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Everyday items that were invented during the Victorian Era

Ian Harvey

The Victorian period was one of Britain’s longest historical eras.  Queen Victoria ruled for 63 years, and the Victorian period itself lasted from 1837-1901.

Sometimes, for convenience sake, this era is said to start in 1830, since that is the end of the Romantic period.  However it’s numbered, the Victorian era was a time of expansionism and the development of various inventions, some of which we are still using today in one form or another.   Great innovations were designed, but sometimes these items did not yet have the technology behind them so they could be used as extensively as their successors.   Below are ten things still in use today that were created when Queen Victoria ruled the United Kingdom and her colonies around the world.

10.The first mass produced chocolate bar and the Easter egg

Fry’s Chocolate Cream was the first mass-produced chocolate bar.  Created in 1847, it is now considered the oldest candy bar in the world.  After a few years, the company introduced the first chocolate Easter egg to be made in the UK.

Enamel sign advertising Fry’s Chocolate, pre-1925

Enamel sign advertising Fry’s Chocolate, pre-1925

Fry’s chocolate was founded in 1728 by Joseph Fry; the company became a family business whose members invented a cocoa bean roasting process as well as the delicious chocolates themselves.

Fry’s was one of the earliest companies to use contemporary artists in its advertising, and they were the first to adapt printed, colored labels for their product.  They have now merged and are part of Cadbury’s.  Some of their chocolate brands are still offered today, such as their Turkish Delight and Peppermint Crème.

9.Pneumatic rubber tires for bicycles were invented well before those for automobiles

The inventor of the first patented pneumatic rubber tire was a Scotsman named Robert William Thomson, who introduced his product a staggering 43 years before Dunlop came out with his tires.  Invented in 1845 when Thomson was only aged 23, these tires came on the scene when bicycles were just taking off as vehicles for the general public.  They were well before their time and, sadly, became known as a novelty due to lack of demand and very high production costs.

Thomson proved in a demonstration that the tires made what was a normally bumpy xperience into a ride that was smooth and quiet.   He called them “Aerial Wheels” and he hoped they would be used on carriages.   They were made with a thick, rubberized fabric tube encased in a leather outer skin and filled with pressurized air.

Robert Thomson’s obituary in The Illustrated London News of 29 March 1873

Robert Thomson’s obituary in The Illustrated London News of 29 March 1873

On testing, it was found they would last more than 1,200 miles before wearing out. He also invented solid India-rubber tires for the extremely heavy steam engines that were damaging road surfaces.  With his invention, the “Thomson Steamers” were able to travel over paved and tarmacked roads without causing damage.  Over his lifetime he was to file 14 patents for a variety of products.

8.The Penny Black was the world’s first postage stamp; it bears a simple image of Queen Victoria

Most mail sent in the early 1800s was sent postage due, and since postage had become very expensive, much mail was never picked up or accepted at all.  This was a time when the railroad was taking off and it seemed as if the UK Postal Service was stuck back in time.

As part of the postal reforms, a competition was held to promote ideas as to how a stamp of some sort could be used, and many entries were sent in.  One of the loudest postal reformers was Rowland Hill, who thought a one-penny stamp was needed on standard-weight letters – those weighing no more than half an ounce.

First world postal stamp ever issued : the Penny Black, Great Britain, 1840.

First world postal stamp ever issued : the Penny Black, Great Britain, 1840.

Many of the competition’s entries are available for viewing online, along with the proofs showing the process of the development of the first stamp, the Penny Black.  In 1839, the postal reforms that had been adopted became law, and the Penny Black came out in 1840.

Some of the mail sent and delivered on the first day of the stamp’s issue is still around.  There are more than 70 first-day Penny Black covers still in existence, with one – the “Kirkcudbright cover” – being the only piece of mail known to exist that has more than one of the first stamps on it.  The Penny Black is a black-colored stamp with a simple engraving of Queen Victoria’s profile; patterned so that the stamp could not be forged.  Mail delivery doubled in the first year of the stamp’s use.  The ruling monarch’s image is still used on UK stamps today.

7.The first Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in 1843, since he was too busy to write to friends over the holiday period

John Calcott Horsley was commission by his friend, Sir Henry Cole, to create a Christmas card that the lord could send out to all his friends over the Christmas period, as he was much too busy to write letters to them all.   Horsley was a talented artist who made his name from his first art show at the Royal Academy in 1839.  The piece of work exhibited there was called “Rent Day at Haddon Hall in the Days of Queen Elizabeth”.  Most of his work involved pretty women, but his art was skillful and highly finished.  The center of the Christmas card shows a family of many generations raising a toast to the receiver of the card, with charitable acts illustrated on either side of the main drawing.  One thousand of these cards were printed in black and white and then painstakingly hand-colored.  The cards that Sir Cole did not use were sold to the public.

Christmas cards soon became popular, but this was a surprise even to the publishers, who thought it would be a short-lived fad.  It’s unknown how many cards were printed and sold in the first few years.  The “trick card” became one of the most popular Christmas cards of the era, with ladies collecting them in scrapbooks to take out and show.  Trick cards are still being made today.  These are cards that have tabs, strings, or levers that open to reveal a hidden part of the card to the viewer.  Flower cards were especially popular in the Victorian Era, with extra petals unfolding and doubling the size of the card.

Woodburytype of Henry Cole by Lock & Whitfield.

Woodburytype of Henry Cole by Lock & Whitfield.

Another trick card that was then popular resembled money; some looked so real that they had to be withdrawn.  The use of Christmas cards waned until 1862, but they rose in popularity again and began to appear with robins and holly and a more minimalist writing style.

6.John Pratt invented one of the first typewriters in 1873 in the United States

Not destined to become famous for it, John Pratt was one of the earliest inventors of the typewriter.  Because of the outbreak of the Civil War, he sold everything and moved to England.  He secured patents in France and England in 1863 for his “pterotype” machine.

Both the Journal of the Royal British Scientific Society and the Scientific American published an article about his invention.   Two years after this, Glidden and Sholes in the United States gained a patent for what was to become the typewriter.

John J. Pratt’s “pterotype” (1865)

John J. Pratt’s “pterotype” (1865)

Sholes had already developed an automatic page-numbering machine and then later changed it over so it would print letters instead.   This new machine was taken to E. Remington & Sons, a company that was already famous for manufacturing sewing machines, and, soon after, the Remington Typewriter Company was born.

Their typewriter was being produced in 1873 and was being marketed as the first commercial typewriter.  John Pratt may not have become famous in America, but he was famous in England, and the machine he invented is exhibited in the British Museum.

5.Joseph Monier, a commercial gardener, invented reinforced concrete in France

The French gardener Joseph Monier experimented with making concrete tubs and basins, using iron wire as reinforcement inside the concrete to help hold the shape he required.  He patented his idea in 1867 and later that same year showed off his invention at the Paris Exposition.

Joseph Monier

Joseph Monier

From here it was soon obvious that the same concept could be applied to engineering structures such as floors, arches, and bridges.  He was not the first person to consider the idea of combining metal rods and wires in concrete, but from his patented ideas the basic design idea and principle of reinforced-concrete was firmly established.  By combining the concrete that could handle compression forces and the embedded wire or rods that provided tensile strength, Monier created a product that was stronger than the two items taken separately.

4.The sewing machine was invented by Elias Howe in 1846; it was sold for many years in the United States in violation of his patent

Strongly interested in machinery, Elias Howe worked in a cotton machine factory. At one time it was suggested that a man who invented a machine that could sew would be able to make a fortune.  Taking this idea on, he spent five years of his spare time developing a practical sewing machine.  Finally in 1846 he applied for and was granted a patent for his invention.

It did not take off as he expected, so he sold the patent rights in England and moved there to work on perfecting a sewing machine for working on leather.  Sadly, he ended up destitute and returned to the United States.

Elias Howe Sewing Machine September 10, 1846

Elias Howe Sewing Machine September 10, 1846

He discovered that while he had been overseas, sewing machines were being made and sold across America in violation of his patent.  Eventually, after much legal wrangling, he received the royalties for all sewing machines sold across the United States from 1854 till the year 1867, when his patent ran out.

3.The first underground railway was invented in London and took three years to construct

A railway line was already in service around the city of London, but the area inside the city was choked with traffic.  So a proposal was put forth for a new railway line, and the Metropolitan Railway Company was created in 1854.

It ran under the New Road for three miles from the Great Western Railway terminal at Paddington to the King’s Cross terminal.  Raising the money for the railway was difficult because doomsayers incited panic with the populace, spreading the fear that the weight of the buildings and road would collapse them onto the new railway.

Passengers wait to board a tube train in the early 1900s

Passengers wait to board a tube train in the early 1900s

To help banish these fears, the stations were made large and airy with lots of natural light, and the trains were fitted with gaslights.  The technique used in constructing the railway was called “cut and cover” – a trench was dug and the sides shored up until brick walls could be added; then a two-meter layer of soil was added on top of the tunnel and the road rebuilt.  To reduce disruption to the city during construction, the railway was laid underneath the roads as much as possible.  The new line opened on January 10, 1863 and was very popular.  In its first year, 9.5 million journeys had been made by the people of London and surrounding areas.

2.Alexander Graham Bell had to face years of legal battles to win his claim as sole inventor of the telephone

The patent for the telephone, invented by Alexander Graham Bell, was granted in 1876.  He had created this modern marvel while working at a school for the deaf; he was hoping to create a machine that would transmit sound via electricity.

His famous words, “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you.” is known throughout the world as the first coherent and complete sentence transmitted by telephone.

Photophone receiver, one half of Bell’s wireless optical communication system, ca. 1880

Photophone receiver, one half of Bell’s wireless optical communication system, ca. 1880

The patent battle that followed his invention was known as one of the longest running legal disputes over patents.  Some of Bell’s experiments with electricity and sound were designed to help the deaf learn to speak.  He made significant money from his invention and used this to assist other scientists.  He also helped finance the journal Science and the National Geographic Society.  He was a tireless scientist and invented other things while continuing to work closely with the deaf community.  When he died in 1922, there was a request for a brief moment in which no one would use the telephone, in tribute to him and his achievements.

1.England was the first country to use post-boxes back in 1853

Just as Great Britain was the first country to create and use stamps on a national scale, it was also the first to invent and use post-boxes.

The very first post-box was placed on Union Street on February 8, 1853.  It was red, as would be all post-boxes in Great Britain, and it carried a royal seal that was changed as each monarch was replaced.

1856 type PB1/viii at the West Gate, Warwick, Warwickshire, England

1856 type PB1/viii at the West Gate, Warwick, Warwickshire, England

Most of the Victorian era post-boxes in London were destroyed in bombing raids in World War II.

Read another story from us: The art of papermaking was first invented by the Chinese Han Dynasty two thousand years ago

Across the country, however, you can find postboxes bearing multiple royal badges from different regimes.  One from the Victorian era can be seen today near the Opera House in Buxton.  It is red, of course, and of a hexagonal shape; it is believed that this one has been in use since 1867.