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A Victorian era obsessed Port Townsend couple lives as if it’s the 1880s

Sarah A Chrisman and her husband Gabriel, in Port Townsend (Photo by Estar Hyo Gyung Choi)

Sarah A. Chrisman has never had a cell phone or a driver’s license. She uses an ice box instead of a refrigerator, bakes her own bread, sews all of her own clothes by hand and washes them with either baking soda or salt, depending on the fabric.

Sarah and her husband, Gabriel, are living a Victorian life in Port Townsend. They love the Victorian era so much that they have adjusted their lives as much as possible to live like it’s the 1880s and 1890s.

Sarah says she’s been a fan of the era since she was a child.

“When I was a very little girl other children were begging their parents to leave them at Disneyland. I begged my mom to leave me at a Victorian museum we had visited,” Sarah said, laughing.

But pretty much since that experience, she had only read negative things about the Victorians.

“The thing that really was the turning point for us was when my husband, Gabriel, gave me a corset for my 29th birthday, back in 2009,” she said. “Then when I tried the corset on, just to humor him at first, I realized right away that so many things I’d always heard about corsets were just completely wrong. I could breathe, I was comfortable.”

So she figured the other things she’d heard about the culture could be wrong as well. That corset inspired Sarah’s first memoir, Victorian Secrets, and it whittled her 32 inch waist down to a trim 22 inches. She wears it 24/7, even to sleep and while she bathes.

“Every morning, I wash with a bowl and pitcher,” Sarah said, adding that she takes a full bath without the corset a couple times a week.

That very corset also inspired Sarah and her husband to start wearing Victorian era fashions every day; floor length dresses and vintage hairdos for her and top hats and ties for him.

“And then we moved to a house that was built in 1888. And over time, as the various modern things in our lives would break, we realized we preferred using the Victorian ones anyways,” she said. “So that’s what we stuck with. Our lamps, that we use for light, are oil lamps that I have to fill with kerosene or paraffin oil, depending on the lamp.”

Their house is a museum of antique Victorian furniture. Sarah cooks from Victorian cookbooks and takes cleaning and beauty tips from antique magazines from the time period. But, of course, it’s impossible to stave off all modern conveniences. In fact, I interviewed Sarah via Skype. The couple also has a land line. They use email and have a website.

But Sarah says the website was created to teach the world about the Victorian era and about their lifestyle, because the corset alone causes quite a bit of backlash.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “I never expected my underwear to be such a polarizing issue to total strangers. People come up to me and start screaming at me on the street. People come up to me and they try and grab me, which is terrible. The feminists in the 1960s were [huge critics of the corset] and, actually, women of that generation are the ones who come at me and scream at me the loudest and try to grab me the most.”

“In terms of why it’s OK to wear [the corset], if you’re going to go around saying, ‘Hands off my body,’ you’ve got to let me make that same choice for myself, too,” Sarah said.

She contends that they plan to live this way forever.

“It’s how we like to live,” she said. “It’s what brings us joy.”

Although Sarah notes that she sometimes feels like a circus freak because people stare at her on the street. But she swears the goal of their experiment is not to get attention.

“It’s based on learning and for us learning is fun because every single thing we do teaches us something and gives us more insights,” Sarah said. “We’re people who love to learn and we think that learning is something that people always should do. This is our way of learning.”

Sarah’s third book, The Victorian Life will be out this fall.

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