This was a golden age of literacy and most free people could read at least some. From serial stories in newspapers to “penny dreadfuls” and other cheap novels, fiction was abundant and widely discussed. Printing was relatively inexpensive and people and organizations published on every conceivable topic, from birth control (in violation of the Comstock Act) to farming and foraging.
Of particular amusement to readers today are the books and magazines instructing young Victorians in the formal and abundant rules for courtship. Many of these publications exhorted readers to lead a life of chastity, modesty, and patriotism. Specialty magazines aimed at young men and young women emerged to meet the demands of the new singles in the cities.
As a new manufacturing class of factory owners rose, so did the women in their families. Able to employ cheap immigrant servant labor, they had access to more free time than their mothers and grandmothers had. They used this time for leisure – cycling through the park or bathing at the shore – and for organizing, both of which terrified traditionalists.
The “cult of domesticity” or “cult of true womanhood” arose as a social ideal in response. This ideal held that a good and virtuous woman’s place was in the home, educating her children and managing the servants. She did not belong at horse races or in taverns or at protests.
Women were meant to be guardians of the domestic sphere, crafting a nurturing and pious environment. Men were meant to be guardians of the public sphere, protecting women from burdens like the right to vote or own property. Proponents of this return to traditional values stated that mothers were the moral center of the family, not realizing women might believe that and put it into action.
Tune in next time for religious movements and health fads of the Victorian age!