Saturday, January 11, 2014

Daily Life in Victorian England--As Gleaned from Handbooks of the Era

For years, I have been interested in books that describe the everyday life of the common people.  I own many, describing people from the Aztecs to Viking-age Scandinavia.  But these books, of necessity, are filtered through the author's ability to find information and what they found interesting or important.  Sometimes that odd piece of information you're seeking just isn't in that "Everyday Life" book.

But for the Victorian era, there are books published during the time period that describe all kinds of fascinating daily minutiae.  You can be your own filter for deciding what's interesting or important.  Of course the compilers of these volumes also had their own opinions, colored by their culture, but even these can be useful and interesting.

Cassell's Household Guide, Being a Complete Encyclopaedia of Domestic and Social Economy and Forming a Guide to Every Department of Practical Life (Three volumes, 1869)

Vol 1
Vol 2
Vol 3

These volumes contain a great deal of eclectic information--on cooking, making children's clothing, furniture, "Domestic Surgery" (which is a bit like first aid), home gardening, "The Household Mechanic" (an on-going series of tips on tools and how to use them), and much more.  The real danger when reading these books is that you will spend hours fascinated by the information, instead of finding what you were researching for your writing.  Thankfully, they are indexed.

The A's for volume 1: "Abscess, Treatment of; Acted Charades; Ague, Treatment of; Alum Baskets, How to Make; Animals Kept for Pleasure; Animals Kept for Profit; Apoplexy, Treatment of; Aquarium, The; Arable Husbandry; and Asthma, Treatment of" give a small sample of the wide range of subjects discussed.

A few examples of the contents, chosen because they're things I'm researching currently.

Vol 1, p. 102 Domestic Servants and their Duties

While not particularly useful if you need to know exactly what a mistress should do to engage a servant, or what each servant's duties ought to be (the writer seemed to think that anyone reading this would already know that), this did give the rather delightful instructions: "The best plan is to have the order of work and rules for the in-coming and out-going of the servants legibly and tersely written, and pasted on the walls of the kitchen. A little ornamental bordering and varnish makes the placard appear both pleasing and permanent. Any express duty required of the servant should be particularised thereon.

"In order to carry out the above plan successfully, the mistress should have a corresponding table at hand for her own reference, so as not to give contrary orders inadvertently, and thereby nullify the rules."

Vol 2, p. 358 Animals kept for Pleasure and Profit--The Horse.
Stabling--Stable Accessories--Harness, etc.

This section contains information about the sorts of things that might be found in a well-appointed stable. "Buckets are essentials, costing four or five shillings a-piece; and you should have at least two for each horse. Pitchforks, brooms, shovels, manure-baskets, and other like things belong to every stable-yard, and are not expensive."

I was wondering when vaccinations became widespread.  In this volume, published in 1869, I found, "The law relating to the vaccination of infants is imperative in its tone, and commands the parent (or other person having the care, nurture, or custody) of every child born in England or Wales, to procure, within three months after the birth, the vaccination of the child by the medical officer or practitioner appointed for the purpose." (page 110).  Obviously, vaccinations were expected in 1869 in England.

Vol 3, p. 110 Society, Etiquette of Visiting, etc.

As well as a great deal of useful information (if you happen to be describing a character making a visit), there is this interesting observation: "Of late an attempt has been made to do away with the formal introduction of visitors to each other when the place of meeting happens to be under the roof of some mutual friend. But the new fashion has not become general; English people, especially, are not prone to make advances, even under the most auspicious circumstances, unless they are tolerably certain of their ground."

Enquire Within Upon Everything by Robert Kemp Philp

Another omnibus of interesting information useful to the household.  At the top of each page is an odd 'fact,' such as "London consumes yearly 240,000 bullocks" or "The musical scale was invented in 1022" or "There is no darkness so deep as that of the mind."  This book went through years worth of updates and changes; a few of them are available on the web for download. (1856)

Ever wondered about the card games played in Regency or later novels?  Paragraphs 2082 and following describe Whist, probably in more detail than you really want to know.

Paragraph 2816 has advice on taking a house, and 2821 on taking a shop or place of business.  This is quite useful information for one of my novels.  Even more useful, the book mentioned "The Shopkeeper's Guide," which I also found on Google books ( and downloaded.

Enquire Within Upon Everything: To which is Added Enquire Within Upon Fancy Needlework (37th edition, 1869)

A later edition of this book, and whoever scanned it left a lot of pictures of their fingers with the pages, especially in the later part of the book.  I don't see the "Fancy Needlework" part in the scan I have.

69th edition, 1884

Project Gutenberg has "Anonymous" as the author.  89th edition, 1894.

100th edition, 1903

The Practical Housewife, A Complete Encyclopaedia of Domestic Economy and Family Medical Guide by Robert Kemp Philp (1860)

If ever you need a list of all sorts of Victorian household items, this is the place to find it!

On page 10, under what servants a household should have (or can afford) is this interesting advice: "Supposing now that we have our house, and it is furnished, the next thing to determine is how many servants can be afforded. Must we be content with one, a 'general servant;' or can we afford a cook and housemaid, or even aspire to the gentility of a man-servant or a page? Beware of this latter individual, young housekeepers, if you value your comfort; for if you chance to get a quick, clever lad, he will have more tricks than a monkey: and as for the stupid variety of the 'genus page,' it is a torment indeed."

Here, in Chapter V, is where I found details of what servants are expected to do.  I felt quite sorry for the poor servants, reading the day-long list of tasks.

Hints on Houses and House Furnishing, or Economics for Young Beginners (1861)

This book has hints for young couples just starting out on how to rent or lease a house, and then how to furnish it.  And 'furnishing' doesn't just mean putting in furniture.  Also described are such activities as whitewashing and wallpapering rooms.  Do you want to describe the interior of a house, or perhaps a desk in the parlour, or a bed in the bedroom?  There are line drawings in this book to help you out.  This might not be the best book if you're describing stately homes, because this is a book for young couples on a budget, but it has interesting discussions of setting up a household and is therefore worth a look if that is part of your research.

I am sure there are other available references for the kinds of details I'm seeking, but these are those I've found that are readily available and free online.  I would be very interested in links to other Victorian works that readers of this blog have discovered.

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Julia H. West writes science fiction and fantasy, and is currently working on a trilogy set in a fantasy milieu  based on Victorian England.  Ebooks of most of her published stories are available through Callihoo Publishing.

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