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Background

The Victorian Era


The Victorian Era spanned the years from 1837 to 1901, the years that Queen Victoria was the British monarch. This time period was one of incredible change in Great Britain and the United States. Vast cultural, social, and technological changes occurred. In general, the Industrial Revolution brought prosperity and urbanization to the United States. Architecture is one of the defining elements of the Victorian Era. Building construction embraced new and easier techniques to create structures reflecting the Victorians' romanticized ideas of design. Four styles, each emphasizing the "long ago and far away," dominated Louisiana's Victorian building designs. These included the Gothic Revival, the Italianate, the Eastlake, and the Queen Anne Revival. Local needs and building traditions dictated the free adaptation of these styles to serve Louisiana interests. Many more people could afford to own their own homes in the last half of the nineteenth century. Victorian homes provided more house for less money because of the new and easier building techniques. Victorian houses incorporated technological advances and reflected cultural attitudes, thus providing historical insight into the time period. Victorian furniture, if studied carefully, often has a humorous aspect. The furniture legs just had to be decorative, and when cabinetmakers got bored with those French-looking cabriole legs, they turned to paws of all sorts. George Hunzinger, for instance, made some parlor suites in the 1860s and 1870s with hooved feet that made the pieces look like they were about to gallop off at any moment. Furniture with ball-and-claw feet didnt appear until about the 1890s, after the Colonial Revival style made its patriotic appearance. [Ruhling, Nancy & Freeman, John Crosby, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Victoriana, p. 15.] The phrase laborers cottage was a universal term applied to all basic types of unpretentious frame or brick houses with modest elements of the Italianate, Queen Anne, or Eastlake styles constructed from 1870 to 1910. In the late 1880s a one-story frame cottage house with a kitchen, a parlor, and two bedrooms in Chicago was priced at $600. [Schlereth, Thomas J. Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915, p. 91.] The middle class emerged during this time period. This new class consisted of clerks, managers, white-collar office workers, ministers, craftsmen, small businessmen, farmers, editors, etc. These people often wanted to copy the

life, manners, and society of the gentry of their parents generation. By providing a better income and inexpensive versions of cutlery, dishes, clothing, etc., the industrialization of the country gave the middle class the opportunity to attain their desired position in society. The middle class embraced what Louis Mumford deemed the goods life. The new canon of taste for the middle and upper classes became that of conspicuous waste. This taste favored novelty and idiosyncrasy instead of simplicity and serviceability. The basic idea was to show wasted effort, which attested to expensiveness. The expansion of the suburbs was based upon technological innovation and invention. Suburbs before the 1870s were defined by rather slow horse cars and costly, infrequent railroads. Public transportation underwent revolution with the San Francisco cable cars in the early 1880s, the Richmond electric trolley cars in the late 1880s, and the Chicago elevated railroad in the early 1890s. All of these factors pushed a continued drive outward from the city's central business district. Commuting suddenly became easier, faster, and cheaper. Streetcar suburbs grew up along the routes. Such suburbs can be seen in Louisiana's larger cities. Those people who moved out into the suburbs supposedly escaped from the problems of social unrest, poor health, and vice associated with life in and near the urban business districts. A private home in a safe suburban residential area would serve as protection for the wife and children from the dangers of the city. The private residence was a family haven and a place of refined culture. Each home showed the familys taste, interests, and position in society. The suburban home with its faade, shape, room decoration, and size was the glorified ideal of late-Victorian culture. A house faade of varied materials, elaborate detailing, and various colors was surprisingly inexpensive when compared with today's costs. By the late 1870s most of the so-called individualized craftsmanship of the Victorian houses was ornamentation that was factory-made, railroad shipped, and then glued or tacked into position by carpenters. The new industrialism promoted extravagant and garish ornamentation. Builders advocated architecture which could blend with natural imagery just as landscaping did. A single faade could feature elements such as rough limestone, cedar shingles, wide clapboards, and green patina on slate tiles, thus giving the look of natural materials and age to a new house. Hues of nature were simulated with mineral paints and stains. The reds and golds of autumn leaves, browns and grays of weathered wood, and greens of lichens and ferns were favorites of builders and buyers of the 1870s and 1880s.

Verandas and porches, often serving as outdoor parlors, became larger and more functional. Porches were fitted on two or three sides of a house. They were outfitted with gliders, swings, rocking chairs, and wicker furniture. By the end of the 1800s the shotgun cottage had spread into all parts of New Orleans and, to a lesser extent, to other Louisiana cities and towns. Most cities outside Louisiana have nothing comparable to the shotgun house. Shotgun house neighborhoods have urban streetscapes and tangles of subtropical planting behind the shotgun houses that seem a miraculous blending of city and country life. Most of New Orleans' Victorian Era shotgun cottage houses sport high-style architectural displays on the front next to the street. Victorian Era houses embody the history and culture of their time. Much can be learned from their study.