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Over the recent and hectic holidays I found myself engaged in an endless stream of dialogue on what everyone was doing or not doing financially about the holiday festivities this year. The general topic of economies resurfacing as it has been a timely one pn this site’s series of blogs and as the topic has been the most imminent one in my consulting and contract services venues lately. Because the topic is always potentially inflammatory, although everyone seems to want to talk about it, know about it, and come up with solutions or just know their role or part, select settings were chosen to be about as anti-inflammatory as possible. Therefore, I found myself back at the Victorian’s favorite places for the same topic of economies, those being the cafes, restaurants and their lounges or for extreme cases the equivalent of the salon which they used for such purposes. Victorians were realistic about economies and dealt with them in slightly different manners. Matters of repute were both beneficial and detrimental.
In the past decades most people I know accepted an American-ized concept of a custom to go into debt for holidays or special occasions. Victorians also went into debt but handled matters differently. Still in effect for the Victorian household was the typical site of vendors arriving at the kitchen door during morning hours or the creditor at the front door after nightfall when other guests would’ve departed. Such as considered proper and part of the Victorian’s business and lifestyle. Frugality in private and putting on a good amount of show in public was they way most household economies were handled, although massive immigrations and expansion of the middle class merchants changed the public levels of consumption. Old World and established Colonial bloodline families didn’t change their style of operation, though, even after the Civil War but became quieter about it all. They also continued to entertain and be entertained as a necessary part of business cycles as well as social lives and simply downscaled and pulled together in entertainments. This seemed exclusionary to outsiders who observed, beyond milieu.
Because I spent part of my professional career as an events planner, I’ve come to appreciate caterers for the timesaving element and the reliability. Victorians couldn’t always have someone else managing their kitchens but then the Societies old or new banded together to create a fair rotation. What they did was schedule well ahead their social calendars for entertainments and hosting. Although I’d once imagined the typical Victorian lady to have been slavishly tending to her kitchen and household accounts all day even if managing a staff or retinue of servants, I’ve since learned. The Victorian societies dealt with quickly perishing food items and the high cost and possible inconvenience of heating houses by gathering en masse together in each other’s homes by the calendar. This meant only a few days likely in any given month would the typical Victorian lady be in charge of playing hostess to a Society gathering or event. Literally, it kept her out of the kitchens and in the drawing rooms, so to speak, where her skills sets were considered highly valued. She simply didn’t have to serve up full course meals every day and scrub all those pots and pans afterwards. Plus she contributed to not only the Arts and Literature but in a roundabout way the political spectrum by her presence at the early evening near-daily gatherings. Society was becoming more open and accepting when similar avocations were in play. A previous blog discussed the high focus on daily stops at charity societies. Such places were the possible inroads into any Society, even at the Vanderbilt levels. Demanding social calendars, then, were a mercy and a blessing in disguise for the Victorian.
Sociologists are well employed at the moment at many levels as they study and assess the affects of the economic spectrums on groups and neighborhoods. I get to look over certain of their statistics in my current contract services with municipalities benefiting by the knowledge. The behaviors are quantifiable now, as they were in the Victorian era. One interesting topic in this area has been evaluating what was then and now held sacred and honored and even protected and defended. The Vatican consultants reminded me that the building structures of churches in the Victorian era were most definitely places of asylum and defended for that purpose. Not only were they held sacred for worship but on hallowed ground many an armed encounter outside the buildings themselves prevented the shedding of even one drop of blood on the floor of the churches. Except for recent decades, this was still a concept. In the Victorian times, the clergy, residents and even passersby got out their arms and barricaded and protected anyone seeking asylum in a church structure. It may explain the sudden disappearance of many a lawman in a chase in the territories where there was no real law in effect but the customs and mores of the local societies and communities. I found this tidbit verified to be of more than interest to the rising inspirational market in publishing and entertainment. One of the few markets doing better in this economy than not, as any working writer will tell you that the whole of publishing is down at its lowest since the advent of the printing press. The speculation from the think tanks of consultants is that new or unused story elements or even Macguffins ala mysteries are a possible impetus in selling stories to readership as well as publishers. We shall all see what we shall see, then.
I do go on about what I hold sentiment about in the historical past. A rather 19th Century affection, to be looking to sentiments. Mini-revivals in the Victorian Age were one form of escapism during the long or arduous economic downturns. Such revivals were more than a mere fashion of the times. Personas, even, were respectable and allowable and even entered the business realms. In my viewpoint, the Victorian’s spirit seemed indomitable even as it turned a nostalgic past into useful trends that eventually created or fed the new industries and markets and also the seeds of Advertising. In past blogging I referred to one with the Renaissance era black work and white work embellishments that became fanatical at all echelons in the Western World, on the Continent or off. During the Victorian era’s times of austerity such returns of embellishments inherited from ostentatious times was deemed a good thing. Even the formation of the Christmas Santa Claus image evolved at the same time from the Renaissance revival that merchants focused upon the annual tradition of gift giving. In more ancient times, the lieges of fiefdoms actually donated or sold cheaply most of their attire and much in worldly goods to their tenants and entourages and retinues. Not much had changed in many of the Old World or Colonial line households by the Victorian era; they were just less obvious after the French Revolution. An underground trend today is being compared to that one in that knitting has become the fastest growing American hobby, itself a noted trend by the professional sociologists for the nostalgic in creating heritage worthy items. Victorian grandmothers would’ve been proud.
This week, I attended an art class at the gallery where I’ve begun to show my paintings. The topic of heritage and bloodlines came up, as often happens in discussing styles of Art for their influence. I shared some of my experience with the inheritance of watercolor painting in my family heritage; although its skipped a generation, everyone has done watercolors as far back as we can find watercolors existing. I mention this because bloodline avocations were both an expectation and still an honor in the 19th Century.
Concepts of good blood and bad blood were alive to the Victorians in a manner that they acted upon. Bloodlines, and blood were still thicker than water as the adage said. But the Victorian era was changing social mores by adding more to the sociological equations. A matron in Societies could give entrance to any newcomer because of or in spite of bloodlines, and then the new one would be treated as blood. But, loyalty was required. That concept wasn’t relegated to chivalric codes considered outdated by the untutored and sacrosanct to its inheritors. A reputation was considered as either useful in business or Society, However, an unfavorable past that was not of one’s own doing was deemed an ‘unfortunate past’ that was not mentioned and the new entrant to the Society would find their present and future aspirations defended and guarded by that very same society. Again, newer social circles were emulating the long-lived Societies.
Business sectors were forming and rising. A new if good reputation could be earned that allowed for preference in business dealings and with creditors that was the near equal of how businesses honored the Old World and Colonial bloodlines whose word was expected to be gold.
My emeritus role with the United States Secret Service has always been one of particular interest to the modern or historical royalty. Also coined as the Aristocracy, a great deal of research has been done of all the actual and inheriting bloodlines of the legitimate royalty, which are protected persons as deemed. In the Victorian era, a number of imposters who hoped for Old World treatment were found out because their behaviors or rather their integrity in dealings didn’t hold out to the bloodline requirements. It is still a gauge in the modern-day efforts against identity theft. In the Victorian era not everyone, though, who donned a false identity was actually stealing one. It was still a custom to travel under an assumed identity for the sake of safety. Although if settling into a new area and using a traveling identity, still, then it became identity theft that becomes files in worldwide militaries and secret service files. A problem more common than not in those times. I have often found it my duty to inform surviving bloodlines that they actually weren’t of legitimate Aristocracy, after all. Early investigations agencies such as the protective Pinkerton types would investigate quietly the backgrounds of newcomers for an opening Society or established social circle.
As then, nowadays social echelons are concerned with how to appropriately behave in no inflammatory manners and yet keep up appearances for their societies. Keeping up appearances went far beyond matters of grooming of course, and had to do with the overall evidence of prosperity. Whether to show increased wealth or declines in fortune were often dictated to and enacted en masse by a social group, quite consciously or by emulation of the group leaders. Typically an established group had a deportment expert but could also go outside its own group and seek out a renowned deportment specialist in a respected circle or higher echelon. Such has been happening today as deportment experts are being consulted quietly for businesses and private societies. The Victorian matron of a society was typically a follower of the said advice but would be responsible for the enforcement of the sometimes mercurial rules. All for the sake of good form.
(Original artwork by K.-Marie Wall, self-portraiture in a Victorian hat.)
In the recesses of my mind, I’ve stored a list of questions that I’ve carried about with me in the hope they could be answered about the Victorian era. Some answers have been found while I was sipping steaming cups of coffee and tea with friends on foggy or icy mornings. From these experts I’ve learned a few things I’d wanted to know as a storyteller about the 19th Century. I keep in mind as much as I can what the context of those times, that snake oil was easy enough to sell, and that more than social faux pas were covered up, expectedly.
Many a buyer was learning to beware. Despite the speed and quality of postal deliveries having taken on a banner of national pride (albeit the postal riders were hired much younger than those shown in movies, I’ve noticed), the West and many cities repairing themselves after the Civil War were ordering by mail about everything from new socks to replacement balustrades. But the items such as wrought iron often turned out to be hollow, cast iron painted over, according to one architect and government expert on the era with access to the records.
While bantering over such data at the café, I’m often dismayed at descriptions of the types of wares that were expected to be passed off as authentic taking me by surprise even nowadays. Particularly after the Civil War ended, many discerning buyers were very suspicious and were ordering from overseas. Especially to Europe for finer household or office architectural items or decor in order to feel guaranteed in getting exactly what they ordered.
I’ve noticed other things that piqued my curiosity as possible storytelling elements. Many a Victorian era house was added onto in a seeming willy-nilly manner, so I asked more about the arrangement of rooms and their assortments. The strangeness of why rooms were not built to the same size and why windows and doors were typically off by enough that windows in particular would have to be uniquely ordered. It was typical for panes not to be the same size, I learned. That has been my experience while residing in Victorian houses. Replacing doors from doorways in that era also led to the similar moments of having to order custom-sized.
Now, being a romantic as well as a writer of romantic fiction, I’ve always wondered where the real life moments were possible in the Victorian homes while they did their near daily entertaining each evening. I decided to boldly ask where the kisses were stolen, or freely given, at formal parties. My research included more whispered questions over more cups of coffee with costume experts, also. Data gathered and coupled with correspondence over the Internet hot spots from Old World family members while I order a second cuppa joe yielded some interesting information. The journals kept by those who used to plan the State Balls during the Victorian era brought up parlors used for trysts. I couldn’t get a straight answer until I asked a princess, in fact. Balls and ambassadorial level functions accommodated quietly the anticipated desire for guests to have private discussions, even those of a romantic nature. A stolen kiss or two was quite allowable, and many a lady practiced with her hoop skirts to ensure no awkwardness in leaning close enough to her sweetheart. Major domos and liveried attendants were on duty to make certain of privacy. Keeping tabs on the trysts was a typical if quiet duty. Society hosts and hostesses having a house designed that planned to entertain grandly would factor in such conveniences.
Also popular in a more nostalgic manner were sculpted gardens and an occasional maze could still be found. When I asked what the mazes were used for, it was replied that they were where games were played, and one could take a chaperone or guard in livery, of course. But they weren’t lingered in, although they were useful for a variety of reasons during formal functions.
Still in style although not considered a fashion trend were paper-thin clothes for evening wear. Something that had gone on since the Dark Ages, as far as my research goes. The experts bring it up as romantically viewed as well as a matter of economy, and considering how many layers of underpinnings were donned the typical ball gown of, say, royalty leading a new trend would be in fabrics that were not intended for use beyond that evening. Their levels of embellishment were also decorously on a smaller scale than I’d imagined, having been led to think they’d be more grandiose than they often were. Jewels were often already heirlooms, with trendy jewelry and embellishments being left for earlier hours in the day. Perhaps at an afternoon tea with charity society ladies.
Even after years of study on such questions including at the scholastic level I’m always impressed at what conversation reminding me of the fact that Victorians considered both dining, taking tea or coffee or simply conversing as an form of Art.