So most of us have probably heard the old story of how people during the Victorian era were so sexually repressed that they even covered the legs of their furniture, but that’s actually a fake story!
This myth was started by 19th century English writer and British Navy Captain, Frederick Marryat. Marryat authored many books throughout his life, including popular sea adventure stories.
In his book, Diary in America: With Remarks On Its Institutions, published in 1839, Marryat recounts his experiences in the young U.S. In this book, he wrote about two peculiar interactions he had while visiting America.
The first incident stems from an anecdote where a young woman that Marryat was traveling with scraped her knee.
He later asked if her “leg” was okay and apparently she found this so invasive that she replied that a gentleman only refers to “limbs” in the presence of a lady and never a “leg.”
The second instance further pushes this idea of puritanical purity to a whole new level.
While escorting a lady to a girls’ seminary, Marryat entered the reception room and noticed that the headmistress had done something weird with the pianoforte. He stated “…she had dressed all these four limbs in modest little trousers, with frills at the bottom of them!”
When he asked the headmistress why they were covered, she allegedly claimed it was to “preserve in their utmost purity the ideas of the young ladies” under her charge.
Now, Victorians did cover their furniture with little do-dids like this, but only to protect the furniture from wear and tear, and not to keep young girls from being seduced by wily pianos.
But that didn’t matter, this anecdote caught on like wildfire.
The British press at the time picked up Marryat’s story and ran with it, suggesting that American society was puritanical and had ridiculously fastidious manners.
This myth was further propagated by 20th century writers as a shorthand for Victorian repression, but the story backfired and started to reference British sexual repression rather than American.