Friday, November 18, 2005

Entertaining The Masses

Entertainment in the Victorian Period

-Theatre Halls were numerous and performances were regularly given by theatre troupes, ventriloquists, hypnotists, poets, comedians, choirs and orchestras.
-Circuses came to town and set up in parks and public places.
-There were carnivals, art exhibitions and lessons in singing, dancing and cooking to attend.
-Talks were given by visiting notables, scientists, preachers, and people who had been adventuring in different countries.

Depending on your social status, you could join various social groups such as 'The Gleaners of Nature', sewing and craft groups, sporting and church groups, as well as various lodges and friendly societies. Well-to-do ladies would often join committees and organise events such as bazaars and exhibitions to raise money for hospitals, churches and charitable exhibitions. However, in the 19th century, working hours were long and the pay inadequate. Many working people were poor and could not afford to attend the theatre or have the time to join social groups, as they had families and children to look after. Entertainment was yet another area that separated the classes.

Having lunch away from home is one area where the social groups differ.

Entertaining Yourself

Do It Yourself Victorian Entertainment
The Victorians were particularly good at being entertained and at entertaining others or themselves. Their performances at home were amateur, but they entered the spirit of do it yourself family parties with elaborately organised entertainments. The hosts and guests joined in charades, dancing, games, fireworks, magic lantern shows and piano sing songs making their own lively entertainment.

Singing especially of the romantic ballad was popular enough for 700 publishers to make a living printing ballad broadsheets. Patriotic songs like Rule Britannia and comic songs like the Policeman were enjoyed too. Songs from poems like 'Come Into the Garden Maud', 'Sally in our Alley' and 'Cherry Ripe' all gave pleasure.

Reading for Pleasure

The Society Novel
The society novel existed for new middle classes who might have mingled with the aristocracy. It went into exhaustive detail on dress, food, furniture, stately homes, conversation and behaviour in every situation. It created innocent heroines where evil must be punished and virtue rewarded. The circulating library provided a wide variety of books for the Victorians who could afford the fee they charged.

During the Victorian period many great writers were producing works we are still studying today. Here is a partial list:

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
William Blake (1757-1827
Anne Bronte (1820-1849)
Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855)
Emily Bronte (1818-1818)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (
Robert Browning (1812-1889)
George Gordon Byron (1788-1824)
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (117-1834)
William Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)
Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
George Eliot (1819-1880)
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Henry James (1843-1864)
John Keats (1795-1821)
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
Herman Melville (1819-1891)
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
John Ruskin (1819-1900)
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851)
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
Abraham "Bram" Stoker (1847-1912)
Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Musicically Inclined

Music was one of the greatest pleasures with thousands of people playing musical instruments at home for pleasure. Accomplished young women wishing to land a husband were taught to play the piano. Of course the Americans began to influence Victorian music and girls could also be taught to play the banjo. Most cities, towns and villages had a Glee club, village band, music society or choir. The Church orchestra came in useful for more than just hymn playing and in Thomas Hardy's 'Under The Greenwood Tree' you can read about how music was the common connection to bring courting couples together.

Music groups sprang up everywhere and by 1857 'The Halle Orchestra' of Manchester was compared to 'The London Philharmonic Society'.

Music helped to pass winter evenings and all governesses were supposed to teach this refinement to young ladies. Dancing was closely associated with musical ability.

Cutting A Rug

Dancing was a living tradition with local variations. Both Victoria and Albert were musical and they influenced the popularity of music and dancing in Victorian homelife and society. The Queen gave evening concerts at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. In 1840, the Prince upgraded the Queen's Private Band into a good string orchestra. Mendelssohn often performed for them. Mendelssohn had a high opinion of the Prince's musical ability.

Waltz And Polka
The Victorians loved dancing. Johann Strauss the elder (1804-49), as part of the coronation festivities had brought the new Viennese waltz to England. Queen Victoria thought Prince Albert waltzed beautifully. Newer square dances were popular as were older dances such as the Sir Roger De Coverley, jigs, hornpipes, country dances, flash jigs. Then in 1840 everyone started to do the Polka which was sweeping Europe among rich and poor. Dancing at home, in assembly rooms, in taverns, on the village green, at places of amusement, such as Vauxhall and Cremorne Gardens and at Royal residences was very popular. The lively simple Polka dance was popular with the labouring classes.

Well bred men also enjoyed haunting Vauxhall and Cremorne Pleasure Gardens. They were never frequented by well bred young women. Vauxhall in London first opened in 1661 and after a fashionable existence in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries lost any respectability it ever had by the Victorian era. Young men still ate, drank, danced, listened to music and chased women down the Dark Walk. They still watched firework displays, pantomimes and balloon ascents, but once the gentry stopped visiting Vauxhall, it soon lost ground and was closed in 1859.

Cremorne Gardens
Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea were new. They had been transformed from a farm into a pleasure garden in 1843. It had a monster dancing stage and landscaped attractions with discrete pavilions in dark corners. It also had magnificent gas lighting in public parts. Any women seen in illustrations after 1850 was very likely wearing the colourful gaudy dress of the prostitute and was likely accompanied by middle or upper class gents who could afford their services.

Of course, class distinction was evident in the type of dancing and where the dancing was being done.

Off to the Theatre

To stay solvent the two oldest theatres, Covent Garden and Drury Lane presented all sorts of concoctions as well as regular drama. They put on farces, melodramas, operettas, trained horse and dog acts, harlequinades, rope dancers, bits of Shakespeare livened up with music, all items that could be as likely seen at a fair too. No theatrical production consisted of one work, but of various three or four hour acts. Actresses were often fashion leaders and it was notoriously difficult to get actresses to appear in historical costume.

The Music Hall
Victorian prudery inhibited many Playwrights because of the outwardly respectable ideas that were common. In contrast the Music Hall with its double entendres drew the less attractive violent fringe of theatre audiences. This Victorian institution catered chiefly for the working man and lasted to the end of World War I when it was replaced by the cinema.

Gilbert and Sullivan were hugely popular during the Victorian Period. One of their plays, Princess Ida, based on Tennyson's poem. There is an excellent site where the play and the poem is compared.

The Sport of Kings

The Derby Day Races

All classes mixed at Derby week which was both a fair and a race week. Sellers of food and drink with trays slung round necks catered for the masses. Derby Day was held at Epsom racecourse and was a wonderful holiday in May or sometimes June. Weather could be fine and sunny or wet and if not too bad the races went ahead. Then in 1859 to amazement snow fell before and during the race. This has been the only time in history snow has fallen during the Derby.

Racing, the sport of kings, was much loved by the masses. The races gave the poor an opportunity to enjoy their favourite pastimes of skittles, sparring and boxing.

Past Times, Sports and Fitness

In the early period indoor games ranged from whist, cribbage, bridge and patience. Men could enjoy more outdoor sports than women especially real tennis, shooting, rowing, billiards, cricket, fishing, and deer stalking. Later women joined some of these pastimes.

Early Victorian gentlewomen were more limited and played croquet and skated. Everyone walked and promenaded. They were graceful walkers with good deportment. They hunted, rode horses and mastered archery. A few would mountaineer despite the cumbersome nature of wearing crinolines or bustles.

Between 1870 and 1900 sporting activities for both sexes grew rapidly. Women soon played golf and cricket, sailed, swam and bathed publicly. Once the bicycle arrived in 1881 cycle clubs for enthusiasts formed and it was a wonderful way for young couples to socialise with limited supervision. The special clothing that women needed for these sports evolved from reform dress first initiated by Amelia Bloomer around 1850.

Croquet & Lawn Tennis
Croquet was introduced in England in 1856 and was probably brought to America in the early 1860’s. It was considered particularly suitable for women since it required considerable skills but not too much strength or technique. (Women were allegedly deficient in both). Although croquet was never popular men’s game, it had both social and economic advantages: men and women could play together, and it required little equipment and no special clothing. Tennis anyone?

Roller Skating
Roller-skating was introduced in 1863, and it was quickly made fashionable by the elite of New York City.
The 1870’s rinks with hard maple had built floors in nearly every town and city. By paying an admission fee of twenty-five or fifty cents, men, women, and children could participate in races, fancy skating, or dancing on skates. Special skating dresses, which allowed more freedom of movement, became popular by the 1870’s. Indicative of the extent of the craze was this wry comment by the editors of Harper’s weekly, in the form of a potential gravestone inscription for a departed skater:
Our Jane has climbed the golden stair
And passed the jasper gates;
Henceforth she will have wings to wear,
Instead of roller skates.

The popularity of roller skating waned by the 1890’s, but like ice skating it helped lead to more freedom in dress and behavior for women.
Water Activities
Rowing and canoeing were popular pastimes, and, like tennis, golf, and riding, necessitated changes in women’s costume. Rowers left their corsets at home. Stout boots, a skirt that barely touched the ground, a flannel shirt, and a sailor hat were recommended. Women were also urged to wear heavy gloves to protect their hands when they rowed. Competitive rowing was popular among men, but for women rowing was supposed to be strictly for exercise and pleasure.

Many women went to beaches, but few of them actually swam. Ready-made bathing suits were constructed in two pieces-drawers and a tunic-and usually were made of no clinging fabrics like flannel, jersey, soft serge, or even heavy mohair. To complete the bathing costume, women wore full-length stockings, bathing shoes, and even a ruffled cap. Weighted down with heavy, voluminous fabrics, all but the strongest swimmer would have been exhausted after a few strokes. Until the twentieth century, most women did not experience real swimming.
Victorian bathing beauties from the early and late Victorian periods wore more clothes to the beach than we do to go to school.
Horseback Riding
Some sports, such as horseback riding , were available only to the wealthy, or to those willing to make financial sacrifices for social aspirations. Riding necessitated renting or owning and maintaining a horse as well as an elaborate costume; a riding habit, gloves, boots, and equestrienne tights were social necessities for a lady.
Women interested in the sport also had to overcome physicians’ warnings that riding might complicate or stimulate pelvic troubles. But for the wealthy and the aspiring middle class (perhaps hoping to have their daughters marry "up"), horseback riding provided both exercise and an expression of social status.

The advent of the bicycle in the 1880’s stimulated great controversy about women’s proper role in society. Questions of "how they should ride", when they should ride, who they should ride with" were considered by commentators, and"wheeling’s" many critics were certain that bicycle riding threatened women’s health, morals, and reputation. Critics opposed wearing union suits (to absorb perspiration) or bloomers, and worried about the privacy and potential liberty bicycling granted to young men and women. Physicians Thomas Lothrop and William Poter posited that the bicycle inevitably promoted immodesty in women , and could potentially harm their reproductive systems. Other critics argued that women bicyclists favored shorter skirts, thus "inviting" insults and advances. Moreover, by tilting the bicycle seat, they could "beget of foster the habit of masturbation". For advocates like Maria E. Ward, however, "The bicycle (was) an educational factor . . . creating the desire for progress, the preference for what is better, the striving for the best, broadening the intelligence and intensifying love of home and country.

Before such noble attributes could be encouraged by "the wheel", change in dress or the design of bicycles was necessary. Skirts made riding the Ordinary (a bicycle with a large front wheel) virtually impossible. Tricycles, however, were designed to accommodate full skirts and allowed women to ride without adopting the bloomer outfit, which many women opposed for its politically radical associations. Like nearly every other aspect of life in the nineteenth century, tricycle riding had a specific set of rules and regulations. The rule against women riding alone in fact generated a new profession: the professional lady cyclist as chaperone. Tricycles were commonly used for touring, and the tandem tricycle was popular with couples.
The first bicycle was two equal-size wheels and a dropped frame with no crossbar was the Victor, first manufactured in 1887. With the addition of pneumatic tires (invented in 1889) and enclosed gear, women were able to ride comfortable without their skirts becoming entangled. The final dramatic improvement in bicycle technology was the coaster brake, invented in 1898. These features enabled women to bicycle safely without having to wear bloomers.
By 1900 bicycle manufacturers, sales agencies, and private individuals had opened women’s velocipede or riding schools in many northeastern cities. The Metropolitan Academy in New York City set aside a special area of its hall for women wishing to learn the mysteries of wheeling, and installed the first athletics-linked shower baths for women in America. The Michaux Club, a new York City organization founded in 1895, provided women with riding lessons in the morning, music to accompany indoor riding after lunch, and afternoon tea in the clubroom. The club also provided "ten pin rides" in which women demonstrated their skill by riding slalom-fashion through lines of bowling pins set on the floor. Indoor riding for women was more acceptable to critics than outdoor bicycling because it was controlled; there was neither the possibility of young couples riding off in private, nor any chance of immodest exposure of woman’s limbs. Men were excluded from the women’s bicycling sessions.
By the late 1880’2 two - or three-day tours under the aegis of regional or national cycling groups were common middle class activities. In both Europe and America these organizations charged small membership fees and issued road books which provided information about routes, road conditions, hotels, repair shops, and "consuls" - club members in towns and cities, appointed to answer the questions of touring cycles. Far fewer women than men belonged to these groups, but they evidently participated with equal enthusiasm. In 1888 the Philadelphia Tricyclists Club had 118 members, eighteen of whom were women. That year the club’s "Captain’s Cup", annually awarded to the member who covered the most miles during the year, was won by a woman "for her mileage record of 3,304 ¼ miles.
The Penny Farthing was a popular Victorian bicycle.

Crystal Palace

The Great Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations, 1851

Crystal Palace Home of the Great Exhibition
The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the first International Exhibition ever held. Promoted by Prince Albert it was intended to help understanding and brotherhood between nations and so aid peace. Set in Hyde Park it was a huge three-tiered glass building and enclosed full-grown elm trees.

Exhibition Statistics
The Exhibition lasted 141 days and in that time six million people visited the Crystal Palace. The centrally placed exhibition situated in a far more accessible venue than the British Millennium Dome of 2000, attracted everyone from schoolboy to Queen to the well behaved.

Entrance Costs to the Great Exhibition
The Prince was thrilled that people of all types, all classes and all ages came from Britain and abroad. Whole parish parties visited and a Cornish woman walked the two hundred and fifty miles to see the Exhibition's wonders. Admission prices varied according to the date. There was a day and a ticket price to suit everyone. It varied from 3 guineas a day, £1 a day, five shillings a day, down to one shilling a day. The one shilling ticket was a huge success with the industrial classes, and four and a half million shillings were taken.

A Foreign Experience
Visitors were genuinely interested in the exhibits as many gave an opportunity to see exhibits that were only ever likely to be seen on an expensive foreign tour. Everything was for the entertainment of curious eyes and minds. A touch of the exotic was introduced and for the first time many people tasted set jelly and ice cream.

Fairs and Circuses


Fairs were held all over Britain from city to village green, but the first special fair of the Queen's new reign was held in Hyde Park. Every kind of article from ribbons to pies was sold. The Victorians loved the macabre and looking at freaks from fat men, fat women to the contrast of living skeletons, two headed ladies and for a time the so called Elephant man to mind reading dogs and performing horses. The crowds loved them all.

It is interesting to note the John Merrick, The Elephant Man, was one thing the various classes in Victorian times could agree on. Unfortunately for Mr. Merrick, the Victorians felt he was put on earth for their entertainment. The owner of the sideshow used him to draw crowds, the doctor who "rescued" him put him on display, the rich socialites would think it was fun to have tea with him, and the boys at the pub thought it would be fun to get him drunk.


It was during the Victorian era that the circus, whose origins lay in the fairground world, emerged as a commercialized entertainment that we would recognize today. This development was intricately tied to a widespread demand for circus acts by a broad range of classes.

The Victorian circus ring was a showcase for equestrian battle scenes, Chinese jugglers, clowns, female acrobats, and child performers. Although such acts exhibited wondrous qualities, unabashed displays of physical power, and occasionally subversive humor, they were also rendered as grotesque, lewd, or dangerous.

The consuming public’s desire to see the very kinds of displays that reformers wished to regulate put the circus establishment in a difficult position. circus, whose origins lay in the fairground world, emerged as a commercialized entertainment that we would recognize today. This development was intricately tied to a widespread demand for circus acts by a broad range of classes.
The Victorian circus ring was a showcase for equestrian battle scenes, Chinese jugglers, clowns, female acrobats, and child performers. Although such acts exhibited wondrous qualities, unabashed displays of physical power, and occasionally subversive humor, they were also rendered as grotesque, lewd, or dangerous.
The consuming public’s desire to see the very kinds of displays that reformers wished to regulate put the circus establishment in a difficult position.

Intriqued by Mystery

Throughout the fall of 1888 Jack the Ripper terrorized the East End of London, England. Although the Ripper’s crimes were heinous and grotesque, they managed to captivate the entire country, serving as titillating entertainment for the repressed Victorian culture. These crimes, widely reported in the newspapers, provided an outlet for sexual and violent frustrations.

There is an interesting article that discusses Jack the Ripper as being a form of entertainment. Oh, those wild and wacky Victorians.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Decadence (the fun stuff)

Opium dens were very popular during the Victorian era. Absinth was a popular choice in these dens.

Opium smokers in the East End of London, 1874

Laudanum was a wildly popular drug during the Victorian era. It was an opium-based painkiller prescribed for everything from headaches to tuberculosis. Victorian nursemaids even spoon fed the drug to cranky infants, often leading to the untimely deaths of their charges.
Originally, Laudanum was thought of as a drug of the working class. As it was cheaper than gin it was not uncommon for blue-collar men and woman to binge on laudanum after a hard week's work. Use of the drug spread rapidly. Doctors of the time prescribed it for almost every aliment. Many upper-class women developed habits.

The outbreak of tuberculosis may have been another factor in the drug's rising popularity. For a short period of time the tuberculosis "look" (very pale skin and frequent fainting spells) was quite in vogue. Victorian women went to great lengths to emulate the look, often taking arsenic to pale the skin (slowly poising themselves to death).

Laudanum's biggest clam to fame however was its use by the romantic poets. Many of the Pre-Raphaelites (Among them Lord Byron, Shelly and others) were know to indulge. The image of the romantic poet, pale, morose, drunk on absinthe and laudanum is a common one. The film Gothic portrays the stereotypical image of that society. In reality, most of the PRB were heavy drinkers first and formost.
Because of its easy, inconspicuous consumption, many Victorian writers and artists chose to satisfy their "yens" for opium by taking it in the laudanum form. In this way they could develop a private, discrete habit rather than sharing their vice with strangers at opium dens, where the drug was smoked by passing pipes from one user to another.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning began swallowing laudanum to treat her childhood spinal tuberculosis and became a lifelong addict, even suffering from a miscarriage due to her abuse of the substance. But the drug also provided a source of poetic inspiration. Letters exchanged between Elizabeth and Robert Browning are filled with images of scarlet poppies, alluding to Elizabeth's laudanum addiction.Elizabeth Siddal, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. all good rock stars know, if you have drugs and music then the next thing is:

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