People have always considered their homes as a place of safety and security. It is the place where families are built and memories are made. Within the home the most important and significant room is the living room. My mother always said that the living room was the heart of the house. In many cases she was right when you take into account the importance of it. This was very much the same in the Victorian period. The Victorians would spend a huge amount of wealth on decorating their living rooms. However this only applied to the upper class that had an enormous amount of money to spend. The working class would not be able to afford much and would only have key pieces of furniture inside the living room, such as a chair and a table. The middle class would often have beautifully designed living rooms, similar to the upper class. I am going to explore the difference between the living rooms of the middle class and lower class.
In the Victorian times women would make a great deal of effort in decorating their homes. Women that could afford to would spend money on rare materials and beautifully, designed furniture. Their style of furniture is still sold today at an extremely high price. The furniture that the middle class and upper class people would buy was extremely expensive because of the materials used to make them. They would have some of their household items imported from different countries or made by foreign designers. Working class women on the other hand would usually have second hand material used to create pieces of furniture in their homes. They would have to make do with very little as the margin between the rich and the poor were enormous. I went to visit the Victorian Albert Museum to see if I could find items that the Victorians may have had in their living rooms.
Here are some of the objects that I found:
All of these objects would have been found inside middle class living rooms in the Victorian era. There were no pieces of furniture from working class living rooms at the museum because they were not collected due to their lack of value in wealth. Some middle class families were wealthy enough to have more than one living room. They would call the other one a drawing room. This is where they might have entertained their guests or went to read books or write letters. However the living room would usually be the place where you would find the most extraordinary pieces of furniture. The chairs, curtains, carpets and tables would all be expensive inside a middle class house. Compared to a working class house where there would be no accessories or glittery tables. Working class households would usually have second hand wooden tables and wooden chairs with a wooden floor in the living room. They were unable to afford the luxurious stuff that the middle class families had. They barely earned enough to feed their families let alone decorate their homes. As it has been stated in a previous blog by one of my peers the urban condition of the poor was tragic. Even in the working class category there are divisions. Some working class people were living on the street or in cramped apartments sharing rooms with numerous amounts of other people. Other working class people were lucky enough to have a home so they were not worried about decorating their living rooms but were rather worried about whether or not they would be able to feed their children.
On the other hand working class people today are much more fortunate. Working class people in England today are cared for by the government and are treated with much more care than they were in the late nineteenth century. There are benefits which working class people can apply for which helps them. They are also given housing by their local council and are also given job seekers allowance for the ones that do not even work. The government has therefore provided working class families with a much better standard of living which is why working class families today are able to decorate their homes and make their living rooms look amazing. Some working class families now have a flat screen television, beautiful chairs and tables.
Here is an example of a couple working class living rooms today:
As you can see in the image on the left this family has a flat screen television, lots of books and even a fire place. It also has a nice carpet and decent chair.
In the image on the right there is also a flat screen television and a huge open cupboard which is being used as a stand for the TV. It is also decorated with pictures of the family and other small objects.
Here are a couple of working class living rooms in the late nineteenth century:
In the image on the left this room is also the kitchen. Many working class households were like this and they were the lucky ones that had a home.
In the image on the right the house seems very pleasant for a working class family in the nineteenth century. It looks comfortable and decent for a working class family. This house would probably be occupied by a big working class family that could afford to live in a decent home.
I decided to look into a novel that described the living rooms of working class and middle class families in detail. I wanted a novel that showed the clear division between the two classes. I decided to look into Elizabeth Gaskell's novel North and South. The Higgins family are poor mill workers. They suffer a great deal of distress throughout the novel. Their sitting room is described as having walls that have a ‘dark unwashed appearance’. Also ‘there had been rough-stoning done in the middle of the floor’ which highlights how poor they are. We also get a sense that the living room is cramped and messy. In chapter 11 Margaret enters the Higgins household with Bessie Higgins. Bessie’s sister ends up ‘knocking down the fire-irons and tumbling over a chair’. She lacks the good etiquettes which Margaret exhibits when Mr Thornton is a guest at her home. The fact that she is ‘tumbling’ over a chair suggests that the room is untidy and disorderly.
In contrast to the Higgins household Mr Thornton, who is a middle class mill owner, has a much better home. Gaskell highlights how wealthy Mr and Mrs Thornton are by describing their possessions. For example in chapter 9 Mrs Thornton is ‘mending a large, long table-cloth of the finest texture’ in the living room. The attention to detail is much greater in Mr Thornton’s household than it is in the Higgins household. Gaskell specifically mentions that the table-cloth is of the ‘finest texture’ so that the reader understands how rich they are. However Mr Thornton is not a gentleman like Mr Hale and therefore his house is not the same. When Mr Thornton is invited over to Mr Hale’s house he highlights the difference between the two houses.
‘Somehow, that room contrasted itself with the one he had lately left; handsome ponderous, with no sign of feminine habituation, except for the one spot where his mother sat, and no convenience for any other employment than eating and drinking’. This quote from Mr Thornton shows us that Mr Hale’s living room is much better than his own. I found it interesting that he mentioned how his living room had no sign of ‘feminine habituation’ apart from the one place in which his mother sat. This shows a sign of a beautiful living room was a sign of a lady in the household. He also mentions how his sitting room never had any other convenience to it other than eating and drinking suggesting that Mr Hale’s room offers much more. I also found out that just like there are different levels in the working class there are also different levels in the middle class. This is still the case today. The middle class and working class both still have many different levels between them. It could be argued that this is due to social mobility. The education system today allows people from working class families to succeed and become part of the middle class. This was not the case in the Victorian era. The middle class today are still wealthy and do have beautifully designed living rooms. However I ask the question which one do you prefer, the modern style or the Victorian style living rooms?
Gaskell, Elizabeth, North and South. Aldine Press 1968.
A History of Homes- http://www.localhistories.org/homes.html
BBC History of Homes- http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/history_of_home.shtml