Julie-Marie Strange, ‘Historicising the comfort of “things” in late-Victorian and Edwardian working-class culture’

[This is the seventeenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Julie-Marie Strange is Senior Lecturer in Victorian Studies at the University of Manchester. Her research and publications focus on inter-personal dynamics in working-class and poor families in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Here she contributes to our conversation about the relationship between material culture and ‘history from below’ by asking how the study of  ‘things’  can bring new or alternative perspectives on overlooked aspects of working-class lives.]

In The Comfort of Things (2008), the anthropologist Daniel Miller presented a series of ‘portraits’, stories of individuals and the things in their home that mattered to them, to challenge a narrative of consumption as corruption. Miller’s vignettes illuminate how objects embody people’s aspirations for sure, but, he also explores how the stories people tell about their things are intrinsic to their struggle to make their lives meaningful. For Miller, we appropriate objects to give meaning to social processes and relationships.[1] This post – a brief presentation of two case studies from late-Victorian and Edwardian working-class culture – makes a foray into how working people’s ‘stuff’ can be interrogated to explore the inter-personal dynamics of family life.

There is, of course, a rapidly growing literature on material culture and the ways in which historians might make use of it to understand the past, particularly ‘hidden’ aspects of history. What I’m going to focus on here is how things in working-class homes suggest insights into family relationships, particularly between children and their fathers. I’m focusing on fathers because they have typically been perceived by historians and contemporaries as on the periphery of family life in accounts that have privileged children’s relationships with mothers.Historically, the relationship between the working classes and objects has been situated within a framework of conspicuous consumption and ‘respectability’. ‘Things’ were freighted with social ambition and jealousies. For historians and contemporaries, a preoccupation with ‘luxury’ goods (all things being relative) has presented puzzling conundrums over the saving and spending patterns of those with restricted incomes. As archaeologists on the ‘Living in Victorian London’ project observe, this is a materialistic understanding of Victorian lives that overlooks the banal and shabby stuff of everyday life. It privileges a bourgeois perspective on working-class ownership of items and overlooks the nuances of plebeian aesthetics, the role of objects in the formation of identities and everyday practices, and the ways in which individuals use objects to mediate relationships between people.[2]

This is not to dispense with ‘respectability’. Clearly, some working people did aspire to own an aspidistra as a token of their labour and thrift; families valued pianos as symbols of self improvement; others looked at the china on their mantelpiece as the material equivalent to modulating their vowels. Yet for all that, the focus on ‘respectability’ at the expense of other potential meanings is skewed. In a bid to illustrate additional readings of things in working-class and poorer households, I offer two brief examples: first, of a chair, and second, of an individual ‘portrait’ of things and family relationships. The examples are taken from a recent project on fatherhood in late-Victorian and Edwardian working-class culture that draws on working-class autobiography.[3]

The Chair:

Megan Doolittle has recently examined men’s chairs and the grandfather clock in working-class homes to assess how the use of everyday objects shaped gender and age identities and how family practices around everyday objects reveal relationships of power.[4] Building on Doolittle’s analysis, this example considers how ‘father’s chair’ was instrumental in facilitating inter-personal dynamics and how such items operated as vessels for intimate meanings in adult reconstructions of family life. In the context of autobiography, authors used material goods and spaces to convey social status and family practices, but, they also appropriated those things to articulate the emotional experiences of family life.

As Doolittle demonstrates, domestic chair design was sexed with women’s armless chairs enabling tasks such as sewing and men’s armchairs facilitating sleep, reading or relaxation. That the best chair was reserved for breadwinner use indicates the status and privilege accorded to male providers; as a costly item of furniture, the armchair was a tangible embodiment of the wages men earned. Transgression of the chair’s privileged use tested and reinforced the male authority embedded within it. In households with multiple chairs, a hierarchy of seating was in operation (father’s chair at the pinnacle) that confirmed breadwinner privileges. Father’s chair was available in a range of woods, priced from the relatively cheap elm to more expensive oak; many could be bought on hire purchase (HP) and a thriving trade in second-hand chairs made these items available to all but the very poorest. The most popular design was a Windsor chair, with a rounded back, but, as some social surveyors noted, some ‘father’s chair’s’ were little more than stools.[5]

Families were complicit in reserving seating specifically for men’s use when men were at home, not least because rituals associated with father’s chair enabled men to engage with family life in ways that underlined and extended beyond financial provision. Walter Southgate recalled that his father’s mass-produced Windsor chair, acquired on HP, was ‘sacred to my father’s use’; he liked to sit and pontificate on politics from it. When a debt collection firm sent threatening letters for payments due, Southgate’s mother turned the demands into firelighter papers. His father, ‘blissfully’ unaware of the looming financial crisis, lit the fire with them before taking up residence in his chair to put the world to rights.[6] Of course, there is an element of ‘respectability’ here: Southgate’s mother was mortified at the public shaming of bailiffs fetching up at their door. But the story intimates things about family dynamics too: Southgate’s mother wanted to avert an economic crisis over the chair without her husband’s knowledge. This had less to do with spousal bullying, recrimination or appeasement, suggests Southgate, and more to do with the family’s awareness that while father worked hard, his trade was poorly paid and in terminal decline. Southgate’s mother did not want his father’s enjoyment of the chair to pall. In this sense, retention of the chair for father’s comfort was an unknown burden on a man whose breadwinning fell short of requirements but whose perceived right to enjoy his chair outweighed other demands.

The privilege associated with father’s chair could invest it with physical intimacy too. A jobbing plumber, with three children, surveyed in a study of working-class budgets (1891-4), was dogged by ill health, irregular employment and debt. The family lived in a two-room, second-floor dwelling in a densely populated area of Southeast London, their furniture was ‘trifling’ and each member suffered from hunger. The surveyor described the father as ‘devoted’ to his wife and children. The man spent early evenings seated, coatless, by the fire with his younger children, aged three and five, on his knee singing, whistling, playing a flute and having ‘a game with ‘em in my way’. To the external observer, the tactile and touching dynamic between father in his chair and the children on his knee was the embodiment of the man’s attachment. The observation that the man sat coatless related to other comments on the poor quality of the family’s clothing and bedding but also highlighted the informality and physical, sensory intimacy of the seating arrangement.[7]

Men’s chairs supported the spine and arms to suggest comfort, even without cushions or rockers. Made of wood, chairs were smooth with a warm materiality. Designs that included arms were sturdy to maximise the inherent strength of wood. Chairs that rocked enabled men to engage in a motion more commonly associated with the nursing mother. The structure of father’s chair might have been intended to encourage relaxation and reading but it also lent itself to tactility: with a high back, fathers sat upright, resting their elbows on the arms of the chair. In doing so, fathers mimicked a chair to be sat or climbed upon. If they were tall men, they became physically accessible seated at a height where children could engage their attention. Paternal authority probably looked less imposing too when men sat down. Of course, the quality and cost of a chair could operate as an item of conspicuous consumption but, as a space that facilitated physical proximity and multi-sensory intimacy, chairs were instrumental in the non-verbal navigation of feeling.

If social surveyors noted the quality of chairs as an indicator of status, it is notable that memories of chairs as the locus for father-child intimacy tend to omit detail of the chair’s value. Elsie Pettigrew associated her father’s chair with shared moments of history and intimacy that set her father’s role as provider against his boyhood experiences of hardship. Her father sat the child Elsie on his knee to ‘tell me about the hard life he had had’. This seemingly maudlin ritual involved her father sharing stories of his mother’s death, his escape from a cruel uncle, privation and the death of his first wife. The routine nature of the encounter, likened to a ‘sad fairy story’ that made them both weep, suggests that Pettigrew and her dad had expectations about the role and function of father’s chair for their particular father-daughter intimacy.[8] Despite the melancholic content of the story, Pettigrew used it to emphasise her affection and sympathy for her long-suffering father.

Recollections of Father could fix him in his chair to indicate the ways in which seating facilitated father-child intimacy. Emma Smith’s miserable childhood was split between the workhouse, and working for an abusive couple interspersed by happy interludes at her grandparents’ home. In later life, she imagined her ‘beloved’ grandfather as ‘always sat in a polished armchair’ situated by the fire. Smith’s happiest memories (there were not many) of childhood featured her grandfather in his chair: she and her brother were either sat upon his knee as he sang folk songs or she was stood with her hands on his knees, watching him. When her grandfather left his chair, it was to wind the clock that ticked solemnly in the corner of the living room.[9] That memories of ‘home’ were anchored by grandfather’s chair suggest Smith’s longing for stability and affection: the chair was a constant in a world that involved perpetual upheaval and disruption. That the clock also featured in this memory, alongside Smith’s stasis as she watched her grandfather and his fondness for folk tradition, further emphasised Smith’s sense of the old man’s faithfulness. Even at the end of her life story, Smith remained deeply unhappy and unsettled.

One of the key questions pertaining to chair memories is whether such intimacy could occur around any other furniture or domestic space? Other spaces of physical and emotional intimacy could be the bedroom but working-class writers were mindful of a sense of propriety while bedrooms were, like sofas, usually shared spaces. In contrast, father’s chair was an advocate for father’s qualities both in terms of his absence from home but also the specialness of his time within it.

The stuff of relationships in a Salford slum:

Some autobiographers did locate ‘stuff’ within a framework of respectability, although this was not always in a positive sense. Robert Roberts’s social survey cum autobiography utilised ‘respectability’ as a pejorative term to showcase not so much thrift and gentility, but, rather, the shallow vanity that acquisition of material goods symbolised (Roberts was self-consciously writing against what he called the ‘cosy’ picture of working-class life portrayed by Richard Hoggart).[10] Yet the account of his father’s pride in the material clutter of home was also an insight into Roberts’s disaffection for his father and the degree to which the older man was detached from family life.

Roberts’s ‘old man’ took satisfaction in displaying the bric-a-brac of home to baffled guests, treating them to a tour of his possessions, declaring that a living room print of the Battle of Quatre Bras was an heirloom that had been in the family for two hundred years. As Roberts observed, this meant the family had possessed the print over a century before the battle took place (1815). Roberts’s aside pierced his father’s pretensions and drew the reader into a sniggering alliance with Roberts against his father’s stupidity. There is perhaps another reference here too: Quatre Bras was of strategic importance to the Duke of Wellington’s eventual triumph at Waterloo. The failure of Roberts’s father to understand the history of Quatre Bras mirrored his strategic failure in family life where his indolence and fondness for drink routed his belligerent pretensions.

Similarly, his father’s ‘cheap’ bits of pottery exposed his misplaced vanity: ‘the gondoliers, the two massive dogs (with pup) hugging a hollow bust of William Gladstone, the bowl of China cherries!’ The ‘outsize’ of the dogs with their puppy suggest skewed sentiment, based on appearance and largesse rather than sincere affect. That even Gladstone was hollow underscored the sham values on display. The absurdity of china cherries and gondoliers in a Salford slum highlighted all that was corrupt about conspicuous consumption but, more specifically, the distorted values of Roberts’s father.

Roberts’s stories about his father’s pride in material goods relayed the position of the older man within domestic life. Roberts related how his father, in a drunken rage, smashed all his prized china with a beer bottle. This act of violence should have inspired fear. Instead, Roberts gave the anecdote a slapstick quality, rendering his father’s belligerence ineffectual and absurd. The comic value of the action accelerated when the explosion of his prized pots stunned ‘the old man’ sober. Roberts takes this further with witty tit-for-tat: his mother notes drily, ‘Well, you’ve improved the look of it at last!’, seconded by Roberts’s brother who observes that the scene was like an explosion in a public convenience. The dialogue reduced the raging father to impotency but, it also indicated the detachment between father and domestic life. His mother’s note demonstrated that her husband’s sensibilities were skewed, in domestic and aesthetic terms. His brother’s comparison between father’s pottery and public washrooms also derided father’s aesthetics but was deliberately vulgar too. It is reasonable to suppose that in drawing the comparison, Roberts meant to liken his father’s rage to more corporeal explosions that confirmed the older man’s family status as a shit.

Concluding remarks:

– If we move beyond respectability, we can start to consider what other work ‘things’ do in working-class homes and how they were appropriated by family members to mediate relationships. This includes taking account of the cheap, broken and banal things in homes as well as china cherries. A woman who met with Florence Petty, a social worker in Edwardian London, noted that the chipped enamel cup they were using to measure flour had belonged to her father. As Petty noted, this woman’s family was living in poverty. The cup had pragmatic value, for sure, but the story attached to it suggested that it held more than flour.[11]

– Even where we encounter ‘respectability’, it is possible to probe beyond the status-bound meanings attached to material goods. In the Roberts example, analysis of the account of his father’s relationship with things opened a window of analysis onto Roberts’s relationship with his father.

– Fathers have remained largely absent from the working-class home in histories that privilege it as a ‘woman’s place’. By considering men’s things, such as their chair, it is possible to gain insight into how men engaged with family space and the dynamics of family life, and to blur the boundaries between a ‘woman’s’ and ‘a man’s’ place. As Karen Harvey noted in relation to Georgian middling men’s things, the historical examination of how men made homes and how homes made men can expand categories of ‘home’ and ‘domesticity’.[12] This brief foray into the comfort (and sometimes, discomfort) of working-class father’s things suggests that the embrace of objects also expands our understanding of the affective lives of those from below.

[1]Daniel  Miller, The Comfort of Things (Cambridge, 2008).

[2] Alistair Owens et al, ‘Fragments of the Modern City: Material Culture and the Rhythms of Everyday life in Victorian London’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 15:2 (2010), 212-25.

[3] JMS, Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1870-1914 (Cambridge, 2014).

[4] Megan Doolittle, ‘Time, space and memories: the father’s chair and grandfather clocks in Victorian working-class domestic lives’, Journal of Family Culture (2011).

[5] See JMS, ‘Fatherhood, Furniture and the inter-personal dynamics of working-class homes’, Urban History, 40:2 (2013), 271-86.

[6] Walter Southgate, That’s the Way it Was (Oxted: New Clarion Press, 1982), 65 and 102.

[7] Economic Club, Economic Club, Family Budgets, being the income and expenses of twenty-eight British Households, 1891-1894 (London: P.S. King and Son, 1896), 17-22.

7 Elsie Pettigrew, Time to Remember: Growing Up in Liverpool (Liverpool: Toulouse, 1989).

[9] Emma Smith, A Cornish Waif’s Story: True Tale of a Workhouse Child (London: Odhams Press Ltd., 1954/8), 17.

[10] Robert Roberts, The Classic Slum: Salford in the First Quarter of the Century (Harmondsworth, 1971).

[11] Florence Petty, The Pudding Lady. A new departure in social work (London: Stead Publishing, 1912),p. 55.

[12] Karen Harvey, ‘Men making home: masculinity and domesticity in eighteenth-century England’, Gender and History, 21:3 (2009), 520-40.

4 thoughts on “Julie-Marie Strange, ‘Historicising the comfort of “things” in late-Victorian and Edwardian working-class culture’

  1. Interesting that loving memories of fathers from Georgian period often associated with pocket watches and representations of loving labouring fathers often had them sitting in perhaps ‘their’ chair at the end of the labouring day with their small children circling them.

  2. Pingback: The ancestral home | Socks for the Boys!

  3. Pingback: Material Culture ‘from Below’ | the many-headed monster

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