Victorian America

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This article is about the time period. For the album by Emily Jane White, see Victorian America (album).

The Victorian Era is named after the period from 1837 to 1901, the length of the rule of Great Britain's Queen Victoria. American Victorianism was an offshoot of this period and lifestyle that occurred in the United States, chiefly in heavily populated regions such as New England and the Deep South. The name was derived from the reign of Queen Victoria, which reflected the heavy British cultural influence on the nation during the time.

As American business people of the Second Industrial Revolution created sprawling industrial towns and cities in the Northeast, the growing upper class of the Gilded Age mimicked the high society of their former mother country in dress, morality, and mannerisms. The period included various activities: the Second Industrial Revolution, the Women's suffrage movement, and Republican political domination.

Culture and transportation[edit]

Victorian America was a time of uncertainty for the Americans with "old money." The wealthy were not yet sure what it was to be an American and they showed their uncertainty by borrowing heavily from European culture, especially French culture. Old money people ate French cuisine prepared by French cooks imported from France and drank French wines. Often, these families would buy up the entire stocks of a French vineyard for their house.

These wealthy families were always striving to keep ahead of the middle-class as the middle-class continually tried to imitate those who were wealthier. In the mid-18th century, only the rich owned private carriages, but, by the 1840s the middle class had begun to imitate this behavior. The rich then began to move to the suburbs, called "uptown," to get away from the noise, congestion, crowds, and dirt of the inner cities.

Waggonways had long been used in the mines in England and Europe, parallel strips of iron over which ore-laden carts ran. Shortly before the Victorian era, however, people started to use railways to transport people and goods between cities and within cities. Streetcars and trains began to see widespread use in America in the 1840s and 1850s, having begun commercially in the 1830s.

As streetcars (in the form of horsecars) become more popular, the middle-class also moved to the suburbs, thus forming the first streetcar suburbs. The rich moved further out in the 1860s, to places like Long Island. Here, the rich built large country estates similar to those found in England with orchards and gardens. Now in the countryside, the rich took the train, which they could afford, into the cities, where they worked with the middle-class managers they hired.

By the 1890s, the cost of a train ticket had dropped far enough that the middle class could now afford to commute on trains. To set themselves apart, the rich sought out communities such as Newport, RI, where there were few economic opportunities. The rich also began to winter in warm states, like Florida, something made more feasible by long-distance railroads. As this behavior began to catch on in the middle class in the 20th century, the rich began to vacation overseas in Europe, a feat made easier by steamships.

These old rich showed off for the middle class, but there was also heavy competition within the class itself. Houses in Victorian America were elaborate fantastical affairs with a combination of different architectural styles. Turrets, gables, bright colors, false fronts and false chimneys were common. The rich also competed in the community to prove their wealth.

Unlike in Europe, all arts funding was through private donations and not government funding. These wealthy people donated money to found opera houses, symphony orchestras and art museums. Two competing art museums (the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum) were founded in San Francisco by two competing families, each trying to best the other through their museum. The rich also funded charities and institutions such as hospitals and colleges.

The Industrial Revolution was partly responsible for the lifestyle of the wealthy, but a body of new rich who threatened the status of the old rich. Culturally, these new rich were very different, who grew up with American food that was simpler than the old rich's French cuisine. However, many of the new rich converted to the Episcopalian Church. To distance themselves from the new rich, the old rich created "society" made up of "proper families." Newly rich people could not easily join society, except perhaps in New York City, where they could buy their way in, but their children could if they married into an old family.

Events and politics[edit]

The Victorian era began in 1837, with the accession of Britain's Queen Victoria, and endured throughout upheavals such as the American Civil War, until Queen Victoria's death in 1901. Slavery was a major political issue in the early Victorian era in the United States, and a regional one at that, with the American South generally favoring it and the Northeast and Midwest opposing it. The Civil War broke out, mostly due to this issue, in 1860, and it was a time of awareness and change in American culture. 750,000 Americans died during the war out of a population of 31 million. Among men aged 18–35, about 20% had died by the end of the war. The industrial Northern states defeated the rebellious Southern states, leading to the period called Reconstruction.

Immigration picked up during the Victorian era in America, as dissatisfied Europeans fled the poverty and politics of their homelands for the New World. This led, in turn, to a surge in ethnocentrism and racism, and the forming of ethnic neighborhoods in major cities. The American West, an enormous land sometimes known as the "frontier", attracted settlers. Laws, such as the Homestead Acts, helped Europeans and their descendants take lands used by Native Americans.

Entertainment[edit]

Attitudes toward work and working greatly changed entertainment in Victorian America. Before the Civil War, everyone worked, even the very wealthy. Not working was scandalous. However, after the Civil War, this attitude changed and the wealthy began to hire middle-class managers to manage the day-to-day affairs of business leaving the wealthy to be sedentary. The combination of more time coupled with larger cities with a higher concentration of wealthy lead to the creation of an upper-class subculture often referred to as "society." Society membership basically required one thing: old money. New money was acceptable only if the individual was very wealthy or if the individual was the child of new money and had married into an established family.

Society members were often related by blood, marriage, or business to one another. Society also held debutante balls (still held in parts of the US) where young women would "come out" at 18 and be introduced to all the eligible young society men. In one season, there would be 18 or 20 balls.

Parties held by society members were very elaborate with each party trying to outdo every other party. At one party, all the women received diamond necklaces as party favors while the men were given cigars made out of dollar bills to smoke. Most Victorian mansions had ballrooms with orchestras. Reports of the parties were published in the social papers in newspapers.

Religion[edit]

Most of the old money elite were Episcopalian, and as individuals became wealthy from the Industrial Revolution, they often converted to the Episcopal Church. Episcopalian churches had a British feel (befitting that sect's descent from the Church of England), and were very ritualistic. Some of the old money elite were Unitarian or Quaker, and only a few were Catholic. New York City tended to be more open about religion than cities like Boston.

Architecture and furnishing[edit]

Early Victorian "Gingerbread House". Built 1855

Architecture in the Victorian era was very elaborate, romantic, and emotional. The architecture of the house advertised the amount of money that the owner had. Houses were very large with many small rooms: each room had a particular function "a place for everything and everything in its place." Houses had ballrooms, morning rooms, sitting rooms, libraries, piano rooms, etc. Houses often were set in the middle or towards the back of lots. The exteriors of houses were often brightly colored with false fronts and false chimneys. The interiors were dark with heavy drapes, dark wood, dark wall paper, and hard wood flooring. Many houses had two hallways and two staircases, one grand for company, and one plain for the children and servants. The staircase for guests allowed for dramatic entrances. The back halls and private rooms were not decorative and were plain with whitewash and wooden floors. The public areas of the house were displays of wealth and virtue. It was an age of materialism, and Victorian houses were correspondingly larger. The Victorians also despised pragmatism and hid the functions of furnishings.

Poverty and immigration[edit]

The Victorian Era in America was also a time of massive immigration. This wave of immigrants, referred to as the Third Wave (1880–1914), consisted of immigrants mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe. German and Scandinavian were very common.

Decade Number of German Immigrants Number of Scandinavian Immigrants
1830s 152,454 1,202
1840s 434,626 13,903
1850s 951,667 20,931
1860s 787,468 109,298
1870s 718,182 211,245
1880s 1,452,970 568,362
1890s 505,152 321,281
Total 7,176,071 1,223,047

Cities expanded rapidly under the onslaught of immigrants and from 1880-1900 New York City grew from 1.9 million to 3.4 million. These immigrants settled in the North and obtained poorly paid jobs in factories. Housing was crowded, poorly ventilated, and unsanitary. Some blocks in New York City had as many as 10,000 residents, all living in buildings no higher than six stories. Some rooms in tenement houses had no outside windows or air ducts. Cities grew much faster than resources, so indoor plumbing and sewage were inadequate. Tenement buildings often had their own well in the basement, where the sewer drained, that tenants could use for water. However, in the summer, the water table often dropped below the level of the pump for many hours of the day. Child labor was common due to intense poverty.

Child labor[edit]

See Child labor laws in the United States

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  • Rorabaugh,William J. "American Social History." University of Washington. Seattle, WA. 5–7 January 2009.
  • Gregory, James. "The Peoples of the United States." University of Washington. Seattle, WA. 28 January 2009.