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.