The “fashionable form of entertainment and edification” actually started in the mid-1830s, shortly before the start of the Victorian period proper, as Gabriel Moloshenka details in his “Unrolling Mummies in Nineteenth-Century Britain” (which, by the way, is a great read). The great popularizer of mummy unrolling was Thomas Pettigrew, a doctor and amateur Egyptologist who started unrolling mummies for pay in front of enormous audiences after he was fired from his hospital job for corruption.
Though billed as educational events, Pettigrew’s unrollings quickly became spectacles, some more successful than others:
“The audience numbered between five and six hundred, of whom only a few could see the mummy adequately, and the space was ill-designed for the purpose, being a meeting room rather than an anatomy theatre… After several hours the attempts [to remove the hardened wrappings] were abandoned and the audience was assured that ticket-holders would be admitted to view the mummy once it had been fully uncovered.”
Even when successful, the unrolling process took a long time, and the mummies themselves were often pretty unimpressive once unwrapped. Pettigrew made sure to spice things up with some dramatic flourishes:
“In the final stages of the unrolling Pettigrew recited a prayer allegedly used by ancient Egyptians while dying, to assert goodness and ensure the passage of the soul.”
Though his spectacles were so popular that they frequently sold out, not everyone was a fan of Pettigrew. In 1837, Figaro in London satirized public mummy unrollings:
“Some nasty beasts met together on Saturday last to indulge in the disgusting amusement of unrolling a mummy. Our old friend Pettigrew, commonly called Mummy Pettigrew, was the principal unroller on this filthy occasion… A considerable mob was in attendance to witness the offensive process.”
Still, mummy unrollings, like the 1850 one mentioned in the invitation below, remained a popular form of edutainment throughout the Victorian period.
Featured image via NYPL