Happiness and tragedy, rich man, poor man ...
The social gentry of the Victorian era were ostentatious and displayed their wealth for all to see. Even though sickness and disease ran rampant, and lives were lost daily to the ravishes of chickenpox, smallpox, diphtheria, scarlet fever, meningitis, tuberculosis and cholera, the Victorians surrounded themselves with the ornaments and chattels of the rich.
The insides of their homes were often dark as sunlight was purposely kept at bay. Heavy furniture filled the rooms and family oil portraits hung on the walls. Signs of Victorian status included large mirrors strategically placed to reflect the abundance of possessions back into the room. The Victorian home was overflowing with vases, figurines, needlework and lace.
The Victorian woman's place was in the home while the man grappled with worldly matters and perhaps kept an outside mistresses or two. The more wealth a family had the more servants they could afford. The very well off Victorian woman often found herself with little to do but socialize, take tea and bear children to replace the ones who died from disease. Married women could own no property until the Married Woman's Property Act of 1887 was passed.
The properly raised Victorian woman changed her clothes as much as six times a day depending upon the social calendar. Every woman had specialized clothing including dresses for morning leisure, walking, going to town, visiting, welcoming guests, travelling in the carriage, eating dinner, going to the theatre and dresses for a wide variety of other social activities including bathing at the seashore.
Domestic help handled the daily chores and the wealthy woman rarely broke a nail or dirtied her hands. Even diapers were changed by a nursemaid. Despite the opulence, homes ran on strict timetables where meals were social events worthy of a change of clothes.
While on the other side of town, the poor Victorian families also struggled with losses from the same diseases that struck down the rich. If not working as a domestic, a Victorian man or woman most likely worked in a lace factory or slaughterhouse or performed a trade such as blacksmithing.
Poor Victorian children, aged 10 and up, often worked 16 hours a day or longer in factories alongside adults. Child labor laws were non-existent and children were generally thought of as disposable. The gap between the rich and the poor was visible and, for the poor, often fatal.
The Victorian era was a dichotomy of happiness and tragedy, rich man, poor man. A society bound by a lack of sanitary and medical knowledge that sent death scurrying from home to home while the orchestra played and the rich dined on boar.
Sources L. Jackson, The Victorian Dictionary, 29 Sept 2005, <http://www.victorianlondon.org/>