Defining The Victorians

What made the Victorian era (1837-1901) so unique?
Innovations in technology during the lifetime of Queen Victoria led to rapid industrialization. Cities such as London and New York exploded in size and density as people poured in from the country to work newer, higher-paying jobs. Better paychecks empowered citizens to spend, feeding a growing middle class. A rising literacy rate and ubiquity of print media advertised new furniture, clothes, and homes for those people to spend that new money on. Aristocrats—perhaps feeling threatened by the emergence of new money—looked to their time-honored traditions to set them apart from the upstart middle- class. These aristocrats may have looked to status as their new currency.

How did you get status?
Demonstrating proper etiquette was a start. Upper class elite women were always to be chaperoned; speaking to a man you did not know could be scandalous, leading to social ostracization and bullying. Gentlemen could not smoke, drink, or discuss certain matters depending on the age, sex, class, or dress of their company. An action as small as tipping your hat to a poorer person could be misconstrued as approving poverty. A Victorian aristocrat was always alert to their actions and the actions of others.

Playing by the rules gave one status. Failing to meet others’ expectations resulted in ruination. Status could also be communicated through what you owned. Victorian population growth saw workers migrate from the countryside to cities, and with their newfound public lives middle-class Victorians invested in new homes.

With the free time their new wealth gave them, doctors and lawyers could afford areas to receive company such as the reception room or the drawing room. Modeled after those of the aristocracy, public rooms were decorated with furniture items obscure to us now—Girandoles, Davenports, Chiffoniers, Settees. All of these showed your neighbors you were hip to the times and able to keep up with the aristocrats. Look at the Garfield home. What do you think Lucretia may have had in to communicate to her visitors that she was an educated woman of status?

Painted scene of mountains in a storm
Storm in the Mountains 1870 Painting | Albert Bierstadt | Oil Painting Reproduction

Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Victorians in the Fall
In 1880, going outside during a storm was hardly an option. If you got sick you could die from a cold! On days with terrible weather the Garfield children likely stayed indoors and played parlor games such as checkers. If the weather was bad enough, you might be drafted to help seal the windows and doors to make sure water didn’t get inside the house. So much for a cozy day off!

Last updated: November 10, 2018