We all know that immersion is the best way to learn a subject, but how can you do that with history? Although time travel hasn’t been invented yet, historical reenactments are the next best thing. And while it’s always fun to dress up in period costumes, one young couple has taken the concept even further than that. Gabriel and Sarah Chrisman have found a way to combine their interest in cultural studies with their lifelong love of history by living a Victorian lifestyle in the 21st century.
Sarah and Gabriel met while students at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Their romance blossomed over a mutual love of books, language, and history – particularly the Victorian era. Sarah wrote in a personal essay for Vox: “Even before I met Gabriel, we both saw value in older ways of looking at the world. He had been homeschooled as a child, and he never espoused the strict segregation that now seems to exist between life and learning. As adults, we both wanted to learn more about a time that fascinated each of us.”
After getting married, Gabriel and Sarah decided to conduct their lives as much as possible as though living in the late 19th century. From beauty regimes and custard recipes, to clothing and bicycles, the Chrismans immersed themselves in 1880s to 1890s culture and technologies. Sarah cooks by following recipes from vintage cookbooks and women’s magazines. She washes her hair with castile soap using an antique bowl and pitcher, and does her hair in period styles each morning. Sarah wears a corset and sews all of her own clothes based on Victorian patterns. Gabriel wears tailored waistcoats, cutaway jackets, and top hats.
The main difference between the Chrismans and your average hipster is that this couple is actually living the life and have a genuine interest in the Victorian era; whereas hipsters just wear vintage garb or use retro tech for an eccentric steampunk look. Sarah and Gabriel both see their pursuit as academic research that is far more intense than any sociological study they have encountered on the subject. They also do historical outreach – giving presentations at museums, libraries, and schools – to help people of all ages understand the culture, fashion, and everyday details of the Victorian era.
Sarah and Gabriel bought a house approximately 40 miles northwest of Seattle in historic Port Townsend, Washington, a beautiful Victorian seaport founded in 1851. The corner grocery store has been operating since 1895. The Chrisman’s home, built in 1888, is like a lived-in museum. It’s filled with old-fashioned items, such as antique Victorian furniture and accessories, which give their life more authenticity. The house is equipped with oil lamps and doesn’t have an electric fridge or oven. The Chrismans have a woodburning stove and an ice box, and use a kerosene space heater in the winter. They have some lightbulbs based on early Tesla and Edison designs that they paid to have made, but most of the time they use the oil lamps.
“Every birthday and anniversary became an excuse to hunt down physical artifacts from our favorite time period,” Sarah wrote in Vox. “The artifacts in our home represent what historians call ‘primary source materials,’ items directly from the period of study. Anything can be a primary source, although the term usually refers to texts. The books and magazines the Victorians themselves wrote and read constitute the vast bulk of our reading materials — and since reading is our favorite pastime, they fill a large percentage of our days.” Not just novels, but Gabriel likes perusing old cycling magazines and Sarah enjoys reading 1890s editions of Cosmopolitan (which began publication in 1886 as a general interest family magazine).
For recreation, the couple go for rides on their antique high-wheel cycles. In her Vox article Sarah wrote, “I ride a copy of a high-wheel tricycle from the 1880s. Gabriel has three high-wheel bicycles, and he has ridden them hundreds of miles. On our vacation just last week, we rode our high-wheel cycles more than 75 miles along a historic railroad route between abandoned silver mines. I kept thinking of an article we had read in an 1883 cycling magazine about wheelmen riding bikes just like Gabriel’s when they took a trip out to a mine.” The Chrismans also like to go hiking in period clothing. Sarah told xoJane.com, “I based my hiking dress on the outfit Fay Fuller had worn in 1890 when she became the first woman to reach the summit of Mt. Rainier.”
Although Sarah notes that sometimes people stare at her on the street, “I never expected my underwear [corset] to be such a polarizing issue to total strangers,” she told Seattle talk show personality Rachel Belle. “People come up to me and start screaming at me… they try and grab me, which is terrible. The feminists in the 1960s were [huge critics of the corset] and, actually, women of that generation are the ones who come at me and scream at me the loudest and try to grab me the most.”
The Chrismans swear that the goal of their Victorian living experiment isn’t to attract attention. Gabriel says they’re not doing this for any reason other than they enjoy it. “If you have an interest in something, you shouldn’t feel constrained to go for it,” he explained. “Try things. Do it your way.” Sarah emphasizes the educational value. “It’s based on learning and for us learning is fun because every single thing we do teaches us something and gives us more insights,” Sarah said. “We’re people who love to learn and we think that learning is something that people always should do. This is our way of learning.”
The Chrismans are living a Victorian lifestyle to the best of their ability given what is available to them in our technologically advanced world. Sarah has never had a cell phone or a driver’s license. But while they live and dress as Victorians, the Chrismans admittedly don’t completely eschew modern technology and they do afford themselves some modern-day luxuries. Since the telegraphs of the Victorian era are obsolete, they utilize the modern equivalent – the internet. Sarah has a website and Facebook page which she updates regularly. Gabriel, a library and information science academic, uses computers at work and drives a 1982 DeLorean.
These two demonstrate that you can live in both the past and the present at the same time, and you can pick and choose which parts of historical and modern living work best for you. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but you can combine the best of both worlds. “We hope following our own dreams inspires other to find what they want to do in life,” Sarah told the New York Daily News.
Gabriel and Sarah will be the keynote speakers at the Time Traveler’s Ball in Hillsboro, Oregon on Saturday, October 10th.
Gabriel Chrisman was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and he grew up on Bainbridge Island, Washington. He was homeschooled for much of elementary and middle school. Gabriel has a lifetime of experience with bicycles – he used to race downhill mountain bikes, and has worked at B.I.Cycle shop on Bainbridge Island for 12 years as a mechanic, salesman, inventory manager, and pretty much everything else. He designed and built a timber frame house, and then sold it to fund his college education. Now a librarian, Gabriel has a B.A. in History and an M.L.I.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of Washington. He hopes to get his Ph.D. in Archival Science. The late 19th-century is his particular focus, and he serves as a consultant for maintenance of public and private collections as well as advising period-appropriate details for movies and books. One of his goals is to become more comfortable with public speaking. To read more about his work and outreach projects, see: gabrielchrisman.weebly.com.
Sarah Alma Chrisman, née Christman (her name changed by only one letter when she got married!) grew up in Renton, Washington. She has always loved the Victorian era and felt like she should have been born in the 1800’s. When she was a young child, her mother took her to visit the Flavel House Victorian Museum in Astoria, Oregon, and Sarah begged to be left there. Sarah approaches Victorian life as a cultural studies project: examining the everyday etiquette of the late 19th-century, debunking myths, and exploring the ongoing relevance of the Victorians to our modern world. Like any good Victorian lady, Sarah has an advanced education in the humanities: she holds baccalaureate degrees in both International Studies and in French from the University of Washington. She also received a massage license from Everest College in Seattle. (Swedish massage was popular throughout the Victorian era.) Sarah works as a massage therapist out of a room in her home that’s set up like a Victorian massage parlor. Her practice is called Gilded Age Massage Experience. Sarah has been interviewed by journalists in the US, UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Spain and Italy. She also appeared on The View with Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters. To read articles about her and see some of her interviews, please visit: www.victoriansecrets.weebly.com.
Learn more about Victorian living in these books by Sarah:
This Victorian Life: Modern Adventures in Nineteenth-Century Culture, Cooking, Fashion, and Technology (To be released on November 3, 2015. Pre-order now.)
Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management: The 1861 Classic with Advice on Cooking, Cleaning, Childrearing, Entertaining, and More (To be released on November 3, 2015. Pre-order now.)