When did the US begin referring to 'Victorian' things?
May 13, 2016 3:06 PM   Subscribe

When did people in the US begin referring to things in their own country as 'Victorian'? And why? Is there any history or controversy behind such a usage?
posted by Emma May Smith to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have no answer for you, but you might be pointed in the right direction by the website of Sarah Chrisman, who is not overly popular here but is *really* into American Victoriana.
posted by sparklemotion at 3:39 PM on May 13, 2016

At least since I was a kid in the 1970s (because we lived in a Victorian house, which was referred to that way), and probably much before that.
posted by Miko at 3:41 PM on May 13, 2016

I mean, I think it may have always been this way. The influence of the British royals on the US has always been important, but it was massively so at the time. I am now in Google Books finding plenty of titles and discussions with "Victorian" in them, by American publishers. The only alternatives, historical periodizations mostly used by academics like "the industrial era" or "the late nineteenth century" are awkward enough that they don't pop up as much in popular use.
posted by Miko at 3:43 PM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

At least since 1900. There are lots of references in Newspapers.com at that time to the "Victorian Era" or "Victorian Age".
posted by ReluctantViking at 3:48 PM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

1887, the New Princeton Review, "A Course on American Architecture" - "Within one human life we have had the psuedo-Classical fashion, the Downing fashion, the Victorian fashion, the French fashion, the Queen Anne fashion, and now we have two or three fashions at once."
posted by Miko at 3:53 PM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

The Victorian era lasted from 1837-1901. Most things called "Victorian" in the US follow the fashion of English aesthetics of that period.

For example you probably wouldn't refer to a cabin built during the California Gold Rush as "Victorian", even though it technically was built during that period. But you probably would refer to a white wedding dress from that era as "Victorian", because it was Victoria herself who popularized the white wedding dress, and fashions generally passed from Europe to the US back then.

Considering that the Georgian era preceded the Victorian (and the Elizabethan, Jacobean, Restoration, and Regency eras are also a thing), and the Edwardian era immediately followed, my guess is that the "aesthetic/cultural descriptors based on who was ruling Great Britain at the time" phenomenon was already a thing by the end of the Victorian era.

So, to me, the real question is when this periodization of British history started, and whether, for example, someone living in the Regency era would have known about "the Jacobean era" for example. Why we call some things that were actually made in the USA "Victorian" is sort of a side question.
posted by Sara C. at 4:11 PM on May 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Just another note, all the former British colonies seem to use the same vocabulary w/r/t architectural and fashion styles and literature, etc., so it really probably just does reflect the strong and continuing cultural links.
posted by Miko at 4:16 PM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

The use of 'Victorian' in other places (UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and so on) aren't of particular interest. That usage can at least be explained by the constitution prevailing at the time in those countries. I'm looking for explicit reasons/problems why a country not ruled (well, apart from a small portion) by a specific monarch would use that monarch's name in its own history.
posted by Emma May Smith at 4:25 PM on May 13, 2016

During Victoria's reign the US was obsessed with the U.K. and nobility. Arguably there was a similar fad for young American beauties and their money in the British Isles. When Prince Albert, the crown prince, visited the US in 1860, he was adored. The British Empire was immensely powerful, much more powerful overseas than the US. Queen Victoria was also extremely personally powerful. When she came to the throne it was as an attractive young woman, after all. Then she had a fairy tale marriage. Basically imagine someone as popular as Princess Di was at the height of her fame but in a world where there were no rock stars and few sports or political celebrities.
posted by bq at 4:32 PM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's the name that applies to certain aesthetic and philosophical movements that occurred during that time.
posted by lazuli at 4:33 PM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

You're misunderstanding why the expression "Victorian" is used. It has nothing to do with national sovereignty. It's a social, cultural, and aesthetic/art-history term more than anything else. Those are all things that span national borders.

For example, James Joyce lived and wrote in Continental Europe, but we still consider The Dubliners and Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man part of the Edwardian era in literature.
posted by Sara C. at 4:33 PM on May 13, 2016 [7 favorites]

While Queen Victoria was still alive, the term "Victorian age" or "Victorian era" was in common usage in the New York Times as seen in the following examples:

NYT, English Language and Literature, Apr. 26, 1864:
So that the book is a well-digested and comprehesive repertory of the facts that constitute our knowledge, concerning the mental illumination of the people and realm of England, from the first glimmer of an intellectual dawn to the Victorian age.
NYT, The Story of Punch, Jul. 18, 1876:
The story of Punch is the story of a literary period in English history. It is concerned with the lives and works of the leading wits, humorists, essayists, novelists, and statesmen of the Victorian era.
NYT, George Eliot, Dec. 24, 1880:
But though our grandchildren may not care to read George Eliot any more than we care to read Miss Austen, they will hardly deny that among the writers of the Victorian age there was none that in true intellectual greatness could be ranked above the woman whose death will be mourned to-day where-ever the English language is spoken.
However, in all the cases I could find from around this time, the term appears to be specifically referencing the (then-)current time period in English history, usually in a social or cultural context and less in a political context (i.e.: more like "roaring twenties" or "go-go '80s" rather than "Harding administration"). It is not clear to me if people also thought that the USA was also in the Victorian age. For example, I doubt that Mark Twain would be referred to as a Victorian author.

In addition to "Victorian age/era", we also find the adjective "Victorian" applied to things that were directly associated with Queen Victoria herself:

NYT, Easter Fashions, Mar. 21, 1897:
Not even the most ardent admirer of Queen Victoria would willingly accept some of the fashions of the year which the Jubilee is meant to recall. Only the inexorable mandate of that more universally autocratic old lady could make her adopt the great bulbous looking skirts which swell out (according to the old fashion plates) so courageously from the waist and fall in so limply around the feet. Still, some of the features of those dresses have asserted themselves in the making of the Spring gowns. The shoulder seams are longer, giving the sloping effect to the shoulders which is a distinctive characteristic of the Victorian style, and the sleeves show a decided tendency to "grow bigger downward," like Holmes's strawberries. [...]

Another "Victorian'' fashion which has found its way into the dresses of thin material for both Spring and Summer is the many ruffled skirt.
NYT, Victorian Relics, Jul. 25, 1897:
The jubilee celebration seems likely to start a craze for collecting relics of the Queen's early days, writes Henri Labouchere in Truth.
The earliest case I could find that clearly put America within the "Victorian era" is the following, from shortly after Queen Victoria's death (although I think it's a bit of an outlier):

NYT, The Victorian Era, Mar. 10, 1901:
At that same time another and still more wonderful creation of mechanical energy, the electric telegraph, was approaching completion -- the first in a series of inventions which have made the later chapters of science read like a fairy tale, until to-day we transmute the momentum of Niagara Falls into electric energy that affords light and heat and tractive force for the myraid [sic] uses of a great city. These vast and sudden developments of physical science are at the bottom of all the social and political life of the Victorian age. [...]

These inventions made it possible for the United States to come out victorious from its great civil war and they add indefinitely to the cohesive tenacity of the widespread British empire.
The earliest instance I could find of an unambiguously American inanimate object (like a chair or a house) being referred to as "Victorian" is here:

NYT, Henry Astor Dies in Country Home, Jun. 8, 1918:
Henry Astor, a member of the famous American family of that name, who had been living the life of a country gentleman in seclusion on his estate at West Copake, Columbia County, died tonight after an illness of several weeks. [...]

His mid-Victorian home at West Copake has been one of the show places of the vicinity for years, [...]
posted by mhum at 6:50 PM on May 13, 2016 [10 favorites]

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