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Victorian Interiors Social and Cultural Influences on Interior Architecture and Design
AVictorian house was arranged like a mom-and-pop retail shop with the display area up front and family quarters and service areas at the rear. The public areas of the home — the parlors and drawing rooms — showcased the family's prestige and social status. They were intended to awe and impress visitors with the wealth, refinement and good taste of the householder.
Behind the public face of the house was the family's living area. This was where daily household activities took place, and opulent display and decoration tended to get in the way. Although today's designers treat the family spaces with all the elaboration of public rooms, these areas, especially in middle-class homes, were much less ornate, although usually comfortable and attractive, even homey, but rarely opulent.
Service areas were the least elaborate of all — typically plain and very functional. These included the kitchen, larders, laundry and servants' quarters (if there were servants). Here the essential maintenance functions of the household took place, out of sight of both the public and family areas, in plain-as-day rooms, devoid of any but the most essential comforts, and sometimes not even those.
Social and Cultural Influences on Victorian Style
The comfort, convenience, and decoration of Victorian houses were greatly influenced by what was possible. And the Victorian Era was a period of rapidly expanding possibilities largely propelled by the Industrial Revolution between 1860 and 1910.
At the beginning of the period, America was an agrarian society with very limited surplus wealth consistent with a largely subsistence economy. By 1910 the country was an urban industrial goliath, with a gross domestic product nearly four times what it had been a mere 50 years prior. Increasing industrialization did not mean merely more wealth, it also meant an abundance of material goods that directly impacted how homes were designed, built, furnished and decorated; and how the family lived its daily life.
But, forces other than industrialization also had a dramatic influence on domestic life and directed how resources were spent. Chief among these was the increasing emphasis on privacy, orderliness, sanitation and hygiene. Cleanliness became "next to Godliness" only in the late Victorian era as a practical offshoot of the invention of indoor sanitary bathrooms, but orderliness with "a place for everything, and everything in its place" pervaded the Victorian Era from beginning to end, providing the impetus for all manner of useful inventions, devices and processes promoting good order and efficiency in daily living.
The Growth of Personal Privacy
Privacy was a central theme of Victorian design and the desire for personal privacy had great influence on the Victorian interior landscape.
While public rooms were often fairly large, family rooms were not. There was no such thing as an "open" house plan in Victorian times. In part, it was just practical. Heating was by burning wood or coal in fireplaces or stoves. It took a lot of work.
A study in 1899 by Boston's School of Housekeeping Note 1 found that tending a coal stove took a minimum of seven hours each week and included carrying almost 300 lbs. of coal and removing 27 lbs. of ashes. Four tons of coal was used for heating an eight-room house in a typical year. It was much less work to heat a small room than a large one.
But, small rooms were also a matter of preference. Small, enclosed spaces were cherished by Victorians for their coziness and the feeling of privacy that Victorians prized.
Before the Victorian age privacy was had to come by. Separate rooms for sleeping were uncommon. Beds were usually pallets brought out every evening and placed by the fireplace for sleeping. In well-to-do houses, only parents might have a separate sleeping room. But, by the 1880s it had become common for everyone in even modestly well-to-do families to have their own bedroom, or, at very least a personal corner of a bedroom shared with a sibling.
Most bedrooms were more than just large enough for a bed with some hooks on the wall for clothing. There was space for a small sitting area with dressers, armoires, and even a small desk. Still tiny by modern standards, and often oddly shaped, bedrooms were becoming personal retreats that, with a closed door, afforded an unheard-of degree of privacy.
But, even this level of privacy was often not enough. Folding screens in corners concealed the acts of and undressing, and beds were often fitted into alcoves for visual separation from the rest of the room.
Dedicated, Single Use Rooms
The Victorian Age was also the period in which single-use rooms became the norm in American homes. In prior periods, houses were generally small with just a few rooms. Most rooms had multiple uses. During the day a room could be a combination gathering room, dining room, and kitchen; at night a dormitory. The kitchen fireplace was often the only source of heat in the house, so cozying up to the fireplace kept the occupants warm at night. In many cultures, this is still the dominant arrangement. Rooms in traditional Japanese houses, for example, are designed with multiple uses in mind.
But, during the Victorian Age, houses began to be planned with rooms dedicated to a single purpose.
Bedrooms were bedrooms and identified as such in house plans. They had no other function. Dining rooms were for eating, and when no dining was going on, they would be empty.
Dedicated kitchens became common. The combination kitchen-dining-gathering room disappeared, at least until the 1970s when farm kitchens that re-combined meal preparation and dining began to reappear in plans for contemporary American houses.
Single uses allowed rooms to be furnished and decorated to facilitate the purpose to which they were dedicated. Dining rooms, furnished for dining, contained tables, chairs, and storage/serving furniture. Bedrooms began to be furnished with permanent raised beds, an innovation that placed the bed out of the drafts typical in period homes, and away from most creepy-crawlies.
The houses of wealthier citizens often had dedicated rooms not common in middle-class homes: game rooms, for example, furnished for board and card games, and even a billiard room — although billiards was considered a bit risqué in the Victorian Age.
Nurseries became common, initially attached to the parents' bedroom, but later a separate room furnished for the needs of the infant of the household, of which there would usually be several in succession.
Sanitation and Health
But, as influential as privacy and single-use rooms were to the design, building, furnishing, and decoration of Victorian houses, sanitation was even more important. Health issues were the dominant pre-occupation of the Victorian Age; in no small part because the fledgling sciences of hygiene and sanitation had, for the first time in history, given humanity a fighting chance against the mortal diseases that had ravaged mankind since the dawn of time.
The Germ Theory of Disease
The Victorian Era saw fundamental advances in understanding disease and its transmittal with the development and validation of germ theory. This better understanding led to the "hygiene movement", that continued for most of four decades, for better hygiene and sanitation.
The early 1800s saw frequent outbreaks of epidemics: the familiar typhus and typhoid fever, but also new and frightening diseases imported from Asia: influenza, and Asiatic Cholera. Cholera pandemics erupted in 1817, 1826, 1846, 1865, 1881 and 1902, each lasting several years. No one understood how these diseases arose or how to control them.
Just as deadly, and even more widespread, were common infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, measles, meningitis, Whooping cough, and rubella. During the American Civil War, two-thirds of all deaths, 660,000 soldiers on both sides, were from infectious disease and dietary deficiencies. An American soldier was more likely to die of diphtheria that he was from being injured in battle.
Sickness had been long thought to be caused by unhealthy air or miasma. But, in 1854 an English physician, John Snow, traced the source of a cholera outbreak in London to a single contaminated public water well.
Later investigators such as Frenchman Louis Pasteur and British surgeon Sir Joseph Lister theorized that microscopic particles, which they called "germs" were the means by which disease was transmitted. They were later able to identify these germs as bacteria, and even to view them under the high-powered microscopes that were becoming available.
Even before researchers had developed much in the way of proof of this new theory of disease, it had become widely publicized in popular journals and largely accepted by the English and North American publics.
Epidemiologists began to figure out how diseases were communicated, and massive sanitation measures followed. Major efforts to clean up American cities and install safe water and sewer systems were soon underway — so quickly, in fact, that most American cities and towns had sanitary sewer systems and treated water by 1920.
The size and scope of this effort can hardly be appreciated by us today. But, imagine rebuilding the entire Interstate Highway system — twice — using absolutely no federal funds. Improvements were financed by cities and towns using bond offerings or special assessments.
Private stock companies built the systems in some localities. The enormous capital investment was paid off through flat monthly or quarterly fees charged to connect to the sanitary water system.
Initially, there were no water meters, so usage was unregulated, which led to enormous waste. The Boston area, for example, used four times more treated fresh water per person in 1900 than it does today. Water meters soon became common everywhere.
In 1759, at the behest of his friend Benjamin Franklin, English physician William Heberden wrote a pamphlet describing the process of smallpox vaccination with "Plain instructions by Which Any Person May Be Able to Perform the Operation."
The Vaccine Timeline
In 1777, George Washington ordered the inoculation of every member of the Continental Army. Vaccination at the time meant infecting the patient with the smallpox virus and hoping he or she survived the resulting disease. Many didn't. And, while the Continental Army, thus immunized, was forever free of the scourge of smallpox, the cost was horrendous.
In 1798, an English country doctor, Edward Jenner (1749-1823), demonstrated that vaccination with cowpox, a less virulent relative of smallpox, was a safe and equally effective way to prevent the deadlier disease. Jenner's results were initially ignored, even after he published a pamphlet describing his methods until they were replicated by noted London physician Henry Cline, after which word of his discovery spread rapidly.
By 1813 the belief in the effectiveness of smallpox vaccination was so firmly established that Congress created a National Vaccine Agency (now the National Vaccine Program Office of Health and Human Services) to promote vaccination, and ordered the Post Office to deliver smallpox vaccine anywhere in the United States postage free.
The ensuing worldwide search for safe and effective vaccines produced few results for most of a century, primarily because most diseases are not conveniently paired with a milder analog that could become the basis of a vaccine. It was not until 1879 that Louis Pasteur, while experimenting with Cholera, discovered that exposing the Cholera bacillus (V. cholerae) to air weakened it to the point where inoculated patients developed only mild symptoms that the search for vaccines accelerated.
Over the next century the often deadly childhood diseases: diphtheria, hepatitis, measles, meningitis, whooping Cough (pertussis), polio and rubella, gradually succumbed to the discovery of effective vaccines.
Laws soon required school children to be vaccinated before being admitted to public schools. The first was passed in Massachusetts in 1885 mandating the vaccination of all school children against smallpox. In 1874 Germany enacted a compulsory universal smallpox vaccination law. Smallpox deaths declined precipitously. In 1897 in a population of 54 million Germans, there were just five deaths from smallpox. Most developed counties now require a minimum set of vaccinations.
The enormous efforts to control epidemics and improve public health started by the Victorians were very successful. The last major cholera outbreak in the continental U.S. was in 1910, and the last influenza pandemic in 1918-1920.
The last of the crippling infectious childhood diseases, Polio, was conquered by a vaccine in 1952 and, according to the World Health Organization, has been just about eliminated. Smallpox, the disease that had killed millions of people since it first appeared in Egypt 12,000 years ago, was officially declared eradicated in 1977 after an intense campaign of worldwide vaccinations. It is the first, and so far the only, infections disease removed from the planet by the efforts of man.
The "Captain of Death"
The deadliest killer of all, however, eluded an effective vaccine until 1921 and adequate treatment until 1943. It is still far from conquered and a drug-resistant strain is on the rise again in the U.S. after nearly a half-century of suppression.
Tuberculosis, which appeared about 20,000 years ago in East Africa, is estimated to have been the cause of death of fully 1/4 of all the humans who have ever lived.
It was long thought to be hereditary and not shown to be infectious until 1865 when a French military surgeon, Jean-Antoine Villemin, demonstrated the transmission of the disease in rabbits. The bacillus that caused the disease was finally isolated and identified by German physician Robert Heinrich Herman Koch who presented his findings on March 24, 1882 to the Berlin Physiological Society. (The 24th of March is now World Tuberculosis Day). In 1890 Koch developed tuberculin, used to diagnose tuberculosis in patients who have not yet shown symptoms. Koch received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1905.
In Victorian America and right up until the middle of the 20th century, the "treatment" for tuberculosis was isolation in sanitaria — facilities that offered rest and improved nutrition as well as fresh air and sunshine, all thought to improve the life expectancy of those infected with the disease. The first sanatorium in North America was opened in Asheville, North Carolina by Joseph Gleitsman. Edward Livingston Trudeau's Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium at Saranac Lake, New York followed in 1884.
The arid climate of the American Southwest was thought to be beneficial to tuberculosis sufferers. Health seekers migrated to the American West in the latter half of the 19th-century right up to World War II.
Local officials in cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles, interested in promoting urban growth, capitalized on this phenomenon by aggressively advertising the recuperative powers of the climate in the southwest desert and southern California.
Public health measures that included the isolation of those infected with the disease, improved hygiene and sanitation practices, and the eradication of bovine tuberculosis (M. bovis ), resulted in a steady decline in the rates of infection in the last years of the Victorian era. But, serious inroads against the disease had to await the discovery of streptomycin, the first effective treatment, by a graduate student, Albert Schatz, at Rutgers University in 1943. However, the last tuberculosis sanitarium, the A. G. Holley Hospital in Lantana, Florida, did not close until 2012.
What we now consider common-sense personal hygiene measures for preventing communicable diseases were the subject of widespread, persistent public health campaigns: Bath frequently, wash your clothes, clean your teeth every day, wash your hands before eating, don't share drinking glasses or cups.
Almost all of these were novel notions in 1870, but by 1890 were almost universally accepted as part of the daily fabric of life. (Except tooth-brushing which did not become a daily routine in most of America until World War II when the U.S. military insisted that every soldier, sailor, and Marine brush his or her teeth every single day, including Sundays, and provided both the toothbrushes and tooth powder necessary to do so and several days in the stockade for failure to comply.)
"Teeth will be cleaned …
at least once a day..."
Daily toothbrushing did not become the norm until much later than weekly bathing. Studies in the 19th-century showed the deleterious health effects of the lack of oral hygiene, but it took another half century and the U.S. military to make daily teeth brushing an American habit by insisting that every serviceman and -woman brush at least once each day.
Army Regulation 40-205 (Dec. 14, 1942), for example, stated
[E]very member of a command will bathe once daily while in garrison, and in the field at least once weekly. The hands will be washed before each meal and immediately after visiting a latrine. Teeth will be cleaned with a brush at least once a day.
The Army and Marines regularly issued toothbrushes, and a wooden "chew" stick that could serve as a field-expedient toothbrush was included in every Type C Ration box along with toilet paper and other useful hygiene items — but no bath soap for reasons known only to the fickle gods of military planning.
Thirteen million returning WWII veterans brought the daily brushing habit home with them from the war and insisted that their baby-boomer children get in the habit of routine dental care.
Hygiene was greatly aided by indoor plumbing attached to sanitary sewer systems, and the enamel bath fixtures that were nearly universal in urban areas by 1920.
The flushing toilet has been called the single most important boon to civilization since the harnessing of fire. Despite what you might have heard, it was not invented by Thomas Crapper. In fact, it was not invented by any one person but was the result of a series of incremental improvements by several inventors over the course of half a century.
The first major breakthrough was patented by Alexander Cumming in Great Britain in 1775 — a year during which Americans were busy with other matters, like independence from King George. Cumming's S-trap flushing toilet used standing water in the bowl to seal the outlet of the bowl, preventing the escape of foul air from the sewer.
Joseph Bramah, a locksmith and inventor best known for having invented the hydraulic press, improved the design with the float valve system that kept the water in the tank from freezing during cold weather.
Sanitary engineer George Jennings popularized flush toilets by installing them in the "retiring rooms" of the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. These were the world's first public toilets, and they caused great excitement. Over 800,000 visitors paid one penny to use them. For the penny, they also got a clean seat, a towel, a comb, and a shoe shine.
Thomas Crapper held three patents for improvements to the flush toilet, including one for a modern floating ballcock of the type still used in most toilets. He was, however, less an innovator than he was a canny businessman who owned a successful plumbing business in London. (Thos. Crapper & Co, is still conducting business selling marvelous Victorian-style bath fixtures and fittings.)
His associate, Albert Giblin received a patent for the first siphon discharge system (the Giblin "Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer") which replaced earlier devices that were prone to leaks. Crapper bought the patent and incorporated the new technology in all of his "modern" toilets.
Giblin's was the last of the major inventions. His siphon toilet is essentially the same system used in almost all toilets in North America today. It has been refined and made more efficient over the years, but the basic design has never been supplanted.
Personal hygiene was aided further by the `1857 invention by Joseph Cayetty (or Cayetti) of toilet paper, which he advertised as the "Greatest Necessity of the Age", although it was not "splinter-free" until improved in 1935 by the Northern Tissue Company, still on grocery shelves as Quilted Northern®, and still splinter-free.
Toothbrushes were an expensive, hand-made luxury, prior to their mass production by Englishman William Addis who invented the modern toothbrush while in jail for debt. The Addis company, family-owned until 1996, is still in the business of making toothbrushes and other hygiene products in the U.K.
The first U.S. patent for a toothbrush was issued in 1887 to H. N. Wadsworth. A number of American companies began producing toothbrushes including the Florence Manufacturing Company of Northampton, Massachusetts, maker of the Pro-phy-lac-tic toothbrush, popular until the 1940s. Its handles were made of a synthetic thermoplastic derived from shellac called Florence Compound rather than the bone or wood used by other manufacturers.
Natural boar bristles were not replaced by DuPont's more sanitary nylon bristles (Dr. West's Miracle Tuft brush) until 1938.
In a Lemelson-MIT survey from 2003 that asked participants to rank the importance of modern inventions including the automobile, computer, telephone and microwave, Americans identified the toothbrush as the number one invention they could not live without.
Dentifrice, originally homemade from a variety of ingredients, some pretty disgusting, became available in powdered form in a tin after 1866, and by 1873 Colgate was manufacturing toothpaste sold in a jar — the "modern" collapsible toothpaste tube did not appear until 1889, introduced by Johnson & Johnson for its Zonweiss toothpaste, it's first consumer product. It bought the tubes, originally used to hold artist's oil paints, from Consolidated Fruit Jar Manufacturing Company of Brunswick, New Jersey.
Soap, formerly made at home from pig fat and fireplace ashes in small quantities, was not mass-produced until after Michel Eugène Chevreul, a French chemist investigating the properties of fatty acids, figured out the chemical constituents of soap, and Nicholas LeBlanc, also French, discovered how to make soda ash (a principal ingredient in making soap) inexpensively and in mass quantities from table salt.
Soapmaking was one of America's fastest-growing industries by 1850. Most of the household brands common today began in the 1800s including Proctor and Gamble (Ivory Soap), Lever Bros. (Lifebuoy), now Unilever; and Palmolive (the world's best-selling soap). Benjamin Babbitt was the first to sell soap in individual bars as Babbitt's Best Soap. Colgate started making soap in 1806 and by 1900 was manufacturing over 3,000 different soaps, perfumes and dentifrices.
"You Cannot Expect to Rate if you Expectorate"
Odious personal habits were attacked vigorously and persistently by health departments in the popular media and in public service advertisement on billboards, in trams, and on seemingly ubiquitous posters.
Men were discouraged from spitting in public — an unattractive and unsanitary by-product of the extensive use of chewing tobacco. Tobacco in chewing form quickly gave way to the less excoriated (at least for the time being) cigar and cigarette.
Spitoons (or more politely "cuspidors"), in every bar, theater, restaurant, railroad carriage and hotel lobby in 1880, had all but disappeared by 1920. Laws were passed outlawing spitting in the streets and on the floors of shops, theaters, taverns, and other public gathering spots.
The fact that tubercle bacilli could survive in spit for an entire day convinced many Victorian ladies to stop wearing their long, trailing dresses into town for fear they might pick up sputum and drag tuberculosis into their homes.
Newspapers, street signs, tram car ads, and bulletin boards carried warnings against "the filthy habit." The act very quickly moved from common to "indecent" in the minds of most Victorians.
Dust, Deadly Dust
Dust became the mortal enemy of every Victorian homemaker. It was widely censured in popular magazine articles and health department circulars as a carrier of disease germs. Dr. Livingston Howe in his widely read How to Prevent Sickness: A Handbook of Health wrote:
"Particles of dust have been likened to chariots on which germs ride, being carried in this way from place to place. It is known to be a fact that a considerable part of the dust on floors, sidewalks, and streets is composed of germs, not all living, to be sure, but many of them alive and simply waiting to be planted on favorable soil in order to multiply and produce disease. Such soil is found in the noses, throats, and mouths of people."
There was plenty of dust. Coal was the principal heating fuel and it produced clouds of soot and smoke. The primary means of travel was by horse-drawn conveyance, and horses produced large amounts of waste which, when dry, turned into a fine powder that traveled with every breeze and permeated everything.
New York City alone had a population of 180,000 horses by 1890, depositing about 3.4 million pounds of manure every single day, along with 40,000 gallons of urine. Vacant lots in American cities were often piled high in horse manure, sometimes as high as a six-story building.
The problem was not just limited to the resulting odor and persuasiveness of powdered horse dung in the air. Dead, injured or sick horses were often abandoned in city streets. In 1890, New York removed 15,000 of them. The giant piles of manure were preferred breeding grounds for flies. Clouds of flies hatched on manure piles, by some estimates three billion flies per day. The flies were potent disease carriers, believed responsible for outbreaks of typhoid, cholera, dysentery, salmonella, anthrax, and tuberculosis.
The horse was such a serious health and sanitation crisis in major cities that the problem of what to do about the beleaguered animal dominated the world's first international urban planning conference held in New York in 1898 (that declared itself unable to devise a workable solution, and disbanded early).
One of the most persuasive arguments in favor of the gasoline-powered automobile was that it was much more sanitary and would eliminate horse dung in urban areas, thereby vastly improving air quality and the overall health of America's cities.
Add to all this the pervasive factory smoke that cloaked Victorian cities, and there was plenty of dust, smoke, soot, and haze to go around.
Today we would call it smog, and if you had it, the EPA would quickly come calling. But in the late 19th-century it was taken for granted as the normal order of an industrial society. Few cities had zoning laws, and it was common to locate a smoke-billowing factory in a residential area, and worker housing was often built just outside the factory yard.
Live plants in pots were kept in windows. They were thought to trap some of the dust coming in from outside. Muslin was often draped across window openings for the same purpose. On very smoggy days, the muslin was kept damp.
Insect screens became common window accessories, not just to bar insects, but to trap large chunks of soot and dirt. Although wire screening was advertised as early as 1823, it did not begin to replace horsehair and cheesecloth screens after the Civil War when painted screen that resisted rust was developed by Gilbert and Bennett Manufacturing Co. of Redding, Connecticut. By the end of the century, the largest manufacturer was E. T. Burrowes & Co., of Portland, Maine that advertised its wares by listing the prominent Americans that had installed its screens including the likes of Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, P. T. Barnum, and Grover Cleveland.
Window screens not only made homes more comfortable but, by effectively keeping mosquitoes out of the house, contributed significantly to the eradication of inset-borne diseases such as malaria and yellow fever in the United States by the 1950s.
A Fully Qualified Rug Beater
By 1960 my grandmother owned no fewer than three upright vacuum cleaners, but it made no difference to her engrained Victorian sense of proper housekeeping which demanded semi-annual rug-beating.
Each Spring and Fall, every single rug in her Victorian house was taken up, hung on clotheslines in the backyard, and flogged until each had totally capitulated: relinquishing every spec or mote of dust. It was then rolled up and brought back in.
It took most of a sunny day, involved the entire household, and scared the bejeesus out of the chickens which took refuge under every shed and in every tree in the neighborhood.
Any kid over the age of six after a few minutes of supervised instruction was certified as a fully qualified rug beater: no breaks, no slacking, but an ice-cold Coke and a bowl of homemade ice cream at the end of a long and dusty day.
Still, the Victorian home was very dusty. Dusting and sometimes waxing of furnishings became a daily or near-daily ritual. Rugs were swept several times a week, often with the new carpet sweepers introduced by companies like the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company.
The patented Bissel sweeper kept the dust raised by sweeping contained within the body of the sweeper rather than spreading through the air only to settle back on the carpet later. It was a huge boon to Victorian housekeeping.
But, even the Bissell Patented Carpet Sweeper was not enough, so several times a year carpets were taken outside and beaten to remove accumulated dust and dirt.
This was an "all hands" operation. The men of the household moved the furniture, rolled up the rugs, carried them outside, and hung them on a line. The women and children did the beating, raising clouds of dust. The men and boys then rolled the rugs back up, returned them to the room from which they came, and repositioned all the furniture. It generally took one or two days.
But, in the perpetual war against dust, dust has won. Dust can be suppressed, but it cannot be vanquished. It remains the triumphant scourge of good housekeeping even today. The vacuum cleaner has given the modern homemaker a powerful new weapon with which to do battle with the insidious nuisance, but it is still a daily or near-daily skirmish.
As late as 1927 home economist and director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Katharine A. Fisher devoted a number of columns in Good Housekeeping Magazine to managing household dust, including instructions for daily dusting and sweeping. (You can read some of the original Fisher columns written for Good Housekeeping at the online library maintained by Purdue University. Particularly interesting are the multiple columns on "Cookery", "Household Engineering" and "Dustless Sweeping". It is astounding how much of her 1920's common sense applies today.)
The push for better sanitation and hygiene began to influence house design and furnishing early in the Victorian Era. Easily cleaned sanitary surfaces became an increasingly important part of the fabric of the home as the years progressed, particularly in kitchens, and bathrooms.
Carpets or bare wood floors in kitchens and bathrooms were replaced with a new material, "oilcloth" (which eventually evolved into the longer-wearing linoleum), which was seamless, easily washed and considered very hygienic.
Outside kitchens and baths, carpets were supplanted by "floorcloths": a painted canvas that was decorative, but washable. Where wood floors were retained they were painted, varnished or oiled to protect them against germs and make cleaning easier.
The tops of working tables, the Victorian equivalent of countertops, were covered in zinc sheeting or porcelainized steel as were drainboards next to kitchen sinks. Wallpaper or bare plaster walls in kitchens and baths gave way to ceramic tile and washable enamel paints.
Lighter Window Treatments
Heavy drapes, known to harbor dust and thought to shelter germs, were replaced by lighter window treatments and blinds or roller shades made of oiled or waxed cloth. Venetian blinds were patented in England by Gowin Knight in 1760, and they had already been installed in Philadelphia's St. Peter's church in time for the Constitutional Convention in 1787. But, before the machine age, blinds were labor intensive and expensive. The Industrial Revolution made them affordable, and by the late Victorian Age, they were becoming widely used by the rising middle-class.
The first roller shades, invented in the early 1700s in Scotland were not spring operated. When the shades were opened, they lay in folds on the window sill. The modern spring-operated roller shade was patented by an American, Stewart Hartshorn, in 1864. It was an improvement over an earlier design invented by Harshorn's brother and uncle and patented in 1855. The Stewart Hartshorn Company became the largest manufacturer of roller shades in the U.S. by the turn of the 20th century.
Victorian roller shades were often highly decorated with printed designs including landscapes and became a part of the room's decor. Companies such as W. and J Laughton of Winsted, Connecticut advertised "Elegant patterns of window Shades of our own painting. Shades painted to order and trimming furnished." Hartshorn published decorating guides, instructing homemakers and decorators on how to incorporate window shades into interior decoration.
Sanitary fixtures improved dramatically after the invention in 1883 of the enameled cast iron tub by John Michael Kohler, an Austrian immigrant and the proud new owner of the Sheboygan Union Iron & Steel Foundry.
That summer, he took a powdered glass slurry and slathered it on an iron livestock watering trough that had been heated it to 1,700°. The resulting "enamel" coating was so tough and durable that he featured the product as the centerpiece of his next product catalog, with a small footnote: "When furnished with legs, can be used as a bathing tub."
As a livestock watering trough it never really caught on, but as a "bathing tub", it turned Kohler Plumbing into an American industrial empire. Fixtures of wood with copper, tin or zinc linings quickly gave way to less elaborately decorated but more sanitary enamel and porcelain fixtures offered by Kohler and its chief rival, American Standard.
Plumbing, however, was in its infancy, and there was no training or licensing process for plumbers. Many home plumbing systems were improperly installed. Leaks were common. Pipes were often exposed rather than buried in the walls. Not only was it quicker and less expensive than breaking apart existing plaster to install piping, but because exposed pipes could be regularly inspected for leaks and other problems.
Plumbers eventually made substantial improvements to sanitary systems through simple trial and error. Around 1874 an unknown plumber made one of the final major contributions to household waste systems when he figured out that they needed to be vented to the outside to equalize pressure in the system and prevent the accumulation of sewer gas. His first 1/2" vent pipe clogged, but plumbers gradually learned how to properly "size" the vent and by the late 1880s plumbing manuals illustrated sizing and proper attachment. Today a minimum vent diameter is required to be at least 1/2 the diameter of the drain pipe it serves — a standard enshrined in every North American plumbing code.
Domestic Order, Organization and Efficiency
The search for order and domestic efficiency became something of an obsession during the Victorian Era. Although the expression "A place for everything, and everything in its place" was coined by Ben Franklin long before anyone had heard of Queen Victoria, it could well have been the motto of the Victorian period.
Mr. Wooten's Fabulous Cabinet Secretary
The Wooton patented "Cabinet Office Secretary" was manufactured in a number of styles and with more or less Victorian elaboration by William S. Wooton for nearly 40 years from 1870 to 1907.
The design of the desk provided an ingenious solution to the 19th-century businessman's increasing problems of organization. It was advertised as combining "neatness, system and order," with "every particle of space practically utilized."
With its 56 drawers and nearly as many slots and pigeon holes, the cabinet secretary was a smashing success — despite its hefty price tag (for the time) of $325.00 and up depending on decoration.
The Smithsonian Institution still uses its Wooton Patent Secretary, purchased new in 1876 — over one hundred and thirty years of continuous use.
These beautiful, intricate, handcrafted cases now sell for well over $15,000 for a desk in good condition.
Absolutely no place for a computer, though.
Keeping an ordered and orderly household was the objective of every housewife, extolled by women's and family magazines in articles next to advertisements for products designed to make cooking and housecleaning more efficient and household duties less laborious.
The Time-Clock Society
The Victorian Era saw the beginning of our modern timed society.
In the nation's largely agrarian past, time was approximate. Most people did not own clocks, and if they did, the likelihood that they were accurate was very small.
Getting things done on time was not especially important. Cows were milked in the early morning, but if the milking took place at 5:35 rather than precisely at 5:00, it made little difference to the cows.
But, with industrialization came the need to be on time.
Hundreds of factory workers needed to get to work at the same time, which gave rise to the invention in 1847 of that horrid little device: the alarm clock.
Everyone needed to know what time it was, not just locally, but continent-wide. The railroad system had to accurately schedule trains over large stretches of country. U.S. and Canadian railroads joined together to create the first North American time zones in 1883.
It was not until 1918 that the perpetually tardy U.S. Congress finally got around to creating official Standard Time zones.
Employee time, paid for by the hour, had to be used productively in order for a company to stay competitive and profitable. The efficient use of worker time had become a national obsession by the 1880s, leading to the rise of the "time and motion study" and principles of Scientific Management pioneered by Frederick Winslow Taylor, and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth.
Taylor became one of the intellectual leaders of the Efficiency Movement that dominated industrial management theory in the late Victorian Age and into the early part of the 20th century. The Gilbreths added psychology to Taylor's purely mechanical measurement methods and studied the work habits and environments of manufacturing and clerical employees in all kinds of industries to find ways to increase their output by making their work easier, faster and more efficient.
Improving Household Management
In 1841 Catherine Esther Beecher (1800-1878) — the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame — published A Treatise on Domestic Economy (for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School — generally considered the first home economics textbook — and devoted the next 40 years to promoting education for women. She founded the Western Female Institute in 1832 in Cincinnati, and the American Woman's Educational Association in 1852.
Where is the Closet?
Victorians did not have closets, and rarely had armoirs. Clothes were not hung, they were stored folded in chests or on hooks set in the wall. Even heavy coats and voluminous dresses were folded for storage.
The idea of suspending clothing from hangers (or what were then called “shoulders”) did not develop until very late in the period when “airing” clothing was encouraged to promote better health.
Closets, as we know them, did not come into widespread use until after the turn of the 20th century. They were not even included in house plans until the last years of the Victorian period, and then they were tiny.
Trying to retrofit closets into bedrooms that are often already too small is a design challenge. Often the only solution is a freestanding armoire, such as this Edwardian Gentleman's Chest, or a wardrobe wall.
For more about closets and designing closets see Closet Basics.
The study of home economics began to be added to the curricula of colleges and universities by the middle of the 19th-century. The great land-grant colleges of the middle west created by the Morrill Act of 1862 saw the need to educate farm wives about the domestic sciences necessary for efficient farm household management.
Universities in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, and Nebraska led the way in offering courses for women, and graduates of these programs under the leadership of Ellen Swallow Richards, an American chemist and the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), were instrumental in creating the home economics movement that led in 1909 to the formation of the American Home Economics Association (now the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences). Her 1887 book, Home Sanitation: A Manual for Housekeepers influenced housekeeping practices for the next 50 years.
Meal preparation was the most important part of Victorian household management. More time was spent on cooking and cleaning up after meals than on any other household chore. In consequence, most Victorian home economics and management guides were really cookbooks with ideas for the efficient supervision and organization of the household sandwiched in between recipes.
The bible of household management during most of the Victorian era, Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management, Note 2 published in England in 1861 was primarily a cookbook, despite professing to be a "guide of reliable information about every aspect of running a house for the middle-classes". The original edition devoted just 23 of its over 900 pages to household management. It sold 60,000 copies in its first year, and two million copies by 1868. The 2751 entries include tips on how to deal with servants' pay and children's health, and above all a wealth of cooking advice, instructions and recipes.
Mrs. Beeton died in 1865, but the book lived on, steadily increasing in length through additions by its editors. In the 1906 edition it exceeded 2,000 pages (not including advertising, of which the book contained a generous amount). It is still in print, and still being edited and revised. Note 3 The current edition barely resembles any Handbook published during Mrs. Beeton's lifetime.
It was only at the very end of the period when principles of industrial design and ergonomics, and especially time and motion studies, were applied to household tasks that the real progress in domestic organization and efficiency was made. And, while the groundwork for this revolution was laid during the Victorian period, it did not bear fruit until after World War I, when the Victorian period had already passed into history.
Decorating the Victorian Home
Victorian decoration was greatly influenced by the social philosophy of the age. Most of the brilliant early designers of the era were also moral philosophers and social and political reformers who saw their life's work as improving the lot of fellow citizens by making their surroundings more refined and beautiful, thereby encouraging a more refined and genteel human nature …
The Book of Household Management, comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady's-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and ComfortTalk about giving away the plot! The book was originally published by S. O. Beeton Publishing, 161 Bouverie Street, London, a firm owned by Isabells's husband, Samuel Beeton.