Hey there, nerds of the sports internet! While we’ve had more than a few historically-inclined Power Polls (lest we forget the time we all learned about Medieval Monarchs), we’ve yet to make our way into the 19th century, a personal favorite of this historian. The Victorians (strictly speaking, that only refers to the British of the era from 1837-1901, but it’s often colloquially used to refer to the era in the US as well) are mostly known for bad center parts and being sexually repressed, but if I’m being honest, there’s a lot I love* about these whackadoos in spite of their stuffy reputation.
For one, they wrote everything down, which as a historian, I personally love. The relatively broad literacy rates of American and British society and ready access to essentials like writing paper means that we get to hear from voices that are much harder to access for a lot of history.
Secondly, living during a time when minimalism and white walls are the main trends, I actually love that Victorians just had no sense of something being “too much” when it came to decor. Why have 15 vases in your sitting room when you can have 72? Why have plain walls and a wood floor when you can have wildly patterned rugs, wallpaper, and maybe even some ceiling doodads too? They were singing Disney songs long before Disney even wrote them:
I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty
I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore
You want thingamabobs?
I’ve got twenty!
But who cares?
No big deal
I want more
Third, there’s a profound optimism to this century (though yes, there was a significant undercurrent of anxiety as well). It’s worth noting that this is a predominantly white and middle-class attitude and that for very good reasons other groups during this time period did not share this sense of things increasingly getting better. But living at a time filled with cynicism and fear, I quite envy them their belief in “Things Are Getting Better All The Time,” and “We Can Fix What’s Broken.”
And so without further ado, let’s celebrate the Big Ten with all things 19th century. Let me know in the comments if you found it a lally-cooler.**
*Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to hate too—the colonialism, slavery, treating women like ding dongs… there’s plenty to critique. But that’s a less fun Power Poll.
** A real success.
(Thanks as always to WhiteSpeedReceiver for the graphs!)
1. Penn State - Phrenology
First Place Votes: 7 High: 1 Low: 3 Change from Last Week: +1
Have you a bump on your head that you find unsightly or odd? What if I told you that instead of just making you look funny when you inevitably lose your hair, it indicated whether or not you were a good parent? Whether or not you were “tenacious of life”? Whether or not you were a habitual liar, or maybe a sneak? In the 19th century, a pseudoscience called phrenology promoted the idea that your weird head bumps held the key to your personality and character.
Phrenologists, inspired by the increased understanding of the human brain, took things a bit further, and constructed elaborate charts and measurements of human skulls, which they assumed corresponded to what was going on in the brains held within. (A corresponding though not identical study on the size and shape of human brains resulted in a vast collection of brains held at Cornell University. You can still see some of the brains today, and there’s an article well worth the read about them here.) As you might imagine since it was the 19th century, the “conclusions” of these studies were often used by white, male scientists to conclude that white males possessed the greatest intellectual capabilities of all the humans!
I’ve chosen phrenology for Penn State because James Franklin’s perfectly bald head is a phrenologist’s dream. You can use Vaught’s Practical Character Reader (1902) to draw your own conclusions about what kind of flaws Franklin might have. Pugilism? Self-esteem? A “disposition to crow”? It’s a 257-page book, so you have a lot of choices. Whatever you conclude, one area that Franklin seems to be doing pretty well in so far this year is in effectively coaching football teams. Hopefully the bumps of his skull are up to beating the Auburn Tigers this weekend.
2. Iowa - Utopian Communities
FPV: 8 H: 1 L: 4 LW: +1
“Is this heaven?”
The above is not a quote from a Victorian, because on the whole, they weren’t complete fools. However, a lot of them were unwarrantedly optimistic, and because of this, utopian communities saw their heyday in the 19th century. Many Utopian communities had a religious bent, seeking to perfect their communities and eventually the world from sin. Others subscribed to specific philosophical or political bents, such as the Transcendentalist communities like Brook Farm or anarchist villages like Home, Washington. Some subscribed to specific diets (the vegetarian Octagon City, KS) or in reaction to economic disasters (like Nucla, CO after the Panic of 1893). One particularly well-known (and exceptionally long-lived) utopian community actually was located in Iowa—the Amana Colonies, a group of religious Germans who practiced communalism and self-sufficiency from 1856-1932.
But the most controversial utopian communities pissed off their neighbors not because they didn’t eat meat or because they sought to pool their resources—it was their unorthodox sexual practices that really caused waves. “Free Love” was foundational to many utopian communities (including, unsurprisingly, the group frankly named “Free Lovers at Davis House”). The most infamous of these was the Oneida Community of upstate New York. Today, they’re known for the silverware that still bears their name, but in the mid-19th century, they were known for their shocking sexual practices. Their founder, John Humphery Noyes, termed their version of free love, “complex marriage,” and on the bright side, it emphasized the consent of both partners. On the less bright-side, Noyes favored sexual initiations for teens at the hands of older members of the community, which today is a very serious crime.
So why have I awarded Iowa “Utopian Communities” when Iowa is 1) not at all utopian; and 2) full of people you would not want to enjoy a complex marriage with? Because against all odds, Iowa is living their dream—they’ve beaten Iowa State (again), their next three games are eminently winnable, and they’re ranked #5 in the nation. It’s true they don’t have a very good quarterback, but after all… utopias don’t really exist.
3. Ohio State - Hidden Mother Photos
FPV: 3 H: 1 L: 9 LW: -2
Photography was the hot new craze in the 19th century, beginning in earnest around 1839 when several men discovered that they could photograph themselves. They reacted to this power in various ways: some, like American Robert Cornelius, reacted by slaying with a smoldering selfie; others, like Frenchman Hippolyte Bayard, posed as a drowned man as a scathing indictment of the French Academy of Science’s nefarious dealings which caused Louis Daguerre to gobble up fame and fortune that Bayard saw as rightly his. DRAMA.
Unsurprisingly, 19th century humans eagerly sought to have their loved ones’ likenesses captured, and the photography business boomed. So too did innovations on the craft, resulting in weird fads like headless photography. Still, photographers faced problems that continue to plague photogs and parents alike - how on earth are you supposed to keep a baby still, smiling, and looking forward? The solution: hidden mother photos.
Exactly what it sounds like, mothers were enlisted to hold, support, or anchor their children in place long enough to get the snap. While an easier solution might be to simply have a nice mother-and-child portrait, apparently not everyone wanted that, and the result is creepily humanoid figures draped in fabric cradling cherubic infants. The results are somehow both hilarious and disturbing.
Ohio State was anointed pre-season champion, yet again. The crowds were eager to see what shiny new bundle of joy Ryan Day had brought forth from Columbus this year. But after a shaky performance against Minnesota and an honest-to-goodness loss against Oregon (in Columbus!) people are starting to wonder just how much smoke-and-mirrors surrounds the Buckeyes.
4. Michigan - Sentimental and Moralistic Novels
H: 3 L: 10 LW: +1
I’d like to go on record as saying that the 19th century produced some of the finest novels in the English language. Beautiful prose, exciting plots, minutely detailed observations of the human psyche - I adore many writers from the 19th century, and count several novels from the century in my top favorites of all time (George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell - let’s give it up for the ladies!) That said, there was also a whole lot of straight-up crap published during this century, or, at the very least, a lot of cheese and not a lot of sleaze.
One favorite trope of Victorian writers was the heart-rending death scene. Famously, Louisa May Alcott broke hearts when she killed off the saintly Beth in Little Women, and Harriet Beecher Stowe created angelic Eva so that the tragedy of her death might be magnified. Although the sentimental novel was technically on the wane by the 19th century, there were still plenty of novelists aiming to hit readers right in the feels. However, later Victorians found the cheesiness of such scenes hard to swallow, as illustrated by Oscar Wilde’s alleged quip that “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of (Dickens character) Little Nell without laughing.”
While Jim Harbaugh hardly has the saintliness of a Beth or an Eva or a Little Nell, there are aspects to Michigan’s story this season that are playing out like a 600-page novel. Will the humbled leader of the Michigan Wolverines be able to fight past the doubters and retain his job? Will his leadership ever result in a decent quarterback? In the pitched moral battle of two evils (Michigan and Ohio State) is it possible for any good to win in such a dark scenario? This is a serialized novel with weekly installments, and fans may be kept waiting for answers until the very end.
5. Wisconsin - Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management
H: 3 L: 6 LW: +1
Back to jolly old England and the real Victorians for this one - Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was a smash hit, selling millions of copies in only a few years after its publication in 1861, and remaining popular into the early twentieth century. The Bible of aspiring domestic goddesses across the Empire, the cookbook’s phenomenal success kept Isabella Beeton’s family in financial security (in spite of her husband’s many idiotic business decisions) until her death following childbirth at age 28.
By the 1907 edition, the book was—literally—thousands of pages long, much like this Power Poll. In spite of the promise of comprehensively covering all aspects of “household management,” the vast majority of the book contained recipes. Would you like some “General Observations on the Common Hog”? Isabella had you covered. Cooking for an invalid? By 1888, there were 16 pages of recipes especially for the infirm. Want a ready-made menu for a wedding or a picnic? She’s got you covered. In a mood to make some soup to feed the poor street children of your town? Try “Soup for Benevolent Purposes.” If you could think of a food occasion or subset, Beeton had it. (Like a good colonizer, there’s a chapter on “Indian Cookery” that I suspect is quite foul, and “Australian Cookery.”)
In addition to the immediate way my mind jumped to Wisconsin when I skimmed the “Gravies, Forcemeats, and Sauces” chapter, the Badgers also have long been the Mrs. Beeton’s of the conference. No-frills, a good bargain, and suitable for many purposes, Wisconsin brought an admirable workmanlike brand of football to the conference. But after a surprising Week One loss against PSU, and a perfectly adequate dispatching of Eastern Michigan last weekend, it’s anyone’s guess if Wisconsin is going to be the conference’s safe choice this year. This weekend they have a bye - perhaps they can use that time to up their gelatin mold game. Or their offense. Either one.
6. Michigan State - Railroads
H: 3 L: 10 LW: -2
You know what was hot in the 19th century? Railroads. Early in the 19th century, it had seemed like canals were the transportation wave of the future, promising to enable fast, easy shipping even when you didn’t have a convenient Mississippi River nearby. But then, people realized “Why have a nice man-made river cruise when I can zip along in a coal-belching machine and take my life into my hands every time we go over a bridge?” It’s that kind of can-do attitude that made this country great.
Anyway, railroads got really popular, really quickly. Lines were built all over the place—some companies commanding a region, others serving only a single line between two cities. The “smart” investment for many seemed to be in railroads, and indeed some people (cough VANDERBILTS cough) got filthy rich off the things. But these were far from sound investments, and more people lost lots of money. The financial shenanigans weren’t just localized either - two major financial crises in 1873 and 1893 owed quite a lot to railroad financing. But you know what they say… choo choo motherfckers.
I probably already lost a few people who are down in the comments writing right now “WHY ISN’T PURDUE THE RAILROAD ARE YOU STUPID OR SOMETHING.” I am not stupid, at least not very, so hear me out. Why, it was only a few years ago that this site alone cleaned out the entire internet of train wreck gifs to deploy against Purdue, and it’s time for a new joke. MSU is the conference’s 19th century railroad because it certainly appears that Mel Tucker has created a whole new MSU, and one which could go quite far. While a glorious development for some, it also threatens the livelihoods of others (Jim Harbaugh). It’s also possible that we are over-estimating the safety and efficacy of the new MSU, only to be surprised by a random derailment or bridge collapse mid-season.
7. Maryland - World’s Fairs
H: 4 L: 12 LW: +0
One of the most interesting trends in the 19th century (in my very humble and nerdy opinion, anyway) is the development of the World’s Fair. There were many of them during the second half of the 19th century and into the early 20th, and they did, to some extent, strive to involve the world. Whole mini-cities were built to house the displays and attractions, and sometimes even lakes as well (gotta have those swan boat rides). The most well-known of them, of course, is the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the famed “White City” in Chicago. (You didn’t get to be this one, Northwestern, because you are bad.) The fairs drew millions of visitors over the months that they were open, all hoping to see the innovations that would someday change the world.
Of course, as with many things in the 19th century, there was a dark side to all of these fairs too. There was a serial killer who capitalized on one fair (1893 Chicago), a presidential assassination (1901 Buffalo), and a host of cringey ethical decisions surrounding the “display” of native peoples from around the globe. Ultimately, many of these “cultural exhibits” were aimed at preserving the narrative of white supremacy, portraying non-white populations as simple, servile, and backwards (see: the exhibit “Darkest Africa” at the 1901 Buffalo exhibition.)
Nevertheless, in spite of their history of serving as a tool of imperialist narratives and white supremacy, the fairs were highlights of their day. They created an excitement around technological innovations, and strove to bring some semblance to global awareness to their audiences. They also inspired polkas about ferris wheels. Like the World’s Fairs, Maryland has dazzled so far this season. But also like the World’s Fairs, there’s a sense that there may be some substantial critiques of the Terps to be found if one looks closer. Will the Terps be able to keep riding this ferris wheel higher by beating Illinois this weekend? (Probably.)
8. Rutgers - Freak Shows
FPV: 1 (ok) H: 1 L: 10 LW: +2
As you will soon see from the description of the Alexandra Limp (#9 Purdue), Victorians were far from squeamish about observing and commenting on the physical infirmities of others. As a result, in this age of spectacle, freak shows did a brisk trade. Whether in traveling circuses, World’s Fairs, and at the very end of the era, in amusement parks like Coney Island, Victorians loved to gawk at people who looked different. Bearded ladies, fat women, Little People… all gave paying customers carte blanche to scrutinize their physical differences.
Nothing illustrated this tendency more than the fame of conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. The origin of the phrase “Siamese Twins” (though they were, in fact, of Chinese ancestry), the pair were joined near their chests and spent their life attempting to control their own destiny, which they were eventually able to do to a surprising extent. A decade of very profitable touring in the 1830s eventually brought them financial independence and even naturalized citizenship (in spite of naturalization laws at that time barring non-white persons from becoming naturalized citizens). They settled in North Carolina, bought enslaved people which wasn’t super cool, and married a set of sisters. They had a combined 21 children. After the Civil War, suffering financial setbacks from backing the wrong side, they resumed touring. By the time of their deaths in 1874, they were two of the most famous Americans in the country.
Time was in this conference when I’d have selected Rutgers as a straight-up analogy to a Bearded Lady. Come and witness their Feats of Futility! The Grotesquery of Gridiron Grimness! The Disagreeable Displays of Dreadfulness! But now, it’s a new Rutgers, and perhaps the most freaky thing to ever come from Piscataway in the Big Ten era is now before the astonished masses— a football team that just might be competent!
9. Purdue - Alexandra Limp
H: 7 L: 10 LW: +0
Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess named Alexandra of Denmark. She married the crown prince of England, which sounds like it would be pretty nice, but his main hobby was boinking other women (including Winston Churchill’s mum) so it did have its drawbacks. Nevertheless, Alexandra and Edward seemed to enjoy a fashionable life of leisure together as they waited literal decades for Edward’s mother to die so he could be king.
When the couple married in 1863, fashionable British ladies were thrilled to have a young, stylish royal to look up to— when Queen Victoria’s husband had died two years earlier, she began what can only be described as a fashion rut, wearing only mourning black for the next 40 years. So they were thirsting for new trends, and Alexandra was only too happy to oblige. However, she probably expected that her sartorial choices would set the tone in fashionable English society—not her medical history. She expected wrong. So eager were the influenced of the day, that when a bout with rheumatic fever gave Alexandra a pronounced limp, the ton followed suit, affecting limps of their own.
Ultimately, the fad was short-lived, as walking with a limp when you don’t have to is both exhausting and ethically questionable. In the olden days, I’d have assigned this weird fad to Purdue on the basis of their well-documented problems with ACLs. Today I’ve given Purdue the royal treatment because their blowout win last week came against a team so bad, it’s tough to gauge the legitimacy of their competence. But with a game coming up against Notre Dame this weekend, Purdue has a chance to wow the world and be the envy of the rest of the conference.
10. Indiana - Seances
H: 5 L: 12 LW: +1
In what I view as another challenge to the conception of the proper, stuffy Victorian, many in the 19th century engaged in the quirky world of spiritualism. Predicated on the belief that one could communicate with the spirits of dead people, the movement arose in upstate New York in the 1840s. (Upstate New York was churning out lots of interesting things in the early 19th century, including the Second Great Awakening and Joseph Smith.) Popular with reformers of the time, who found that spirits of the dead were rather more progressive on issues of slavery and women’s rights than most living people, the movement soon garnered adherents throughout the middle and upper classes.
In a way, this impulse made a lot of sense—the mortality rate in 19th century America remained high due to disease, childbirth, industrial accidents, and the Civil War; and many channeled their grief into a fervent wish to hear from loved ones again. Perhaps the most famous example of this was Mary Lincoln, who would eventually live to see three of her four sons die, and her husband assassinated at close range to her. Before Abraham’s death, she regularly practiced spiritualism in the White House in an attempt to communicate with her dead children. For many men and women like Mary, believing they were hearing from their loved ones brought great solace.
Of course, most mediums who conducted seances were nothing more than charlatans who profited from people’s grief and perfected convincing illusions during seances. That’s why Indiana is here this week - after a truly dreadful Week 1 performance against Iowa, the Hoosiers appeared to come back to life against Idaho. However, it’s extremely possible that Idaho is nothing more than a cheap trick that gave the appearance of life—this week against #8 Cincinnati will tell if Indiana has truly resurrected, or if they were simply rapping on tables last week.
11. Minnesota - Maximalist Decor
Last Place Votes: 1 H: 5 L: 14 LW: -3
As mentioned in the lengthy preamble (seriously, are you still reading?), I weirdly admire the 19th century’s commitment to stuff. Much has been written about the Victorian transition into a consumer culture, and it’s interesting stuff. But what I like about it is that they wore it on their sleeve. I don’t think we’re less consumerist now, we just go out and blow $400 at the Container Store so it looks like we have less stuff. The Victorians just put it all out there, like a living Kylo Ren meme, and that’s oddly beautiful to me.
It’s worth noting that this upper and middle-class tendency to cover the earth in porcelain knick-knacks was made substantially easier by the existence of plentiful cheap labor to dust said knick-knacks. Keeping homes clean was a lot harder in the 19th century, given that either coal or wood fires create a lot of residue, and urban dwellers faced significant levels of air pollution. This might also be one reason that the plain white wall look wasn’t very popular - it’s a lot easier to hide soot in an elaborate yellow curlicued wallpaper, even if it does eventually drive the lady of the house fully mad.
PJ Fleck has made his reputation on being EXTRA, just like a fancy Victorian parlor. It’s true that so far he has eschewed paisley and damask, though if you claim you can’t see him incorporating either into Minnesota’s identity, I don’t know what to tell you. Just picture it - a repeating pattern of waves and oars, an ornate wallpaper covering the mancaves of men all over Minnesota. But with the loss of Mo Ibrahim, who was extra in the very best way on the field, it remains to be seen if Minnesota can put together something impressive and coherent, or if the sum of the parts will only look like a big ol’ cluttered mess.
12. Northwestern - Patent Medicines
LPV: 1 H: 11 L: 13 LW: +1
Back before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906—a stupid law in which the overreaching government acted in the interest of public health to prevent people from dying needlessly UGH— the nation’s food and medicine supply were basically a free-for-all. Unappetizing and dangerous things were added to food in order to make a small amount go further and maximize profits, or simply due to a lack of cleanliness in food production facilities that had zero oversight (mmmm mouse poop!) Preservatives were added as long as they worked, regardless of whether or not they were bad for people (and lots of them were). “Muckrakers” publicized these unappetizing realities, and an outraged public pressed for change.
Medicine was even more of a Wild West. Anyone could (and did) create tinctures that claimed to cure any number of ailments. Those promising to alleviate “female complaints,” like the ubiquitous Lydia B. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, sold especially well. If the customer was lucky, the “medicines” would do nothing, and cause no further problems. But others contained addictive substances, especially opium (which I suppose would alleviate the sensation of pain) and alcohol. In spite of the unreliablity of medicine at the time, there is little evidence that the Victorians self-medicated with horse de-worming medication, so they do get a bit of credit there.
Like the deeply variable outcomes from taking a patent medicine, Northwestern football offers extremely variable and often deeply disappointing results to its fanbase. This season, it appears that Fitz’s tincture has very few active ingredients. If things don’t turn around soon, Wildcat fans are likely to explore the pain-relieving qualities of more alcohol-based compounds.
13. Nebraska - Hair Art
LPV: 4 H: 10 L: 14 LW: +1
Hair wreaths and jewelry were a common middle-class creation in the Victorian era. Deaths were common, and large-scale death events like the Civil War brought new attention to mourning rituals. The hair wreaths were exactly what they sound like - extremely elaborate flowers and designs crafted from the hair of loved ones and framed. Sometimes the wreath surrounded a photograph, but often the wreath was a longer-term project and involved the hair of many loved ones, allowing for a variety of colors within the design. Jewelry was typically less elaborate, and might only consist of a lock of hair encased in glass and worn as a ring or necklace.
Modern reactions to hair art usually tend more toward repulsion - and indeed, it’s understandable to a certain extent. We typically don’t have much use or appreciation for hair once it’s fallen off of our heads, and seeing it harvested, arranged, and intricately crafted is deeply unfamiliar. But we also have many more ways to remember the essence of our loved ones - hundreds of (color) photos, voice memos, movies. The need to preserve a literal piece of them perhaps seems less crucial than it might to someone who had, at best, only a photo or two, and that in black and white.
Like hair art, looking at Nebraska these days is pretty unsettling, at least if you’re a fan. They aren’t good, and the ceiling for improvement this season seems pretty low. For Nebraskans, even after the past few years, the loss of a winning football team seems fresh and painful, and the mourning for what once was remains acute. This weekend, as Husker Nation takes a sentimental walk down memory lane to Oklahoma, the memories of what they once had are likely to feel even more savage. Looking at a team who has no reason to repine for its past, and one who really only has the memories of it will likely be a tragic thing to contemplate.
14. Illinois - Post-Mortem Photography
LPV: 12 H: 5 (wth?) L: 14 LW: -2
Yup, another photography entry on this list—but this time instead of being a sort-of creepy celebration of a new life, the photos in this entry are all about loss. With the advent of inexpensive, available photography more and more Victorians had photos commemorating their families. But that didn’t mean that they necessarily had albums full of portraits or, like today’s parents, thousands upon thousands of images of their child. Thus, when a child died unexpectedly, many parents chose to have photographs taken of their dearly departed, sometimes alone, and sometimes in a final family portrait.
Some photos of corpses are of adults, or even the elderly. While this jars modern sensibilities, as with the photos of deceased children, it was one more chance to get an image with a loved one. This did not always have a pleasing effect—corpses, as you know, can be highly resistant to bending, giving some of the subjects a deeply unnatural pose that was coped with to varying degrees of success. Eyes posed another problem - while some photos feature the deceased with closed eyes as nature intended, other photographers illustrated eyes on the photo after the fact. Unfortunately, this was skilled work, and some were much better at it than others.
So why have I chosen post-mortem photography, a creepy if well-meaning practice, for the Fighting Illini? Well, if Thump is to be believed—across several platforms and many articles since last Saturday—the Illini are actually dead. You may think you’re viewing a living team “playing” football on TV like the rest of them, but it’s all an optical illusion. There is no life. There is no soul. There is no future. There is only lamentation, and the cold, unnatural eyes of the fans as they watch their team go 1-11. Again.
What was the best part of the 19th century?
This poll is closed
Hidden mother photos
Things cooked in aspic
Royals causing dumb trends
Speaking to the dead from your parlor
Quack medicines (sorry to trigger you, OSU)
Playing computer games based on it during computer time at school (IYKYK)