Building “Victorian” Families in America: 1830-1880

Beginning about 1830, a remarkable effort emerged to construct a rich and comprehensive ideology of the family. Its components included the concept of “separate spheres” for men and women, the primacy of “the domestic church,” and an elaboration of “true womanhood.” In a curious departure from American republicanism, the human archetype of this philosophy was Great Britain’s Queen Victoria. The influential Godey’s Lady’s Magazine, for example, put her forward “as the representative of the moral and intellectual influence which woman by her nature is formed to exercise.” The monarch’s qualities embraced “all that is majestic, all that is soft and soothing, all that is bright, all that expresses the universal voice of love in Creation.”[1] This ambitious effort to clothe traditional home-centered activities in a new “radiance” would actually constitute a “moral revolution,” with sweeping consequences of its own.[2] In constructing this ideology of the family, both men and women were involved; although it would be a band of “scribbling women” who played the more decisive part. All the same, this sea change in social life involved “a reorientation of the masculine attitude” as well, from the coffee-houses and taverns of the eighteenth century, toward home. Renewed evangelical energy among the Congregational churches after 1825 brought a reaction “against convivial excess.” As historian Walter Houghton summarizes, “[m]en were required to give far more time and attention to the business of the family.” English Victorian writers waxed poetic about the virtues of family life. Thomas Arnold cited “that peculiar sense of solemnity” with which “the very idea of family life was invested.” John Ruskin described the home as “the place of Peace; the shelter not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division.” Even John Stuart Mill noted that the life of men was “more domestic” now, including an
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