at all, there was the myth of "hysteria," the affliction thought to affect women who were sexually frustrated. Doctors thought hysteria caused anxiety and erratic behavior. Vibrators were first invented as a cure for the so-called disease, and doctors used them on women to provide them orgasms and help them find relief.

While many of the pseudoscientific myths of the Victorian age seem cruel and oppressive by today's standards, Tucker says that the pseudosciences also could offer relief from the rigid gender politics of the time. Women found freedom through Victorian spiritualism, which included practicing séances with the dead; mesmerism, the belief that "animal magnetism" was used to move energy through bodies; and a general interest in the occult.

"For some, Spiritualism was an amusing parlor game; for others, it was a life-long scientific passion," says Tucker. "It became a way for the disenfranchised to exercise roles in social power… women were often mediums; for example, the American suffragette and the first woman to run for president of the United States, Victoria Woodhull led a fascinating life as a spiritualist. Spiritualist séances were entertaining but also spaces in which transgressions of the sexual, social, and gendered order were enabled by the presence of 'spirits.'"

Victorians were also surprisingly progressive on what would eventually evolve into more enlightened views on gender. "Theosophists [occult philosophers] believed that life in male and female bodies taught different lessons; for some, this meant that it was necessary for the Ego to incarnate many times as both female and male," Tucker explains. "Many theosophists believed, for example, that in their evolutionary progress men reincarnated as women, and women as men. Therefore at any given time, as one believer in this theory said in 1892: 'We have… men in women's bodies, and women in men's bodies.'" Despite the limitations of the time, progress was still being made in the realms of love and sexuality. The next time you use a sheet mask or your vibrator, make sure to thank a Victorian.