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How Would You Fare In The Edwardian Era? A Downton-esque Survival Guide

All about the tech, toys, and tools of the time.

Emmy Nominations

As the US premiere of Downton Abbey season five (or the annual Christmas Special, If you’re in the UK/handy with Google Chrome extension Hola) draws near, one has to marvel at the technological advancement on display during the series’ run.  Beginning in 1912, the Crawley family and their army of hired help have balked at, acquiesced to, and eventually grown to rely on the technological advances that piled up rapidly at the end of the Edwardian era and beginning of the post-WWI era.  When we return to Yorkshire on January 3, how does the brave new world inhabited by our favorite Downtonite ladies stack up against our own?

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you find yourself the companion of a time-traveling Doctor or falling through time at the standing stones of Craigh na Dune, and you land smack in the middle of the Edwardian or Interwar-eras in Great Britain. How can you thrive in this primitive age?

Getting Around

Spoiler alert: you can’t use Uber.  If you need to get from point A to point B, you have a couple different options.  If you’re lucky enough to wind up in London, you can hop on the Tube.  Britain’s subway has been around since the 1860s, and it’s a perfectly acceptable way for a woman to get around (unlike the overland 19th century omnibus).

If you need to get a bit further, try to track down an automobile.  With the widespread adoption of the internal combustion engine in the 1910s, the use of horses for travel became all but obsolete.  After King Edward VII begrudgingly allowed his wife, Queen Alexandra, use of her own car in the late 1890s, it became perfectly respectable for women to operate a motor. Hopefully you can drive stick or find a dashing young Irish chauffeur to squire you around!

For long distance travel, you can buy a ticket aboard a steamship.  This is, after all, the golden age of ocean liners, and after that nasty business with the Titanic in 1912 (RIP Patrick Crawley), it’s safer to travel by sea than ever before thanks to adequate lifeboat coverage, the creation of the International Ice Watch, and the passage of the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea in 1914, which required round the clock radio monitoring for all liners. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you can try an airship (commercial passenger airplanes won’t be en vogue until after WWII). Whether you call it a dirigible or an air yacht, at this time, these were the only way to fly the friendly skies (which were much easier to navigate following the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1919).

Clothing & Personal Care

I’m not going to lie to you—you better hope you wind up in the UK during or after WWI, because the clothes are WAY better. Before WWI, corsets were at their longest and most complex.  Following the spine-twisting popularity of the S-line corset up through 1908, the longline corset stretched from bust to thigh, and some versions began below the bust, requiring women to wear not only a corset, but a brassiere as well.  Fortunately, layers of undergarments and yards of fussy dress fabric eventually gave way to a more streamlined silhouette that made it easier for women to complete such routine tasks as breathing or riding a bicycle.  The metal shortages caused by WWI hastened the death of the corset, and by the conflict’s end, most fashionable women had switched over to elastic brassieres as their preferred foundation garment.

Middle-aged Edwardian hostesses were under a lot of pressure to retain an appearance of youth, so cosmetics use became somewhat acceptable during this time; although most women who utilized makeup had to remain “in the closet,” so to speak.  With the rise of film and photography in the 1920s, it became more important than ever for women to control their appearance through use of cosmetics, and the new “flapper style” encouraged dark lips, eyebrows, and rosy cheeks.  Feel free to stop in at Selfridge’s department store if you need to stock up on your favorite Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, Chanel, or L’Oreal products—all of those brands were early innovators in the early 20th century cosmetics industry.

While menstruation control was nowhere near as developed as it is today, significant advances were made in the early 20th century, and it became much easier for women to avoid embarrassment during their periods.  French nurses in WWI discovered that the new cellulose bandages they used in the field to dress soldier’s wounds were also an excellent method of handling their “monthly visitor.”  Kotex introduced the first commercial sanitary napkin in 1920, but they weren’t always easy to find, and many women refused to purchase personal hygiene products from the male druggists who stocked them.  It took until 1926 for trailblazing retailer Montgomery-Ward to include sanitary napkins in their popular catalogue.

Entertainment

Rapid innovation in all the areas above created an unprecedented amount of leisure time for everyone who had access to them, and technology tends to create new ways to fill leisure time.  In the absence of Candy Crush Saga, you could pick up a newfangled crossword puzzle (introduced as we know them now by Liverpool journalist Arthur Wynne in 1913).  If you arrive in 1924, you can even nab a copy of the very first collection of crosswords from Simon & Schuster.

Books haven’t changed much since the Edwardian era, and you can find lots of great first editions from new authors.  American Willa Cather first began her literary exploration of the American frontier and her countrywoman Edna St. Vincent Millay rocked the poetry world with her thrilling verses.  Brush up on contemporary British authors like Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, and PG Wodehouse, even if novels do scandalize the Dowager Countess.

Radio broadcast began in earnest in the Netherlands in 1919, and if you happen to be in the UK on June 6, 1920, you can catch Dame Nellie Melba’s on-air performance two years before she visits Downton Abbey and avoid the downstairs unpleasantness.

For an exciting night on the town, you can catch a film starring Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, or the Marx Brothers.  If you’re a bit more old-fashioned, you can choose a play by George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, or J.M. Synge (careful of riots at that last one).

Congratulations! You are now equipped to survive (and thrive) alongside the women of Downton Abbey—so long as you don’t wind up a kitchen maid like Daisy.  Surviving that is another guide entirely!

For more on Downton Abbey and the Edwardian Era, check out Up Yours, Downstairs! A Downton Abbey Podcast or Edwardian Promenade, Evangeline Holland’s indispensable guide to all things Edwardian.

Kelly Anneken is a comedian who tells funny jokes in front of laughing people.  She is the co-host of Downton Abbey podcast of Up Yours, Downstairs! and has a part-time job as Batgirl. To learn more about Kelly and her limited html skills, visit www.kellyanneken.com.

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