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Archaeology
of a
San Francisco Neighborhood

This Web site was funded by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

It was created by Anthropological Studies Center (ASC).

Victorianism

 

This child's cup, with its charming transfer print scene depicts an adult instructing a child. The purpose of the cup was twofold. It was a drinking vessel but also a teaching device used to instruct children in the virtues of industriousness. The cup's combination of practicality and moral instruction was characteristic of Victorianism, the foremost social philosophy in nineteenth-century America.

The nineteenth-century was a period of great change in America. New industries were developing, people were leaving their farms to seek work in the cities, and immigrants were arriving in great numbers from Europe. People were forced to adapt their traditional values to the new industrial, urban and consumer cultures. The values promoted under Victorianism: industriousness, obedience, attention to detail, a deference for authority, and time thrift were the virtues prized in workers in the new factories and shops. This process of adaptation called Modernization, is one of the most important social processes studied by archaeologists working on nineteenth-century American sites.

Victorianism held that people's character was deeply influenced by their physical surroundings. Beautiful objects could improve the mind while ugly surroundings could stunt a person's emotional and social development. People placed great emphasis on creating a well designed and decorated home to cultivate refined behavior in their family. They gave children toys and printed cups such as the one pictured above to encourage desirable virtues. Bric-a-Brac including vases and figurines, and specialized serving ware such as the trays pictured here, cluttered the Victorian home as people tried to express both their economic affluence and their adherence to Victorian values.

 

The information on this web page was based on a more extensive essay on Victorianism in Chapter 4: Consuming Aspirations: Bric-a-brac and the Politics of Victorian Materialism in West Oakland, a chapter in Putting the “There” There: Historical Archaeological of West Oakland. The complete report is available for free download here.

 


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