Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Victorian Middle Class

It is never easy to define, let alone identify the key traits, of a particular class.  In the case of the Victorian middle-class it is especially difficult.  For one thing, the long period of time from the ascent of Victoria to the throne to her death covered more than six decades.  During those long years, Great Britain went from being a rural, almost medieval, society to one which stood on the cusp of modernism.  As well, all of the changes during that time impacted not only on the classes themselves, but on the structure and relations between classes.

Writing not long after the end of that era, R. H. Gretton noted that there were “few subjects … in which definition is more difficult.”  Almost 100 years later, his words still ring true. As he goes on to note, the term, “middle-class” inherent vagueness; the very name “Middle Class” suggests a stratum of society which, though obviously in existence, and calling for a descriptive label, was so lacking in marked characteristics or qualities that it could only be described as lying between two other classes.

The problem, he continues, is that the term “middle” can be read as “transitional.”  This means that at one end the middle-class merges with a higher class and at the other, with a lower class.  In the former, it is, in all probability, intentional and desirable, an admission of successful upward striving.  At the other, it may well be “a confession of failure.”  Of course, over time not only does the middle-class itself shift its ground, the lines at which it merges with other classes are fluid and change as well.  Even within the middle-class there were distinctions which determined the behaviour of individuals.  One might, for example, be a professional man and that might mean that one was a "gentleman" since a lawyer would undoubtedly be privy to much information about the gentry.  Those of the middle-class who interacted either professionally or socially would have been considered as "gentlefolk."  On the other hand, there were those whose fortunes could not buy them entry into the gentry.  Nobody would have considered them as "gentlefolk," although they were certainly middle-class.  At the other extreme were those whom, today, we would describe as "white-collar" workers.  Clerks, managers and civil servants amongst others, earning between 100 and 200 pounds per annum might well be considered middle-class, but would certainly not have ranked as gentlemen.

A number of factors conspired during the nineteenth century to focus attention on the middle-class.  Not least among these were industrialization and education.  The former acted as a two-edged sword.  For many Britons it increased their wealth, expanding and consolidating new markets and confirming the new middle-class.  And with the growth of this class, so too grew consumerism.  One of the features of the emergent middle-class was what the Norwegian economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, referred to as "conspicuous consumption." But for others the Industrial Revolution rather than offering hope, dragged them down.  Life was changed dramatically for the working class when a bare subsistence wage was considered adequate recompense for a working day that might extend from the early hours of the morning until well after dark six days a week.  The thousands of agricultural labourers who left the land rarely found their lives bettered in the cities under the factory system.

Consumerism by the middle-classes was contributed to by greater leisure and the development of department stores.  These stores were  bright and spacious, with gas-lights and plate-glass windows.  They offered an opportunity for the newly well-off middle-class, particularly the middle-class matrons, to spend their money on all the new and wonderful products that were constantly being made available to the market.  There were, of course, all sorts of other products including travel which was becoming increasingly popular in the Victorian years.  As Lawrence James, in his history of the middle-class comments, the "middle class expended as much time, energy and ingenuity on spending money as they did earning it."

Education, or rather lack of it, was a problem for the middle-class, particularly those who were just clawing their way up from the working classes.  Thomas Arnold, in the mid-1860s, was asking why it was that secondary education was reserved for an elite rather than being available to “the children of our middle and professional classes.” And while the newspapers advertised all sorts of wonderful educational opportunities aimed at the middle-class, it was, as Arnold comments, that  “no one who knows anything of the subject , will venture to affirm that … [they] give, or can give, that which they 'conscientiously offer.'”  It was not until the following decade and beyond, beginning with the 1870 Education Act, that a form of public education began to provide the weapon of widespread literacy for the working classes, thereby offering them a tool for upward mobility.

If there was one word to describe the Victorian middle-class, it would undoubtedly be “respectability.”  And if there was one outstanding virtue, it would have to be the work ethic.  Through hard work one could become, if one was not already, one of the middle-class.  There were self-help books in a-plenty, with perhaps the best known of these being Self Help by the aptly named Samuel Smiles.  While it is easy to make fun of this book, it is important as a marker of the best characteristics of the middle-class; a class which during Victoria's long reign changed the face of Great Britain.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette

That marvelous creation of Thackeray's, George Fitz-Boodle, Esquire, Member of the Omnium Club and the third-best whist-player in Europe tells us that he is

 . . . not, in the first place, what is called a ladies' man, having contracted an irrepressible habit of smoking after dinner, which has obliged me to give up a great deal of the dear creatures' society; nor can I go much to country-houses for the same reason. Say what they will,ladies do not like you to smoke in their bedrooms: their silly little noses scent out the odor upon the chintz, weeks after you have left them.

Certainly, amongst men, smoking was a serious social rite.  Special clothing was worn by men who engaged in the practice when ladies were not present or had retired.  Lady Constance Howard, in Etiquette: What to Do, and How to Do it, published in 1885 tells us that

In country houses in the evening gentlemen usually don a smoking suit, which suits are composed of velvet, satin, Indian silk, cloth braided,etc., according to the wearers' tastes and finances.  Slippers are worn instead of boots; but on no account what is called a 'smoking cap' -- that is an article of male attire happily consigned to oblivion.

Interestingly, although opposed to the practice of smoking, it appears that the dictates of fashion, when applied to the men who were so engaged, were still very much "observed" if not "dictated" by women.

Etiquette books generally seem to have agreed that smoking was not a desirable habit.  One work published in the mid '50s, described it as "at best, an ungentlemanly and dirty habit," while Cassell's Hand-book of Etiquette for 1860 warns gentlemen that

If you smoke or take snuff, you will find it difficult to observe that constant personal cleanliness so essential in a gentleman.  Before mixing with ladies take off your coat in which you have been smoking, and rinse your mouth, lest your breath should be tainted with the 'weed'.

By the 1890s, Lady Gertrude Elizaberth Campbell could write, in Etiquette of Good Society, that

A gentleman ... will never smoke in the presence of a lady without first obtaining her permission, and if, when smoking out of doors, he meets any lady, be she friend or foe, he will take his cigar out of his mouth while passing her.

Although there is a considerable body of information on smoking during the Victorian period, much of it is found in contemporary etiquette books or novels.  Thus, it generally relates to the upper classes and particularly "club" men.  There is also a reasonable amount of information on the middle classes, but as in all things, the information about smoking in the lower and labouring classes is limited.  Nonetheless, some information can be derived from observers of the lower classes and the "explorers" of "darkest" England. 

While smoking in England has a long history, dating back to the sixteenth century, tobacco was primarily smoked in pipes and by men.  To this, over the years, was added both snuff taking and cigar smoking with the latter taking hold after the Napoleonic wars.  But it was only after the Crimean war that cigarette smoking became popular.  By the middle of the 1860s, cigarette shops were appearing and with the industrialization of cigarette manufacture by W. D. and H. O. Wills the cigarette had come to Great Britain to stay.  The machinery employed by the company could produce 200 cigarettes a minute and undoubtedly contributed to the growing consumption of tobacco. By the '80s Wild Woodbine had become one of the most popular cigarettes in the country and the price of cigarettes had dropped to as low as a penny.  Through the last four decades of the nineteenth century, as a result of cheap and readily available cigarettes, the rate of tobacco consumption increased by 5 per cent per year!

Because cigarettes were sold in paper packets, it was common practice to insert a piece of cardboard in order to keep the cigarettes from being crushed.  This led to the practice of putting pictures on the cards and, of course, as any good entrepreneur would know, sets of cards (one card from the set to each packet) would encourage the smoker to buy the same brand each time he wanted more cigarettes. A set of these, from the last years of the nineteenth century, can be seen at the top of the page.

A Smoker
Although it was not until the middle years of the 20th Century that scientific evidence was used to establish the dangers of smoking,  the debate over the risks it entailed was already being engaged in 100 years earlier. Dr George Sigmond writing in The Lancet as early as 1837, described at some length, the consequences of smoking. He did, however, suggest, as what not uncommon, that there were medicinal benefits to be found in tobacco, including the relief of asthma.  A sketch of a "typical" smoker in the mid 1840s, as seen in the Illustrated London News, can be seen on the left.

By the middle of the century, it was commonly accepted that smoking was likely to be injurious to one's health.  But the main concern of the medical profession continued to be excessive smoking.  As Dr J. C. Bucknill wrote to The Lancet in 1857,

There can be no doubt of the fact, that the excessive use of tobacco, in any of its forms, is highly pernicious.  the excessive use of snuff is liable to occasion unmanageable forms of indigestion; that of chewing and smoking weakens the energy of the nervous syste, impairs the digesting force of the stomach, and the secreting force of the liver; and, in extreme cases, produces an affection of the muscular system not unlike paralysis agitans.

The Illustrated London News, in its "Metropolitan News" for 11 April 1863, reported the death of a forty-eight year old Italian confectioner as a result of what his medical advisor claimed was "excessive smoking" which had "unquestionably produced disease or nervous paralysis of the heart."  The Duke of Wellington was strongly opposed to smoking and as a result of the growth of cigar smoking, particularly among military officers, he asked that

The Officers commanding Regiments ... prevent smoking in the Mess Roomns of their several Regiments ... and to discourage the practice among the Officers of Junior Rank in their Regiments.

Such discussions were, in the main, the province of the middle and upper classes.  The lower and labouring classes smoked and undoubtedly enjoyed it.  While women of the better classes generally eschewed tobacco, at least until the latter years of the century, poorer women enjoyed smoking.  They commonly smoked "cutties" or short pipes which were often referred to as "nose warmers."  G. L. Apperson, in his Social History of Smoking, notes

The old Irishwomen who were once a familiar feature of London street-life as sellers of apples and other small wares at street corners, were often hardened smokers; and so were, and doubtless still are, many of the gipsy women who tramp the country.

If a woman from the "better" classes smoked, in the middle-years of Victoria's reign, it was an indication that she was "fast." But as time moved on, so too did the attitudes toward smoking. Although, as late as 1891, a report appeared in Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper of a row which erupted in a café when a woman tried to light her cigarette and was told women were not allowed to smoke there. She was requested to desists, but refused. When her companion threw a bottle at the waiter's head and broke a panel behind his target, the police were called in. Obviously the court was somewhat sympathetic since the defendant was fined 1 shilling with 5 pounds costs for the broken panel.

Certainly such ceremonious smoking behaviour as that we have seen from the "better" classes was not to be met with in the lower and labouring classes; and while fights within these social groups were frequent, they were unlikely to be over smoking.  Richard Rowe in Life in the London Streets (1881) wrote of

two or three score of thick-necked, low-browed young men and hobbydehoys, in greasy cords or threadbare pea-jackets, and a sprinkling of ugly, shabbily-dressed women, sprawling their elbows on porter-slopped tables in rough wooden boxes, smoking rank tobacco, drinking adulterated beer, and listening, in moping, unsocial silence, to the wiry jangle of a worn-out little square piano in a corner...

Clearly smoking was a "hot" issue and the acceptance or rejection of it as a social rite appears to have had more to do with class than with other forms of behaviour.  What was acceptable for the poorer classes was distinctly unacceptable or barely acceptable for their betters although the modes of engaging in the activity differed from class to class.
A copy of the full report of the incident where a woman was asked to stop smoking appears below.