Safety last! Household dangers posed by Victorian gadgetry

Bank holiadys are notorious for accidents in the home and garden as people engage in DIY and buy new appliances, but the risks of the modern home are trivial compared to Victorian times.

Bank holiadys are notorious for accidents in the home and garden as people engage in DIY and buy new appliances, but the risks of the modern home are trivial compared to Victorian times.

An exhibition at the Science Museum in London, revamped for the Easter weekend, revisits the potentially lethal hazards posed by household gadgets over the past 150 years.

Take the simple task of chopping vegetables or meat. In the 1880s some people did this with a hand-operated machine reputedly based on the design of a Mississippi steamboat's paddle machinery. This came with a degree of risk.

The chopper and mixer used a ratchet to rotate a container while a beam-and-crank mechanism worked the chopper. Unwary operators risked losing a few fingers in the fast-moving blades. "The food chopper is terrible," said Helen Peavitt, the curator of the museum's Secret Life of the Home gallery. "Obviously someone had a bit of fun inventing it. At one end you've got this pretty lethal big knife that rapidly goes up and down without any protection."

At the turn of the last century clockwork "teasmades" became popular. This bedside contraption, which looks like it was designed by Heath Robinson, used an alarm clock as the trigger for a match to strike against moving sandpaper, lighting a spirit stove under a kettle. When the water boiled, bubbles lifted a hinged flap causing the kettle to tilt so that it poured boiling water into a teapot. That was the theory. In practice, having a naked flame, inflammable liquid and boiling water at the bedside provided ample scope for accidents.

An 1850s solution to heating bathwater was to light a fire in a container and put the whole contraption inside the bath, with the combustion continuing until the water reached an appropriate temperature.

Twenty years later came the gas-heated bath, which involved lighting a Bunsen burner and letting it swing like a pendulum under the bathtub - bathers risked carbon monoxide poisoning if they failed to turn it off before entering the water.

The Secret Life gallery includes many other examples of potentially lethal inventions that were nevertheless eagerly sought after.

"The beauty of the gallery is that it combines lots of different types of objects that could be about heating, or cooking, or washing," Mrs Peavitt said. "It shows how they progressed chronologically and the weird and wonderful things our ancestors might have used.

"A lot of these things would have been aimed at upper-class, or middle-class families. They would have lasted a few years and then have evolved into something more safe and practical."

Before the discovery of electricity, pressing clothes was done with hollow irons filled with hot charcoal (a method still used in some parts of the world). A ceramic hair dryer worked by filling it with hot water and gently stroking the scalp, with the attendant risk of scalding.

One of the most dangerous electrical devices was the mangle, for wringing water out of wet clothes, a commonplace labour saver until the development of the spin dryer in the 1960s. "Mangles were notoriously dangerous," Ms Peavitt said. "We even got to a point where Leeds Infirmary had to have a dedicated clinic for mangle injuries."

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