The middle classes: etiquette and upward mobility
The British Bee Hive
George Cruikshank's British Bee Hive, sketched in 1840, depicts a range of Britain's professions within a strictly divided pyramid-based social hierarchy. In the 19th century the bee was a popular symbol of industry and co-operation.View images from this item (1)
Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum
Rising up the social ladderIn order to ensure that the aristocracy no longer had an unfair advantage, the middle classes campaigned energetically for electoral reform and free trade. By creating the conditions for healthy competition, the Victorians believed it should be possible, in theory, for any man to succeed in the world through his own efforts no matter how humble his origins. Author Samuel Smiles coined the term ‘self-help’ which he used as the title for his best-selling book. Self-Help (1859) had chapters such as ‘Application and Perseverance’ and contained scores of inspirational case histories about men who had risen from humble beginnings to become captains of industry. In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens tells the story of Philip Pirrip (Pip) who is transformed from blacksmith’s apprentice to Gentleman. However, since Pip hasn’t worked for his wealth, he finds his new position unsatisfying and his sense of guilt is woven into the plot. Even a radical Victorian like Dickens believed that self-help and hard work were essential to a person’s emotional well-being.
Self-Help by Samuel Smiles
Published in 1859, a year before Great Expectations, Samuel Smiles’s best-seller conduct book Self-Help (1859) promoted self-education and perseverance as the route to social mobility.View images from this item (7)
Chart listing workhouse tasks in 1852
Table showing the kinds of employment performed by workhouse inmates, including breaking stones, grinding barley and cutting wood. 1852.View images from this item (4)
‘How to Behave’Even if a middle-class man did achieve worldly success, it did not necessarily mean that he was socially secure. Indeed rapid upward mobility could cause all kinds of anxieties. Class distinctions actually became more important now, as a way of distinguishing the ‘old’ middle-class of professional men such as lawyers and doctors from the ‘new’ businessmen and technocrats. With so many more people living in the cities, it became important to position people according to their exact place in the social hierarchy. Men who had risen from humble beginnings worried about fitting in. To help negotiate their new lifestyle they could chose from scores of manuals with titles like How to Behave and Hints from a Gentleman. Here you would find everything you needed to know: when to shake hands; how to bring a conversation politely to an end; how to sit and stand gracefully; what was meant by ‘RSVP’; how to deal with dirty nails or bad breath; how to style your beard; or how to conduct yourself at a dinner party, a picture gallery or church. Armed with one of these books, the newly-hatched middle-class gentleman could avoid making any social gaffes in polite society.
Suburbs and servantsFollowing social rules was even more important for middle-class women. Unlike men, they couldn’t draw status from their jobs. While husbands commuted to work every day, wives were left at home, often in one of the newly-built suburbs that were beginning to fringe the major cities. Semi-detached houses had names such as ‘Blenheim’ or ‘Windsor’ and were designed to ape the stately homes of the aristocracy. Not only was paid work for the middle-class woman frowned upon, she was also discouraged from doing housework, which was left to a growing army of specialised servants including housemaids, nursemaids, cooks and footmen. Even women at the bottom of the middle class, the wives of clerks and schoolteachers, expected to have a maid-of-all-work to do the dirtiest tasks like scrubbing the steps and peeling the potatoes.
Conspicuous consumptionThe real function of a middle-class wife was to display her husband’s financial success by stocking her home with material possessions – what’s been called the ‘paraphernalia of gentility’. Carpets, pianos and paintings, the fancier the better, were all advertised in the new women’s magazines such as Sam Beeton’s Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and sent a message not only about their owners’ wealth but also their patriotism. Buying luxury goods boosted domestic trade and bound the growing British Empire together through the importation of precious materials and expensive fabrics from the other side of the world. Being a consumer had become a civic duty.
The lady of the house herself became a walking billboard for her husband’s material success. She might change her clothes several times a day, wearing different outfits for breakfast, making calls and dinner. Her body, too, conveyed an important message about her social class. Her smooth white hands and cumbersome crinoline skirt hinted that she had not been busy with housework.
The Women of England
In The Women of England, Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits (1839), Sarah Stickney Ellis suggests that women are responsible for the moral welfare of the nation.View images from this item (12)
Beeton's Book of Household Management
Illustration from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861).View images from this item (13)
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.