The Victorian Age, part three

Early in the Industrial Age, women and children were hired to work in the factories. Over time, society increasingly reacted against that system. In the previous centuries, families had worked together in agriculture or in craft-making. Now, the owners of factories set schedules for the workday. These realities combined to create a new perception, that of the ideal Victorian family.

In the United States, this image of the ideal family is associated more with the 1950s, with television programs such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. The Victorian Era essentially created this image of a family in which the man is head of the family but leaves the family in the morning to go work in a factory or an office. The woman remains home, tending to the house and the children. Older children are sent to school, where they learn reading and writing and arithmetic. After passing through adolescence, they fall in love and marry and raise children of their own—and once again, the man leaves each morning to work, and the woman stays home to manage the household.

This Victorian ideal family was always the exception rather than the norm. Certain jobs were designated as women’s work—secretarial duties, teaching in school (especially the younger grades), nursing, serving food in restaurants, and work associated with textiles and clothing. Division of labor according to gender was more pronounced in the Victorian Era than it had been before industrialism redefined labor. New definitions of masculinity and femininity generally found some inspiration and authority in older traditions. The Bible describes an order of creation that distinguishes male and female; but the noble wife of Proverbs 31 buys and sells. She runs the family business. She does more around the house than cooking and cleaning and changing diapers. She is not a Victorian housewife.

The Victorian ideal was never the norm. As it became the model for family life, though, it began to meet resistance. While voting rights were extended to more men, women also sought (and eventually obtained) the right to vote, and then to be elected into government as well. Other careers—and leadership within those careers—eventually opened to women. These women were not battling to overturn centuries of patriarchy and oppression. For the most part, they were balancing a skewed response to the traumatic changes introduced by industrialization. This would lead, in the twentieth century, to the feminist movement. In the twenty-first century, it would also produce confusion about gender that had not even been considered before Victorian times.

Victorians also invented the modern childhood. Children had always helped out on the farm or in the family craft. When they were barred from factories and sent to schoolhouses, their lives altered dramatically. No literature had been written for children until this era. Toys were not a big business before this era. Playtime and organized recreational activities only began in Victorian times. Santa Claus is a Victorian invention, far different from the Saint Nicholas that preceded him. Even when Victorians insisted that children were “to be seen and not heard,” they defined a difference between children and adults that had not been considered earlier. By the middle of the twentieth century, a generation gap would have formed, and that would later sort itself into a series of generations, competing with one another for their place in the world.

But two world wars and a great depression were needed before these chickens hatched in the Victorian Age finally came home to roost. J.

The Victorian Age, part two

The Victorian Age was, in some ways, an idyllic time in human history. Science and technology were providing many benefits, including improving nutrition and health. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was finally being preached in all nations. Courtesy and good manners were routine.  Fine arts were available to more people than ever before, from museums and public libraries to pianos in the average home. The average standard of living was improving. Hope was widespread that, in a few more generations, war and poverty and disease would be abolished around the world.

But the Victorian Age had a dark side. Part of that dark side was racism. Many educated Europeans interpreted Darwin’s theory of evolution, survival of the fittest, to mean that some humans are fitter than others and should rule over others. Even as slavery was abolished, a new wave of colonialism put much of the world under European control. Otto von Bismarck hosted a meeting in Berlin in which representatives of European nations divided Africa among themselves, leaving independence only to the Kingdom of Ethiopia and to Liberia—a country created by the United States to contain former slaves. India, Indochina, and Indonesia were similarly claimed by European powers, while native governments in Siam and China were tolerated so long as they did not interfere with European interests. Indeed, before Victoria became queen, the British had already fought a war in China to maintain their right to sell opium to Chinese people. (Imagine Mexico fighting and winning a war with the United States to guarantee the right of Mexican citizens to sell illegal drugs in the USA!)

The British spoke of the “white man’s burden” to provide “civilization” to the darker-skinned people of the world. While the British were willing to grant self-government to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (all populated and controlled by people of European ancestry), they delayed indefinitely the same sort of freedom to India and to other colonies in the British Empire. In 1857, the British interpreted a series of local protests in various parts of India as wide-scale rebellion, and the British used military might to increase their control of southern Asia. In the United States, jobs were provided for freed slaves and for immigrants from Asia and Europe, but every new wave of workers was viewed with suspicion and dread. American cities were divided into neighborhoods of various cultures—Irish, German, Italian, Swedish, Polish, eastern European, Chinese, black, Jewish—and members of each culture stuck to their own kind.

Industrialization created problems of pollution and of an impoverished working class. In theory, capitalism provided relief by promising that the best workers would receive the highest wages and best working conditions, forcing employers to treat their workers well. Government regulations also helped to prevent abuse in the workplace. Among the most important regulations was recognition of labor unions—groups of workers united to negotiate wages and working conditions with their employers. Meanwhile, voting rights were granted to a larger segment of society, giving common workers power to elect government officials who would protect their rights and provide relief to their grievances.

During the Victorian Age, many intellectuals anticipated further changes in society that would eliminate the problems of industrialization. These changes were all called “socialism,” although they were not all the same. Some socialists created small communities where people who worked together also profited together, sharing the benefits of their labor and supporting their neighbors in the community. In some cases, these communities became the property of the business owners, who also ran the company store, the schools, the municipal government, and even the churches. Other socialists envisioned new communities in which families would each have a private apartment for sleeping but would eat together in cafeterias and share public transportation between their dwellings and their workplaces or schools. One group, called the Fabian Society, predicted and encouraged small and gradual changes aimed at a new socialist world. Others, including Karl Marx, predicted and encouraged sudden violent changes in which workers rebelled against business owners and their partners, the government leaders and church workers. The workers would take control of society, have the government run businesses for a while (socialism), and then allow the government to wither and die while people shared the benefits of their work—“from each according to his ability, and to each according to his need.”

Japan began the Victorian Age as a nation closed to the world, carefully limiting the number of people who could enter Japan from other countries or who could leave Japan to visit other countries. This practice ended when an American gunship threatened violence unless Japan would sign a “Treaty of Friendship.” This embarrassment overturned the Japanese government, and the new leaders toured Europe and North America to see what was working in the rest of the world. They brought modern ideas back to Japan—modern schools, modern military training and equipment, modern government with elected officials but also a centralized executive leader, and the best modern economic system (which was capitalism). The government built factories but quickly sold them to Japanese corporations. They improved the status of Japan so quickly that, by the beginning of the twentieth century, Japan was able to overcome China and even Russia in military confrontations.

Japan joined the party late, but the nation still benefited from the good things the Victorian Age offered. In the coming century, Japan would also experience some struggles from the dark side of the Victorian Age, a dark side that would first be felt in Europe. J.