Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Lessons of May 1896

As a an old-fashioned woman devoted to the home, I am an avid fan of Victorian America and often feel I was born in the wrong century. I even collect hard-copy magazines from the times, like the May, 1896 issue of The Ladies Home Journal. Yes, I own a 120-year-old magazine. In the pages I find wisdom and learn of rituals and cultural aspects of life, some of which I myself still hold dear. Maybe you do, too ...
1. Dutiful work was expected of everyone. The audience for The Ladies Home Journal, even in the 1800s, was primarily middle-class. Husbands are depicted as working outside the home -- usually in white collar professions, and being dedicated to providing for their families. A typical workweek towards 1900 was 60 hours. Wives were overwhelmingly depicted as homekeepers: cooking, cleaning, rearing children, and being the "light of the home."

2. A small population of women worked outside the home. Schoolteachers, nurses, and department store clerks were some of the most popular professions for women of middle-class society. Women of means were often taken with unpaid past-times, such as volunteering, writing, or the arts.

3. Christianity was woven into the fabric of society. The magazine has guest commentary in which authors talk about God's guidance; fiction in the magazine mentions God-fearing women, reverends, and children raised on Christian principles.

4. Picnics were popular in early summer. For example, a picnic menu suggestion was: ham sandwiches with mayonnaise dressing, tomato slices with salt and pepper, cold melon, and iced tea. Children often had their own picnic menus with milder fare, such as cucumber sandwiches and peaches.

5. Women were into shopping then too. A fine men's suit could be bought for $5.00, a quality corset for $1.00, a top-of-the-line bicycle for $80, and a Kodak camera for $10.00.

6. Popular past-times of the day for women included bike-riding, photography, playing tennis, and embroidery. Ads from The Ladies Home Journal depict bicycle ads from such manufacturers as Western Wheel Works and the Pope Manufacturing company, and all were made in the USA.

7. People used visiting cards. A visiting card was a hand-delivered card the size of a business card used for social calls. When a person wanted to see someone at another's house, etiquette deemed they would come in person and leave a visiting card at the door or with household staff. If they received a visiting card back, it meant a social meeting could commence. It was a standard of etiquette of the time. As a remnant of the past, these days people occasionally leave their business cards when no one is home.

8. Women enjoyed reading fiction published in the magazine. One titled, "Neighborhood Types" reads of a woman -- Lydia Wheelock -- who was looked upon as plain, frumpy, and poor by her neighbors, and who was also unmarried, suddenly got married at 30 years old. The story reads the man liked to drink but once he married her he never drank again.

9. Children respected their parents, did chores, and occasionally had part-time jobs (usually boys). Spoiling children was looked down upon because it prevented them from developing strong character and personal discipline.

10. Victorian Americans thought they were "past war." Most battles that took place in the United States after the Civil War were small and far away from large swaths of citizenry, such as in Arizona. Before WWI Americans mostly thought that they were "past war" since the North and South officially were reunited and because the Civil War had been so bloody and harrowing, with "brother against brother." 1896 was a time alive with spirit and new hope, as the industrial revolution spurred on and people moved to cities in search of new careers and new lives. Amid all this no one could fathom in 1896 how events such as WWI and WWII would change the world.

Many of today's American men and women still have a lot in common with the Americans of yesterday. I choose to hold onto these similarities.

Vintage Ads in 1890s The Ladies Home Journal:


Kathy Thurman said...

I just love those vintage ads!

The Quaint Housewife said...

Me too, Kathy! Thanks!

Alyson said...

My husband and I were just commenting that we feel as if we were born in the wrong era. Living in a commuter town and socializing with others our age who all seem to be go, go, going all the time makes us feel so out-of-place in society. We choose to live life at a slower pace, and we find most of our acquaintances cannot relate to this desire (or, unfortunately, cannot choose to drop the high paying job in the city due to financial burdens). Our local church pastors have intentionally cut many "family" programs to encourage church volunteers and the families that would normally attend to spend more time at home with loved ones rather than rushing to yet another event.

It's interesting that you mention in the article that a typical work week in 1896 would have included a solid 60 hours on the job for the primary breadwinner. Also, folks clearly were intentional about making social calls, visiting with neighbors and friends. I'm wondering then if the harried nature of modern society is due to the marked uptick in long commutes for work and number of social activities for children. If only we could travel back in time for a day and live life alongside a family in the 1890's. Would life feel less stressful?

The Quaint Housewife said...


Living a slower life is definitely more enjoyable. I used to live the 9 to 5 life but I find most of my day just went to fulfilling someone else's goals. And that go, go, go stuff makes life seem so shallow.

I think societal breakdown and the harried way of life are due to a some factors -- women working full-time outside the home, technology like smart phones, and what you mentioned -- long commutes and too many kids' activities. The family should come together at night for dinner and stay in the same room for a while, talking about their days.

I think if we could travel back in time we would be busy all day, but I think it would be productive stuff, and because most people would be married, I think they'd have an emotional center to help curb work-a-day stress.

I'm rambling ... thank you always for your comments :)