What's Old Is New Again: Victorian Hobbies Are Making a Comeback

So tonight we're gonna hobby like it's 1899.

Embroidery Hoop
Photo: Svetlanais/Getty Images

With our lives upended by the coronavirus pandemic, a surprising number of people are relying not on cellphones and computer screens for entertainment, but more old-fashioned forms of leisure activities.

The New York Times reports that many are approaching this period of quarantine by turning to hobbies from the Victorian era. These include flower-pressing, scrapbooking, natural dyeing, embroidery, tending to windowsill herb gardens, and even learning to play new instruments.

“I’ve gone full Victorian,” Rhian Rees, who began flower pressing amid the pandemic, told the Times. “It feels like we’re back in the old days when life felt more fragile.”

Furloughed from her job, Lucy O’Farrelly has also had more time to focus on a Victorian-era pastime: collaging.

“You’re just sticking stuff down and whatever happens, happens. It’s relaxing,” she said. “We’re sort of going back in time a bit. I’m definitely here for it.”

Rees and O’Farrelly aren’t alone. Social media feeds are full of people picking up needlepoint, feeding their sourdough starters, re-learning to play the piano, and re-growing celery in their windows. And it makes sense. It’s empowering to experience improvement during difficult periods of life.

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Anders Ericsson, author of Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise and a professor of psychology at Florida State University who studies mastery and deliberate practice, spoke to the Times about the positive psychological benefits associated with mastering a difficult task, especially when you are feeling physically or emotionally stuck.

“During the Second World War, when people were in concentration camps, many prisoners developed impressive skills at mental multiplication,” Ericsson said. “They were in such an aversive environment, pushing themselves to solve problems felt like an escape, when they had no resources.”

He explained that we get deeper gratification from meeting resistance and overcoming obstacles than we do from easy, passive activities like watching Netflix.

“Once you experience what changes you can accomplish, that changes your perception of what’s possible, it changes your mind about what’s possible,” Ericsson noted.

Time is also a factor. With 26 million Americans unemployed, many people have found themselves with an abundance of free time on their hands. And if there’s one thing Victorian pursuits are good for, it’s killing time.

Erika Urso-Deutsch is using her free time to experiment with the lost art of natural dyeing. It’s something she’s been wanting to get into for the last 10 years. In quarantine, she finally has a chance.

“I know that when this ends, I’m going to feel good about the way I’ve used my time,” she told the Times. “We can only control what we can control, and right now that’s our own selves.”

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