Categories
The Victorians

How safe were Victorian homes?

Victorian style room, early 1900’s – source wikipedia/commons (family member of JGKlein)

The Victorian era

The Victorian period ushered in a period of great change and upheaval. The Industrial Revolution meant there was a great population shift to cities, and it was a time of great innovation and prosperity for those who had opportunities.

Nonetheless, it hardly needs to be said that the poor were never far from danger – malnutriton, filthy surroundings, and dangerous jobs just for a start. But it is also fair to say that some level of danger hovered in several areas of life, not just for the poor (who undoubtedly suffered the most), but for all members of society. These dangers also contributed to the high level of infant mortality during this period.

Dangerous additives

It’s difficult to imagine a kitchen without all our contemporary domestic appliances – but that’s exactly what a Victorian kitchen was like. Fridges would not be in common use for the wealthy until the following Edwardian era, and despite the Victorian claim of prizing cleanliness, there were no health and safety regulations or standards. As you might imagine, food poisoning was quite common, and was usually referred to as a bilious attack.

A substance known as boracic acid, which today is a component of insectides, was used by Victorian milk sellers to “purify” milk that had gone off, removing the sour taste and smell. As you may well imagine, consuming boracic acid is not the best of ideas. Not only can it cause vomiting and diarrhoea, but even worse, it masked the presence of bovine tuberculosis, an infectious disease that thrived in unpasteurised milk – remember mass produced pasteurised milk was still in the future – and this caused deformity and death. The estimation of deaths of Victorian children from this disease stands at approximately half a million.

Health and safety standards were sadly lacking in Victorian times.
Photo by Los Muertos Crew on Pexels.com

Another food staple, bread, was also adulterated with alum, an aluminium based compund, used today in detergent. It’s already not sounding like a great idea, is it ? Alum was a bulking agent used to make bread whiter and heavier, and therefore more appealing. However, it led to health deficiencies and more importantly, caused bowel issues such as constipation or diarrhoea, the latter frequently fatal for children.

Feeding bottles

A boy with a Victorian feeding bottle.
Source http://www.babybottle-museum.co.uk/murder-bottles/

Feeding bottles for young children have been around for thousands of years, made from animal horns or pewter or even leather. The Victorian version was made of glass or earthenware, with a rubber tube inside fitted with a teat. The bottles were cleverly marketed with names such as “Little Cherub” or “Princess” and were a great hit with mothers.

Nevertheless, the bottle was highly dangerous. The tubing was difficult to clean and the general thinking was that it only needed cleaning once in a while. The tube, in conjunction with warm milk, created a very effective place to breed bacteria. Doctors condemned the feeding bottles, which began to be known as killers or murder bottles in medical circles, but sadly, many women were unaware of this and still bought them. Little wonder that infant mortality was so high.

Wallpaper

A modern reproduction of Victorian wallpaper https://cdn.wallpapersafari.com/51/56/dQ87cG.jpg

Much as it may surprise us today, the Victorians were happy for arsenic to be used in small doses in their medicine, their clothing, their face powder, their wallpaper and even their food…..and poisonous stuffs such as caustic soda or carbolic acid were often sold in the same packaging as other harmless foodstuffs, paving the way for fatal errors.

But back to wallpaper. Home design having recently become a thing for the Victorian middle classes, one of the most popular colours to be used in the home was Scheele’s Green (named after Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who invented green arsenic pigment in 1775.) You can guess where this is heading, can’t you?

And indeed, people were affected by the arsenic in the green dye that flaked off the wallpaper. Heat and/or moisture could provoke a toxic atmosphere making the whole family ill, or worse. Around the 1860’s doctors began to realise that these so-called mystery illnesses were due to the toxic fumes from the arsenic in wallpaper, although health experts were ridiculed for suggesting such a thing, not least by the companies who actually manufactured wallpaper. Eventually the use of arsenic began to be regulated by the government around the 1880’s.

The use of lead

Victorian toy blocks
https://cdn.imgbin.com/11/22/6/imgbin-victorian-era-wood-block-toy-block-wood-E2EeRdp8HzQzBs9dX4AWqF1ir.jpg

Lead piping was used to transport water so drinking water could be tainted by lead it had picked up from the piping. As if that wasn’t enough, lead was used in paint to stop it from flaking. Furniture, cots and children’s toys would all be painted using this deadly substance. We all know young children tend to put their toys in their mouths, and in this way, they could poison themselves simply by playing.

Gas lights

Abstract smoke background – image by Brigitte, free Pixabay photos

If you had only ever known light sourced from fire and candles, the introduction of gas lights during the Victorian era must have been unbelievable. Being able to control the number of hours of light in a day was a whole new ball game. The Victorian passion for ornate decoration meant that a huge range of stunning lamps were manufactured, and many of these have survived to date.

But the drawbacks existed. There were two types of gas available – gas from coal which was highly flammable and which ran the risk of intoxication from carbon monoxide fumes. Natural gas could give off large flames, which was extremely hazardous next to the flowing drapes and curtains in favour at the time. Furthermore, due to the lack of regulations, workmanship could be shoddy with pipes fracturing, flames. fires and explosions. The impure gas could give off sulphuric acid, not only causing foul smells but also causing suffocation.

Most of these dangers within the home were present for all the members of the family, but it was children who suffered the most. Infant mortality was extremely high in Victorian England, reaching as much as 33% in some areas of London in 1849. Not only was this due to the toxic quality of the air in industrialised areas. lack of medical knowledge and health and safety regulations, but also the hidden dangers within the home itself.

The pandemic may have taught us that we can’t take life for granted- still, how lucky we are today to live in an age with both safety regulations and greater medical knowledge.

Categories
The Victorians

Mrs Beeton – domestic genius or plagiarist?

Title page of ‘Household Management’ Wellcome L0042710.jpg (Source – Wikimedia Commons)

Victorian household management

In previous posts we’ve seen some of the immense industrial and social changes that took place during the Victorian era , and the effect on what people ate. (https://english-stuff.com/2020/11/07/what-did-victorians-eat/.

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management  was a respected source of authority on culinary and domestic matters and a hugely influential force on shaping the burgeoning middle class. The book is still on sale today– check it out on Amazon or in other bookstores. You can even download it to your Kindle.

Maull & Polyblank – National Portrait Gallery; cropped from w:File:Isabella Mary Beeton.jpg Source –  Wikimedia Commons

Isabella Beeton

So here she is, the lady herself. You may have imagined the writer of a the Victorian domestic bible to be a middle aged or older lady, rigourously dressed in black. But Isabella was only 25 years old when Household Mangement was published in 1861. And shockingly, 3 years later, she was dead.

Isabella packed a lot into her short but intense life. Born in London in 1836, she was sent to live with relatives in Cumberland in north west England after her father died, at just four years old. When Isabella’s mother married again a few years later, the family moved to Surrey including Isabella, her two sisters and a further thirteen half siblings. As one of the elder children, Isabella was called upon to take care of the rest and this undoubtedly gave her valuable lessons in how to run a large household.

Portrait of Samuel Orchart Beeton by Julian Portch – National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org

At the age of 20, Isabella married Samuel Beeton, a publisher, who encouraged her to contribute to The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine –  a publication focused on cuisine, fashion and fiction, to keep nice middle class ladies occupied at home. Isabella began work at the publication as a translator of French short stories (having learnt both French and German at a boarding school in Germany) but soon became the editor of a supplement which was, in effect, the cookery and household section.

The collation of these 24 supplements were to become the renowned Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management . Isabella copied recipes from other books or requested that readers write in with their favourite recipes, which were copied and/or edited by the Beetons without naming any of their sources. Unthinkable by contemporary standards, but these were different times. Isabella did test runs with the recipes at home to ensure their reliability before they were printed. The only contribution actually from Isabella herself was a recipe for soup that she distributed to the needy in 1858 and 1859.

Page 547 of Household Management   https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mrs_Beeton_(547).jpg

The culinary delights you can see here on page 547 of Household Mangement shows a selection of starters – namely :

1. Toulouse Pastry  2. Fillets of Beef  3. Beef Galantine 4. Zéphires of Duck 5. Mutton Cutlets in Aspic 6. Sauté of  Veal 7. Chartreuese of Pheasant 8. Curried Veal 9. Chicken Médaillons 10.Veal Stew

These meals may  sound strange to us now, but all in all the recipes in the book are a pretty clear reflection of a what a well-heeled Victorian family generally ate. And in case you were wondering (because I did too), galantine is a French word for de-boned stuffed meat, a zéphire is a mousse, and a chartreuse is a dish that includes vegetables such as carrots and cabbage and sometimes meat, wrapped in salad or leaves and presented in a dome. Let’s move on before you ask me anything I can’t answer….

Title Page of Sept 1861 Issue of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine
Source ;https://ciaffi.wordpress.com/Wikimedia Commons

Household Mangement

Isabella’s book was not just a cookery book. Managing a wealthy middlle class Victorian household was practically the same as running a small business, albeit a non-profitable one. The recipes were the main part of the book although other domestic issues such as finance management, supervising servants, entertaining visitors, child care, fashion and decoration were also included. The Domestic Magazine was compiled into her famous book, which was a major publishing event when it was launched on 1st October 1861.

Popularity

Sixty thousand copies of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management  were sold in just the first twelve months after its publication. The Oxford English Dictionary stated that the words Mrs Beeton were “a term for an authority on all things domestic and culinary”.  By 1868, almost two million copies had been sold. But why was it so popular ?

In Victorian England, crowds of people were flocking to the cities in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, in search of a more financially stable lifestyle. As the middle class increased in size, women were often left to deal with the business of managing the household affairs while their husbands were out all day at work. The book was aimed at giving women control over domestic matters and keeping them centred on the home. It is only fair to say that up to this point in history, women had had very little say in anything. This was probably the next best thing to a career, owing to the fact that female presence in the workplace was still an event waiting to happen.

Household management was undoubtedly a book that could guide its readers through the pitfalls of being left in charge of their staff, children and homes. It also struck a note with those who wished to be thrifty and cut costs. We should also remember that in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, the differing lifestyle imposed by the flow of people from rural areas to the cities meant that many young women had received little or no training in how to run a household. And that families often had numerous children.

A later addition to Isabella’s work. Note the publisher is Ward, Lock & Co, who bought the rights to Household Management after Isabella’s death.  Photo in public domain.

Isabella was atypical of her generation. Despite writing a book that focused on what was considered to be women’s work in the home, she went to the publisher’s office every day. It was also very unusual for a book to be published with a female writer’s name – it is highly likely this was due to her connections in the publishing world. She even edited her husband’s magazine for two years.

But sadly, in 1865, at the age of just 28, she died a day after giving birth to her third child, probably from puerperal fever, a bacterial infection contracted after giving birth. Antibiotics had yet to be invented and the level of hygiene during the delivery of a baby in the 1800’s was certainly not up to our modern standards. How lucky we are today. How ironic that Isabella should die giving birth, when she was dedicated to improving family life.

Her legacy

A few editions of Household Management after Isabellas’s death included an obituary, but the publishing house – no longer Samuel Beeton as he had sold the rights to the book to cover his debts – preferred to omit any reference to Isabella’s death, and the bestselling book continued to be revised and extended, giving the impression that Mrs Beeton was personally writing every word. The first edition had 44 chapters, by 1906 it had 74 chapters and over 2,000 pages.

Some critics of Household Management say that it reinforced the gender stereotypes that women have fought against for so long, plus many of the recipes were little more than plagiarism. But we have to understand the Beeton phenomenon within its historical context. Her book allowed women to feel that they had some authority over what happened in their homes in an era when they had practically no control over anything else.

The book also empowered women with a wealth of information on domestic matters, and Isabella herself never claimed that the recipes were her own. Besides, she tested out the recipes and developed an easy-to-read format with the ingredients listed first and the method step by step, along with the cost and the estimated cooking time, similar to what we expect to see in a cookery book today. In contrast to earlier, more highbrow cookbooks, it made the art of cuisine accessible, at a time when people had turned their backs on a rural way of life and the culinary skills they might have acquired in the countryside.

Household management  is a clear reflection of Victorian values such as thrift, tidiness and cleanliness.  Whilst many of the recipes would not appeal to us today, and some of her domestic advice would be out of step with the times,  thanks to Isabella’s book we have a vivid insight into the way the Victorian middle classes lived at home, providing valuable information for sociologists and historians. Isabella was a key figure in shaping this middle-class identity and was without a doubt, a strong woman who gave other women both aspirations and empowerment in their lives, the Victorian forerunner of a life coach. The first ever domestic goddess.

Beeton recipes on video

I can’t help but feel that Isabella would love the fact that recipes from her book are still used today and she surely would have embraced our communications technology as a means to reach her audience. On youtube you can find quite a few dishes from Household Management still being cooked and shown today. As a finale to this post I have chosen this scone recipe.

Hope you enjoy the video and let me know your comments!  https://youtu.be/mPiW1unz1_g

Categories
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 ?