07/15/2014 09:06 am ET Updated Sep 14, 2014

Things You Didn't Know About Dickens's London

It's all too easy to think "then" was exactly like "now", just with funny clothes, and bad dentistry. Even if you read lots of Victorian novels, it's too easy to miss what was different. A description of a person walking down the street? How, after all, could that that be different, whether it's now, or 150 years ago. Even if we take technology into account, and mentally substitute horses and carriages for cars on the street beside them, we still automatically assume our norms are the norms of all times, in all places -- that the carriages are driven on the left, the pedestrians separate from them on the sidewalk (or, in Brit-speak, the pavement). But once we look closer, we find that even these basics are not, well, basic. For much of the nineteenth century, there were no rules of the road at all. Everyone drove wherever there was space, on the right, the left, or in the centre of the road. And pedestrians were usually mixed in between them, because sidewalks were a novelty at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and only spread to smaller streets much later.

At other times our preconceptions that 'then' was so radically different to 'now' blind us to how we are, in some ways, pretty similar. There's the old-fashioned notion that the Victorians were all prudes, and would die rather than mention sex. But all it takes is one look at the songs that were sung in clubs and pubs and taverns. Instead of prudery, the lyrics are so rude that they are unprintable here. (Hint: references to what we would call sex toys, and what can be done with them, by, and to whom, are not scarce.)

Because the past was not only a different country, it was a weirder, and wilder, one than we can ever imagine.

1. Street food
When many of the working classes lived in single rooms, storing food was difficult, and making a fire to cook it over was costly. So street-food was sold widely, and was varied. You could buy not just muffins and coffee, but eel stew, and pea soup, and fried fish. Ice cream was first brought over by Italian vendors, but soon locals were selling it too (although some "ice cream" was in fact mashed turnip). The legend of Sweeney Todd and his human pie-fillings was born in the 1840s, a time of economic hardship. Even before that, a character in Dickens's The Pickwick Papers recommended veal pie only when you're "quite sure it ain't kittens". But, he added reassuringly, summer was the best time to buy pie, because then "fruits is in, cats is out".

2. Fire!
Crowded living conditions meant entertainment was often found on the street. Not just things we know about, like acrobats, or Punch and Judy. Fires were popular among all the classes. At the first cry of "Fire!z', everyone ran to watch, the rich merely to amuse themselves (when the Houses of Parliament burnt down in 1834, the entire government was seen standing and watching), the poor to amuse themselves, and also earn a bit of cash. Firefighters expected to rush into the buildings, but they hired bystanders to man the pumps that the engines carried: sixpence and bread and cheese for a turn at the pump, and the fun of being in the action, had crowds volunteering.

3. Water
Running water was not common: rich houses might have access to the mains, but few others did, relying instead on standpipes and pumps in the streets. But even these were not active 24 hours a day. Most water companies only gave a few hours' service a couple of times a week, so if you wanted water, you had to line up for it with your buckets and bowls, and be ready to wait until the water was running. What you could carry home was then all you had until the water was turned back on in a few days' time. If you were out at work at the time, then you had to do without.

4. Don't Knock!
How you knocked on someone's front door was an indication of who you were, and what your position in society was. Postmen had a ritual double knock when they had a telegram, which had to be handed over personally, and which therefore indicated trouble. (The anxiety telegrams brought lasted long enough that in the 1930s, the title of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice was a way of saying Trouble Ahead.) But everyone else used a far more elaborate, if unspoken, system. Servants, especially footmen, knocked very loudly and flamboyantly to emphasize the importance of their employers; visitors themselves were less loud, but gave a series of knocks; tradesmen bringing goods and services had their own bell, and weren't allowed to use the knocker at all.

5. Death
Death was everywhere on the streets. Horses routinely fell and died as they pulled carriages, coaches and buses, and special companies existed to dash out and collect their carcasses. But people also died on the streets, usually of starvation. Even among the prosperous, signs of death in the streets were important. When someone died, house-blinds were drawn, and funeral drapery, swags of black (or white for girls and children) wool, velvet, or even silver embroidery, were hung across the ground-floor façade of the house. For those who could afford it, 'mutes', men wearing black and holding long staffs with drapery hanging off them, stood outside the door of the deceased on the day of the funeral.

6. Get up!
Waking up was not a simple business. Alarm clocks were only widely available towards the end of the nineteenth century, and when workdays were often 10 or 12 hours long, and the walk to work added another hour or so, getting out of bed had to be carefully planned for. The usual system was to pay a neighbor who worked on the night-shift (or, later, a policeman on the beat) to bang on the window with a long stick, waiting for the shout from inside that said the sleeper was now awake. This was known as 'knocking up'. (In Britain even today the phrase has no connection to pregnancy: a friend planning to visit might say "I'll knock you up", and you can still tell your mother about it.)

7. Rent-a-paper
Newspapers were extremely expensive until the middle of the nineteenth century, because they were heavily taxed by the government. A copy of The Times cost sixpence, which was the same price as a hearty lunch. If you wanted to read the paper, but didn't have that kind of money, you could rent one for a set number of hours for sixpence a week instead of sixpence a day. Or, if that was still too expensive, you could rent the previous day's paper by the hour for half the price. But it was still a service economy: even for that price, a newsboy would deliver the paper to your house, and then return at the scheduled time to collect it again.

Judith Flanders is the author of The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London [Thomas Dunne Books, $27.99].