If you love history, architecture, games, spooky trolley rides and all-things- Victoriana, then a visit to Cape May this weekend is a must, as its 46th annual Victorian Weekend will take place Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 4 to 7.
“The weekend is a magnet,” says Susan Krysiak, director of media relations for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities (MAC), which planned the community-wide festivities. “It’s an event that creates interest in many people. There’s something for everyone.”
Whether you stay one day or four, you will not run out of things to do.
If you’re a history buff, don’t miss the free Carroll Gallery Exhibit, Capturing Cape May’s Architecture: The Making of A National Historic Landmark, which depicts the architectural drawings from preservationists who helped make the resort an historical landmark.
“It’s a real work of passion and love for these buildings,” says Krysiak of the preservationists. “Cape May is the best example of seaside Victorian architecture in the United States,” she adds, putting the number of wood-framed Victorian structures at 600.
An excellent example is the Emlen Physick Estate, an 18-room mansion that houses the Carroll Gallery exhibit. For Victorian weekend, there’s a special tour on the nuts and bolts of the estate at 11:15 a.m. Friday ($12 for adults; $8 for children ages 3 to 12).
But architecture and exhibits are only two of the many offerings. If you want to see what Victorians did for fun back in the day, head to the Carriage House Café & Tearoom (1048 Washington St.) for an afternoon of parlor games.
“Victorians used to get together in people’s parlors for entertainment,” Krysiak says. “They’d get dressed up, have dinner, make sure their children looked lovely, then they’d play a few games.”
Charades was popular, as well as Kim’s game — a memory game where a group of small items is placed on a tray and players have a few seconds to memorize them, then list them aloud. The person who memorized the most items wins.
For this afternoon of games, which begins 4:30 p.m. Friday, desserts are included with coffee or tea, and punch or beverage of your choice ($15 for adults, $12 for MAC members).
A variety of trolley tours will highlight different aspects of the town. The Ghosts of Cape May will spook you as you ride past flickering gas street lamps and haunted properties.
Another spooky tour is the Ghost of the Lighthouse tour, which takes you to the Cape May Lighthouse as you listen to paranormal findings about this particular spot. You can climb 199 stairs to the top, and you may even feel the spirits of a few lighthouse keepers.
Another trolley excursion is the Cape Mayhem tour, which explores strange beliefs, superstitions and Victorian oddities, such as headless photography and electric corsets.
If you like racy entertainment, there’s the Spectacular Burlesque Extravaganza, a modern take on classic burlesque rooted in Victorian vaudeville. The Salty Sirens, a local group of burlesque performers, will scintillate mature audiences in a live performance at the Chalfonte Hotel (301 Howard St.) at 8 p.m. Thursday ($30).
“There’s so much offered on Victorian weekend,” says Krysiak, including crafts shows, a wine school presentation, brunch and bingo, walking tours and murder mystery dinner theater. “People who come at this time of year know that Cape May is more than just a summer, seaside resort.”
Were Victorians naughty or nice?
When you visit the parlors in Cape May’s mansions, you might imagine a world of chaste and proper people, primly dressed, playing games, drinking tea and eating scones.
And that may be true.
But there is a Victorian underbelly that few know about, shares Elan Zingman-Leith, former curator for Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities. For example, in travel guidebooks from that era you’ll discover such things listed as hotels, restaurants, churches and brothels. Yes, brothels.
“It was accepted and understood that men frequented brothels,” says Zingman-Leith, owner of Leith Hall Bed & Breakfast in Cape May. “It was considered part of life for men during that time.”
Drinking alcohol was also OK for men, but not for women. So women would carry little cases with hypodermic needles to inject opioids, says Zingman-Leith. “There was no stigma attached to women who did this. Rather, it was considered something special for them,” he says. The practice created an opioid epidemic among female users who received the drugs from their physicians.
And with the invention of electricity, a salacious practice emerged, shares Zingman-Leith. Women used a certain electronic toy to elicit their own sexual pleasure. “It was considered a medical device,” according to Zingman-Leith.
These surprising facts prove that Victorians may have been equally naughty as they were nice.