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The Victorians

A Victorian Christmas

A Merry Christmas (1903) from The Miriam And Ira D. Wallach Division Of Art, Prints and Photographs: Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. (Image in public domain).

Christmas past

Christmas has been celebrated in many guises during history, melded from a pagan rite and a liturgical feast to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. So how did it morph into the activities and festivities that we associate with a contemporary Christmas?

In short, we owe a lot of our modern day secular Yuletide traditions to the Victorians. At the start of the Victorian period, Christmas was not a recognised event as such, but by the end of the nineteenth century, it had evolved into a significant occasion with a strong resemblance to the way we celebrate it today.

Illustrated London News, Public domain, via Wikimedia

Christmas trees

Tree worship goes as far back as the pagan era, and bringing greenery into the house for decoration seems logical when faced with a long, dark winter. But it was Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who made Christmas trees popular when he installed one in Windsor Castle for the royal family’s festivities in the 1841. Once the royal household were pictured in the press with a decorated Christmas tree, the tradition quickly spread throughout Britain.

Victorian Christmas toys. https://pixy.org/src/105/1054784.jpg (creativecommons.org)

Christmas presents

Thr old custom of giving gifts on New Year’s Day gradually moved to 25th December as Christmas grew in importance during the Victorian age. Due to the industrial revolution, the wealth of the middle classes increased and they were allowed time off work to make the most of Christmas and Boxing Day holidays. Gifts which were originally small items hung from the branches of the Christmas tree – nuts, fruit or handicrafts- became bigger, more costly presents, which had to be left under the Christmas tree, due to their size. Needless to say, children from poorer families would still receive a stocking with fruit and/or nuts, whilst rich families could afford expensive handmade toys for their offspring.

Boxing Day was the day when the working class would open their boxes of donations or presents from their employers and for servants in large houses in particular, it would be their chance to relax a little from their household duties.

Victorian Green Santa. http://www.freevintageart.com

Father Christmas

The Father Chrismas we know these days is very much an invention of the Victorian age. The concept of Christmas personified has been around since the Middle Ages, in various incarnations as Old Christmas, Captain Christmas or Prince Christmas. But Captain Christmas et al were more concerned with feasting, drinking and partying than sliding down chimneys with toys for the kids. As the Victorian Christmas gradually became more child focused, and with the arrival of the Santa Claus story from the United States in the 1880’s, the idea of Father Christmas morphed with Santa and they became synonymous with each other, benevolent bringers of gifts for well-behaved children.

And this new Father Christmas was not always portrayed in his typically red outfit at first. His outfit could be green -see illustration above – blue, white or brown. In 1931 a Coca-Cola marketing campaign firmly established the tradition that Father Christmas/Santa Claus unequivocally dresses in red. The oldest letter that exists from a child writing to Father Christmas with requests for presents dates back to 1895.

The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843. https://commons.wikimedia.org (Image in public domain).

Christmas cards

The very first English Christmas card was actually a decorated manuscript sent to James I of England in 1611. Ornate scripts being beyond the reach of most people, the tradition of sending Christmas cards did not resurface until 1843. Henry Cole was a savvy guy who was involved in the creation of the Penny Post, the newly reformed postal service in 1840. Together with John Callcott Horsley, he invented the first series of commercially produced Christmas cards. This first Christmas card, pictured above, caused some controversy as the youngest member of the family is shown drinking wine, but the seeds of a new industry had been planted and Christmas cards became a profitable business.

https://victorianchristmasparty.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Charles_Green01.jpg

Christmas dinner

My last post centred around what Victorians ate, and the huge difference between the financially stable and the less well off. Find it here: https://wordpress.com/post/english-stuff.com/744

Christmas, of course, was no different. Monied families could look forward to a lavish meal of several courses, the main course consisting generally of roasted meat, maybe beef, goose or turkey. Other delights included quail, oysters and truffles, Those who were not so lucky either ate something more humble, such as rabbit, or simply did not partipate in Christmas festivities. Many families lived in poverty, and Charles Dickens’s tale of Scrooge, “A Christmas Carol”, encouraged the wealthy to give gifts or donations to the poor at Christmas – a tradition which already existed but was made popular to a certain extent during Victorian times. Newspapers printed appeals for the poor and charitable organisations arranged Christmas dinners for some of those in need.

Christmas 2020

So what we can see is that a typical twenty- first century Christmas is basically a product of the Victorian era, brought about by industrialisation and greater buying power for the middle classes. Yet in 2020, the year of COVID-19, many of us are going to have a different Chistmas experience.

Will it change the way we live Christmas in the future, I wonder ?

Feel free to add your comments and let me know.

Categories
The Victorians

What did Victorians eat?

Victorian dessert image from https://thegraphicsfairy.com

Haves and Have Nots

Similar to the Victorian era, we live in an age of great social inequality, of haves and have nots. Fortunately these days, the State has certain obligations to its citizens to provide social welfare, although in England it has been cut back, reduced and generally made less available to the needy over recent years.

Going back in time

A slum in Market Court, Kensington,London,1860s.

The Victorian era, in a similar way to the present, was a period of great change. By the end of the era, there had been significant advances in industrialisation, communications, and great innovations in science and technology. All of this brought great wealth to the country and the moneyed classes increased their fortunes.

But the poor often paid the price of these changes. The wealth generated in cities hastened an agricultural depression, with people flocking to increasingly urbanised areas where large houses were converted into overcrowded tenements, neglected by the landlords, and ending up as slums. In an age where there was little sanitisation, and long hours of manual and child labour were the norm, the poor were trapped and vulnerable to exploitation.

Victorian food

The needy

Frontispiece from First edition Oliver Twist, 1838.
Richard Bentley – Heritage Auction Galleries, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Unsurprisingly, what and how you ate in Victorian times depended on your financial status. At the bottom of the scale were the people in workhouses, who had no means of supporting themselves. In return for long hours of labour, the workhouses provided very basic food and shelter.

However, the conditions were often rough and undignified, and the workhouses often resembled prisons more than anything else. Charles Dickens’ harsh depiction of the workhouse and the brutal treatment of the inmates in Oliver Twist was in fact, a pretty realistic representation, intended to raise awareness of the unacceptable cruelties within the workhouse system.

Boys at Crumpsall Workhouse, circa 1895-1897, source Wikimedia Commons

Gruel – a cereal such as wheat or oats, boiled in water or milk- was a common breakfast in the workhouses . A version existed using only flour and water, so gruel could vary in consistency from porridge to……basically, slop. And Oliver Twist had the temerity to ask for more.

Lunch, known as dinner, varied from cooked or pickled meat with potatoes and vegetables in the best of cases to a watery broth in the worst scenario, The evening meal, called supper, was generally around 6pm and consisted of bread and broth, and maybe a small piece of cheese if you were lucky. The workhouse was not a solution for anything. Towards the end of the 19th century, the idea began to take root that the State should take some responsibility for the more vulnerable members of society.

The working class

The Victorians had a strict class system and even the working class was divided into three tiers – firstly manual labourers, followed by artisans, and the top level, the “educated working man”. Manual labourers, at the bottom of the hierarchy , were paid very low wages and could only afford very basic foodstuffs, let alone kitchen utensils.

One of the cheaper items on offer at the butchers’ was broxy, which referred to spoiled meat from animals which had died from disease. If you didn’t fancy food posioning or death from broxy, boiled or fried sheeps’ trotters were also a popular dish. Yes, I’m feeling queasy at this point as well….

Slum residents generally existed on a diet of bread, dripping, tea and broth. The worst off also ate potato peelings and rotten vegetables. Inevitably, this dreadful diet had effects on people’s health and harmed the healthy development of growing children.

The moneyed classes

With the invention of railways and better transport systems during the Victorian period, food produce could be transported more easily across the country, providing a better choice of fresh food for those who could afford it.

Although the middle classes could not afford to be as extravagant as the wealthy, the financially stable also had a variety of foods available to them. Meat, fish, cheese, eggs and bacon were staples along with porridge, and the traditional Sunday roast dinner. Meat was an expensive commodity so was generally out of reach for the less well off, although it could be substituted with offal, or a nice sheep or calf head. Eurgh. Please note I have spared you (and myself) the images.

Beyond Britain, Victorian cuisine had a reputation for being tasteless and unappetising , with all foodstuffs basically being boiled to death. This is justified to a certain extent, but there was also a trend towards culinary creativity. It goes without saying of course, that you would need to be wealthy in order to indulge this creative vein.

For the well-off, it became fashionable to host elaborate dinner parties, showing off expensive china and silverware and with highly decorated tables. The menus would generally consist of soup and fish as a starter, followed by meat or stew, game or poultry and conclude with dessert, cheese and liquor. Certainly there were no poisoned meats or rotten vegetables on offer in these fine displays of prosperity.

The table is set in the centre of an elegant Victorian dining room. The illustration is from Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms, by Thos. E. Hill, 1886.

Large Victorian properties would possess huge kitchens including a scullery for cleaning and storing crockery and kitchen utensils, a pantry for food storage prior to use, and a larder for meat preparation as well as ample kitchen space for the actual cooking. . Not to mention the the members of staff employed to deal with all the culinary preparation of the menu.

It has been noted that upper and middle class women did sometimes join in with the menu preparation. Elizabeth Robins Pennell was an art-turned-food critic who considered that food could be a high form of art, and encouraged women to use their creative gifts rather than consider cooking to be a household chore.

Illustration of creative dishes from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1907

Although we would be familiar with many of the foodstuffs that Victorians ate, there are several dishes that would definitely not appeal to modern tastes. An example of this is the Brown Windsor Soup, which sounds pretty sinister to me already. It was a concoction of meat in its gravy, vegetables, vinegar, dried fruit, and for those who could afford it, a dash of Madeira wine. Still not liking it? Me neither. But it was “reputed to have built the British Empire.” Yikes.

Although it was orginally a chef’s gourmet recipe, by the 1920’s poor old Windsor soup had became a synonym for the worst of English cuisine.

Other delights included bone marrow on toast, heron pudding, haggis, and a popular breakfast was kedgeree – an Anglo-Indian dish consisting of smoked haddock, rice, milk, hard-boiled eggs and seasoned with coriander, curry and/or turmeric. Those who could afford it believed in hearty breakfasts, but I think I’ll stick to my cup of coffee and piece of toast, thanks very much.

A modern take on kedgeree
Photo By User:Justinc – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Victorian Food and Health

It is obvious that the abysmal quality of diet was detrimental to the poor and could even kill them. The rich however, did not suffer from the same diet-related problems as we do today.

For a start, convenience foods high in fat or sugar content were yet to be invented. The population was, on the whole, much more active than we are today. The Victorians ate plenty of seasonal vegetables and fruit due to the development of new transport systems. Their intake of nuts, whole grains and omega rich foods all meant that the chronic and degenerative diseases which are common in today’s society hardly existed. Diabetes type 2, for example, which is rife in our modern world, was practically non-existent.

What can we learn ?

Our modern society is generally aware, that with the rise of largely sedentary jobs, people who have access to plenty of food need to exercise and eat healthily to help ward off disease. And secondly, maybe we (and especially the 331 Members of Parliament that voted against a food supply for kids in need) should be a little more inclined to believe that poorer people may not have money to feed their children through no fault of their own. We may no longer suffer some of the barbaric incidents of the Victorian era, but the financial gap between the well-heeled and the less fortunate seems to be, very sadly, on the increase.

Categories
The Victorians

Here comes the bride

Photo by bach hanzo on Pexels.com
A white bridal gown

Why are wedding dresses white?

One of the first images that springs to mind when we think about weddings is the white bridal dress. Although our society is no longer son strictly bound by cultural norms, the traditional white wedding dress is still overwhelmingly chosen by many Western brides. But where and when did brides start wearing white ?

Before the white wedding dress

Before the white wedding dress, that is, prior to the 1840’s, there was no predominant colour for a wedding dress. Brides wore coloured dresses, or even black, as the dress would probably have been used afterwards for social gatherings, and white would not have been a practical choice. Even royal brides wore coloured wedding gowns, although with the addition of luxurious furs and expensive jewellery.

Until Queen Victoria’s wedding.

Queen Victoria married Prince Albert on 10th February, 1840. She made an unusual choice to get married in a white silk-satin dress, trimmed with lace. She chose British fabric in order to boost the ailing lace industry and the fabric manufacturing trade. The silk was from Spitalfields and the lace from Honiton and Beer, in Devon. Instead of a donning the heavy robes of a monarch, she attached a white satin train to her dress and held an orange blossom and myrtle wreath , along with orange blossom in her hair instead of a crown. The image below shows Victoria and Albert’s wedding ceremony , in a part of a painting by George Hayter.

A section of George Hayter’s portrait of Victoria and Albert’s wedding.

Victoria’s choice of attire was groundbreaking. The fashionable colour for wedding dresses at the time was actually red and a royal bride was expected to be decked out in a heavy, brocaded robes of state that showed status and wealth. A comparable event today would be a royal bride walking down the aisle in a blue or red wedding dress, for example. Some members of the court criticised Victoria’s sartorial choice as insipid and excessively simple, expecting to see much more lavish jewelley and expensive materials. However, Victoria had her reasons. It is thought that the lack of pomp and circumstance served to show her reign would not be flamboyant but based on simplicity and good sense, along with the promotion of national craftsmanship in the dress itself.

Of course, reports and pictures of Victoria’s wedding and her dress were widespread for several months after the event. Before long, wealthy brides were getting married in white dresses with orange blossom additions. In 1849, Godey’s Lady Book, a forerunner of a modern fashion magazine, declared that white was the best colour for a bride, “as an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood.” In addition, the publication incorrectly claimed that a white wedding dress was an ancient tradition that represented virginity, something that resonated with the public, even though it was not true.

And so began the association of the colour white with the virginal bride, although the choice of white also denoted that the bride’s family had the financial means to afford a dress in an impractical colour which could not be easily cleaned. The same went for the fabrics used in the bridal gown – the more luxurious the fabric, the wealthier the family. By the end of the 19th century white wedding dresses were the norm for brides who had money, whereas the less financially well-off would simply wear their best dress or suit in whatever colour they had. During the Second World War some brides actually wore wedding dresses made from parachute silk. But when better times arrived after the war and with white weddings portrayed on the silver screen, the whole concept of a white wedding became part and parcel of Western culture.

April 2011

Catherine Middleton on her wedding day in April, 2011

When Kate Middleton married Prince William on April 29th, 2011, there were several nods to the precedents set by Queen Victoria. Kate’s dress in itself had a Victorian line, with a tight bodice and long, full skirt. The lacework on the silk was created by needlewomen, not machines. The dress was made completely from British fabric, with only one exception which was French Chantilly lace. Myrtle was used in Kate’s bouquet, just like Victoria’s.

Victoria’s legacy

The Royal Family have access to great wealth and privilege, but a white wedding is something that many of us are familiar with. Nowadays we have access to a huge variety of options for wedding ceremonies – under the sea, in a hot air balloon – where a flowing wedding dress is not exactly practical. We can dress in any way or any colour we like. But a huge majority of women still opt for the white wedding dress – or ivory or cream or ecru or eggshell. Although other royals may have worn white for their wedding ceremonies before Victoria, it is her influence that has given us the modern white wedding dress. I wonder what she would make of the backless, strapless and off the shoulder versions ?