In a Nutshell
Everyone knows the Victorians were so sexually repressed, they even covered the legs of their tables and pianos—but everyone’s wrong. The Victorians did no such thing. It’s a myth begun by an 19th century British writer who didn’t know any better.
The Whole Bushel
The story of Victorians and their horror of unexposed piano legs keeps cropping up, presented as fact in books and television shows. The origin can be traced to Frederick Marryat, author of numerous popular sea adventures and other works. His travelogue, Diary in America; With Remarks On Its Institutions, published in 1839, was written during a tour of the U.S. While there, Marryat visited a girls’ seminary where he discovered the piano’s legs were shrouded in little ruffled pantaloons. The headmistress told him she’d covered the legs to “preserve in their utmost purity the ideas of the young ladies under her charge.”
Either the headmistress was something of a kook or Marryat got punked. There’s no evidence in the historic record that this supposed custom was widespread. In fact, the pretty pantaloons were most likely dust covers, concealing damage, or mere decoration.
The British press at the time picked up Marryat’s story and ran with it, since American society and its straight-laced, puritanical, overly fastidious, ludicrous manners were considered gauche and far inferior to their cousins across the Pond. The piano legs myth was resurrected in the 20th century by playwrights and authors as a shorthand for Victorian repression, but this time, the butt of the joke was the British themselves.