Citation metadata

Author: Daniel Gorman
Editor: Stanley I. Kutler
Date: 2003
Dictionary of American History
From: Dictionary of American History(Vol. 8. 3rd ed.)
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1360L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 325


VICTORIANISM. Queen Victoria reigned as monarch of Great Britain from 1837 until her death at the age of eighty-two in 1901. Although the people who lived during her reign had no special name for themselves, historians have termed them "Victorians," and the period itself the Victorian age. Nineteenth-century Great Britain and the United States shared a common language, some political institutions, and a similar culture, and thus the Victorian period is taken to encompass America as well. Victorian America is generally seen to denominate the period stretching from the outbreak of the Civil War to the beginning of World War I.

The later nineteenth century saw the United States become a world power. This political development was accompanied, and in part caused, by the emergence of a newly self-confident society, itself propelled by the twin engines of wealth and progress. Marked by a newly ascendant Anglo-Saxon middle class, increased bureaucratization, a consumer revolution aided by new communication technologies, and a growing consensus that power should be achieved through education and expertise rather than solely through wealth, Victorian America emerged from the crucible of the Civil War and Reconstruction a self-conscious and vibrant society. Alongside this confidence existed anxieties that America represented perhaps the "last best hope for mankind." Victorian America endured a fratricidal struggle, as well as periodic concerns that the great rush to modernization brought with it the onset of moral decay. Victorian culture, with its attendant worldview, was a central component of this new society, and indeed served to mark the GILDED AGE in America.

The Importance of Being Earnest

The term "Victorianism" denotes no specific movement or ideology, but rather encompasses the varied and sometimes conflicting moral, cultural, social, and material components of American society during this period. If Victorianism has any central or defining characteristic, it would be the primacy of virtues, what in modern usage we term "values." Above all, Victorian Americans viewed life as a serious proposition, imbued with moral purpose. This view was derived in the main from religion, of which Evangelical PROTESTANTISM and METHODISM were the most influential. Since earthly existence was a preparation for the afterlife, one should adhere to moral laws, with the Bible the guiding force. Every task served this moral purpose, and thus reading, work, and even leisure bore significance above and beyond their daily utility. Consequently, self-control was a highly prized trait. More broadly, Victorianism embodied attention to proper "character" and the maintenance of "respectability," the public display of one's inner morality. Practices such as covering furniture legs with pantaloons were largely myth, the stock-in-trade of the Victorian satirist, and the prudery of Thomas Bowdler (whose sanitized Family Shakespeare, appearing in ten volumes between 1804 and 1818, has given us the word "bowdlerized" to denote partial censorship) was less predominant as the century wore on. But Victorians paid great heed to propriety and appearances. Victorianism connoted absolute notions of right and wrong, and individuals were judged accordingly. This view was also applied to the world more generally. Victorians measured the success of their civilization according to its adherence to moral law, and judged other cultures accordingly. Here, Victorian values intertwined with nineteenth-century ideas of race, a social Darwinian outlook that conceived of a racial hierarchy, atop which were the Anglo-Saxon peoples.

Victorianism was not entirely as harsh as this sketch implies. Indeed, the Victorians employed a lighter view of life as well. If a strict adherence to moral law was the ideal, it was nonetheless recognized that men and women were very human creatures. Thus, lapses in moral judgment—a man's recourse to soliciting a prostitute, or a woman's purchase of an expensive dress—are not seen by historians as signs of hypocrisy, but rather examples of the ideological dissonance at the heart of daily life. Victorians also valued humor and leisure. Works of literature such as Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1884), which highlighted the sense of adventure and play central to life in Victorian America, proved vastly more popular than the work of more serious writers, such as Herman Melville, who sought to deconstruct such realist celebrations of American life.

The valuation of moral law and respectability also had a positive influence. Victorians' devotion to self-control and the development of proper "character" led them to pursue laudable humanitarian and charitable goals. While self-reliance may have been the ultimate goal—see, for example, the incredible popularity of the novelist Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick (1867) and From Canal Boy to President (1881), which championed the theme of poor-boy-makes-good—many Victorians devoted themselves to working with the downtrodden of society and supporting charities. Often such work was religious in organization,Page 326  |  Top of Article such as the YOUNG MEN'S CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION. Still, the motive behind Victorian charitable work was to offer a "hand up," not a "handout." Other Victorian social causes included the abolition of slavery, though here of course were marked regional divides. Indeed, Victorianism was stronger in the northern states, where economic opportunities were more plentiful, and a stronger cultural Anglophilia was present. While Victorianism was closely linked with middle-class values, it was not intrinsically tied to social class. The wealthy man who hoarded his profits was no more respectable than the poor man who refused to improve himself.

The aspect of Victorianism that is perhaps most familiar is the divide between the private and public spheres. The Victorians cherished the home and the family as cornerstones of respectability, physical and social environments where the individual found solace from the vicissitudes of daily life. Women had a special role in maintaining home and family, and thus assumed a position as moral guardian. In this sense, Victorian women enjoyed a degree of influence. Women also assumed influence in the wider role through their work for various humanitarian and reform causes. That said, Victorianism dictated strict gender roles. Individuals, and especially women, were generally ignorant of their sexuality, and women furthermore were divorced from power because they had few legally recognized ownership rights. The "cult of domesticity" was as much a hindrance as a source of self-pride.

Victorianism was also embodied in the various manifestations of the visual arts. Victorian culture was intensely visual and demonstrative, from architecture and furniture to the 1893 WORLD'S FAIR in Chicago. Aesthetics and function were given equal weight. Although not as prevalent as in England, Pre-Raphaelitism and the arts and crafts movement were influential in America during the Victorian era. Special attention must also be paid to the importance of the decorative arts in the Victorian world. As the place where the private and the public coincided, the material culture of the Victorian parlor displayed the tenets and concerns of Victorianism.

Victorianism After the Victorians

Victorianism has generated widely variant interpretations in the century since the death of its eponymous patron. Originally used simply as a broad designation for the previous century, early-twentieth-century commentators quickly called the term into rebuke, charging the Victorians with emotional aridity, a crass and ugly visual culture, and an arrogant self-confidence that encouraged racial and patriarchal hierarchies. Critics such as H. L. Mencken asserted that Victorian culture was the epitome of philistinism, valuing popularity over merit, and watering down great works of art so as to make them palatable to an uncultured mass. The Bible was praised not because of its message, but because it was a "best-seller." The rise of modernism in the arts in the wake of World War I further delegitimized Victorianism by calling into question the Victorian notion of representational, or mimetic, art and the belief that the arts were imbued with moral teachings. Victorian individualism, and the importance of self-reliance, fell into disrepute with the development of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and the rise of the welfare state.

By the second half of the twentieth century, however, Victorianism enjoyed something of a revival. Critics such as Walter Houghton and the socialist Raymond Williams pointed to the critical trends present in Victorian culture, with Williams in particular revealing an organic and consensual strain in Victorian thought that served as the impetus for positive reform. Victorian visual culture has also received a more sympathetic examination by American historians of architecture, including Henry Russell Hitchcock, who see in it the precursor to contemporary design movements. On a separate front, commentators such as the conservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb point with favor to the Victorians' moral code, which in her view was a force for good in that it encouraged personal responsibility and rejected state patronage, a more effective recipe for dealing with social problems such as poverty.

Whether it is viewed as a mental and cultural world that championed progress, morality, and self-worth, or as a social code that promoted stultifying hierarchies and a base philistinism, Victorianism has proved of central significance in explaining the formative decades of the emergence of the United States as a dynamic cultural and political power.


Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Houghton, Walter Edwards. The Victorian Frame of Mind. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957.

Howe, Daniel Walker. "Victorian Culture in America." In Victorian America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976.

Ickingrill, Steve, and Stephan Mills, eds. Victorianism in the United States: Its Era and Its Legacy. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1992.

Schlereth, Thomas J. Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876–1915. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Stevenson, Louise L. The Victorian Homefront: American Thought and Culture, 1860–1880. New York: Twayne, 1991.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Daniel Gorman

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3401804400