Laying across Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman's living room is a big swath of blue carpet. The carpet belong to Gabriel's grandmother as well as Gabriel's grandmother's cat, which spent twenty years scratching a threadbare patch right near the middle. A collector might look at this damaged rug and deem it worthless. To the Chrisman's, however, it's an invaluable family heirloom. It's story is what gives it value.
You probably know Sarah and Gabriel as "The Victorian Couple," the married couple who live in Port Townsend, WA and have dedicated their lives to studying and living amongst the culture and technologies of the late nineteenth-century. There's a good chance that you've already got a preconceived notion about who they are and how they live, but until you've stepped inside their 1888-built Victorian home and heard their reasons, you might not really understand what they're about.
"People make a lot of assumptions looking at us," says Gabriel while seated on a chair atop the blue carpet, framed on both sides by penny-farthing bicycles. "They make the assumption that we hate technology. They make the assumption that if we're doing this, we can't be using any modern technology at all. They make the assumption that we're trying to live exactly as people lived in the 1880's and 90's, which we know better than anyone else is not possible."
They use the modern times to their advantage. Many of the furnishings and collectibles in the house were procured via eBay. While vintage books make for a great visual display in the bookcase, they're much easier to read when downloaded from Google Books and bound within a jacket. They're currently trying to make an era-appropriate telephone compatible with more modern technology.
They say the decision to live this way was a gradual one. It started with interests, hobbies and small changes and before they knew it they were buying an old Victorian residence in Port Townsend. "It's the right scale for us," says Sarah. "It's a very walkable town. The layout has stayed pretty much the same. All the architecture that survived is wonderful."
The place was in rough shape when they purchased it, however. Someone had left a window open and the water was frozen in the toilet bowl. They set out to remake it bit by bit into what it might have looked like when it was first built. Along the way, Gabriel says they learned how something like oil lamp lighting made them think about the world outside in ways we often take for granted nowadays.
"When your house isn't as heated as modern houses and it's not as airtight, you've got the rhythm of the seasons indoors as well as outdoors. What activities you do at what time of day. Working with the light you've got. You see the fuel decreasing and it brings you more in touch with the resources you're using, when you have to trim the wicks and do everything else. It makes you think about it a little bit more before you just flip a switch and continue doing whatever it is you're doing."
"So I can ask myself," Sarah adds, "the light outside is starting to go down, do we need to light a lamp yet or do I put the dark fabric away and start working on a light fabric that will be easier to see as the light diminishes?"
Each room in the house helps to tell part of the story of what life was like in the Victorian Era. Beveled mirrors on furniture were less about being vain and more about spreading out light across larger distances. A massage parlor (When not writing books, Sarah is a part-time masseuse) includes pressed tin along the walls to help keep conditions sanitary. A massive Charm Crawford kitchen stove showcases its importance to the homestead by the work it requires to get going as well as the sturdy cooking it performs once warmed up. Cast iron utensils are made to last for long periods of time without much degradation.
The house is less a museum and more an example of what the lives of two regular people living in Port Townsend in 1890 would look like. That's the point, according to Sarah and Gabriel. This was the era that oversaw the creation of the modern middle-class. There are plenty of other ways to see how the wealthy and elite lived back then. Here, most of the appliances and fixtures are not perfect examples, such as that roughed-up carpet. Then and now, isn't that exactly the kind of items you'd find in your average house?
If people take anything about from their immersion in a lifestyle that's over a century old, Gabriel hopes it's a sense of exploration about how to live your own life.
"We want to encourage people to do things different, even if they're not normal or mainstream. And whatever interests them, just do it. Follow that path and try it out and you'll be amazed by what you learn. We hope that our example provides inspiration for people to follow whatever interests they have."
Whether or not that involves wearing a corset or trading in your tablet for a fountain pen is entirely up to you.
· I love the Victorian era. So I decided to live in it. [Vox]
· This Victorian Life [TVL]
· Sarah Chrisman's Books [TVL]
Photos: Suzi Pratt