The story behind Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home
Home: "the place of Peace, the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt and division… a sacred place, a vestal temple, a temple of the hearth watched over by Household Gods"
John Ruskin, 1864
The comfort of home, the refuge of the sofa and the slippers, the safe and private land behind the closed front door where all is one’s kingdom – where, as the cliché has it, ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ – is a particularly abiding British preoccupation, and we have the Victorians to thank for it. How ironic then that home for the Victorians was anything but safe.
Following a long period of increasing prosperity and peace, in the 1850s, often termed the ‘mid-Victorian calm’, the British middle classes suddenly found themselves able to build a comfortable haven of domesticity.
The aspiring British middle classes were themselves a product of the age. Successful industrialisation meant that between 1851 and 1901 the middle class expanded from 2.6 million people (12.5 per cent of the population) to 9.3 million people (25 per cent of the population).
Not for these rising middle classes the fabled perils of Victorian factory life or the cholera of the poorest streets – this was a group of people whose lives were more comfortable than those of any other group of humans who had ever existed on the planet. For these middle classes had money.
Between 1851 and 1901, the average income per head in Britain doubled in real terms. At the same time, the cost of necessities, like food, dropped dramatically, and rents cost, on average, just 10 per cent of a middle-class salary. This class had both disposable income and the leisure time to plough into a new ideal of the well-appointed home as a place of comfort, refuge and wholesome morality.
The mid- and late Victorians celebrated the idea of the home as never before. This was a peculiarly British preoccupation – in continental Europe, life was moving outside into the public squares and cafes.
In Britain, domesticity became prized. Home, presided over by the "ministering angel of domestic bliss" (a phrase coined by Charles Dickens) – the lady of the house, was to be, in theory, a reassuring sanctuary for men away from the jealousies, cares and dangers of working life.
Charles Darwin, in deciding whether or not to marry, pictured to himself "a nice soft wife on a sofa with a good fire".
Henry Mayhew wrote in 1852 that home "now expresses a place not only of shelter, but of ease, of peace, of comfort, and endearment" and thought that a man’s home was "a place of special sanctity", for the very term derived, he said, from "the old word hamsocn [which] meant simply ‘protection from assault in one’s house’".
The welcoming hearth of the well-ordered home behind a solid front door signified a place of seclusion and repose; a perfect antidote to the corruptions and hazards of the working world. A desire for social status and a higher standard of living meant these newly-enriched middle classes filled their homes with conspicuous commodities and contemporary technological innovations (newly termed ‘gadgets’), produced as a result of the successes of industrial manufacture.
The Crystal Palace Great Exhibition of 1851 symbolised and catalysed this new age of increased prosperity, middle-class confidence and a belief in progress through science and technology. It was the beginning of a mass consumer culture. In the 1860s and 1870s Britons were accumulating wealth and possessions as never before.
Yet, for the notoriously strait-laced and moralistic Victorians (in aspiration if not always in deed), it was crucial that an abundance of possessions had no hint of turpitude. Instead, in their evocation of the home, consumption became a moral act and things took on moral qualities. "A correct purchase could elevate a household’s moral tone; the wrong choice could exert a malevolent influence" (Deborah Cohen).
To help navigate this tricky path, newspapers printed articles entitled ‘The Moral Influence of Furnishing’ and Henry Cole opened a Museum of Ornamental Art, complete with a ‘Chamber of Horrors’ – a collection of morally dubious objects specially chosen to humiliate inexpert consumers and vilify questionable manufacturers.
An object’s moral value lay in its integrity. A vase shaped like a fish, but in a position no fish could ever assume, was a lie. Ugly items of decoration, be they imitation stags’ heads or faux marble flooring, not only deceived the onlooker, but they polluted the atmosphere of the home. Such objects emitted a sort of unwholesome and dangerous miasma into the air, which infected the family who lived among them.
Virtue and respectability weren’t just a question of who you were, but what you had. Poor aesthetic judgement promoted immorality, "household goods became household gods" (Cohen) and bad taste could do as much moral damage to society as taking a mistress.
Yet, the irony is that at the very heart of the Victorian home – this place of moral safety and comforting shelter – danger lurked. Victorians were assaulted in their own houses and attacked by their very own tastefully chosen objects of status. There were dangerous miasmas in the air, but they carried mortality, not immorality.
It was in the very pursuit of the morally charged ideals of home, comfort, beauty, materialism, status and family, and in the elevation of the ideal female figure at the heart of the home – the sexually innocent, maternal ‘Angel in the House’ – that Victorians exposed themselves to the real hazards of domestic life.
The home was a dangerous place in ways we have forgotten. It would take all the Victorians’ powers of scientific innovation to get themselves out of the mess that progress had got them into.
Welcome to the Victorian home: house of horrors.
Dr Suzannah Lipscomb is a historian, author and broadcaster. She is currently Convenor and Senior Lecturer at the New College of the Humanities