Why Women Cover their ‘Naughty Bits’

On an uncharacteristically humid day last week, I felt beads of sweat dripping down my brow as I pushed back the stubbornly flippant hair that stuck to my face like glue. It was miserably hot. The AC in my car was on the fritz and the warm moving breeze created by rolled-down windows more accurately resembled the fires of Vesuvius. I cursed my husband’s ability to wear light clothing without concerning himself with strappy summer sweat-collectors commonly known as brassieres.  I felt my mouth saying out loud what my mind angrily shouted: “What sadist decided that because I am a woman I have to wear a bra in this heat?!” David and I looked at each other quizzically. We are historians. We really should know this information.

And so began my quest to discover why the female sex is thus afflicted.

My questions actually started forming a number of months ago, when I began reading Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Manners, and Marriage (2016) by Therese Oneill. Her discussion of the daily struggles of fastening Victorian underclothes made me want to rip off my own in defiance. I enjoyed learning about why the Can-Can was really so popular (crotch-less underwear, anyone?) and why undergarments were always white. Okay, well maybe the second part really just disgusted me. Did you know that Victorians never, and I mean NEVER, planned to wash their actual dresses? They wore white underthings so they could see when they were adequately soiled and have them washed accordingly.[1] But as for those beautiful ball gowns, they stank to high heaven. So long, fantasies of Jane Austen!

Really, though, her book fascinated me and made me think about why society is, and has been historically, obsessed with underwear. For me, the real question was why brassieres were necessary. When did breasts become things that were shameful and should be contained? My first guess was that it had to be some time near the Middle Ages, when the church was undergoing its consolidation and really deciding how people should behave. Turns out, that’s not the whole story.

It appears that ancient cultures had their own version of the now popular band-like bras, which basically wrapped around the chest area. When the corset became a ‘thing’ in the 14th and 15th centuries, support came from below, not necessarily as a means to ‘gird the loins’ but as more of a practical invention. It seems that while the invention of the corset and the bra reflected the social and physical situations of women, there really was nothing evil in the creation of the bra, as I initially thought.

According to NPR:

“Caresse Crosby patented the first modern bra in the U.S. in 1914. While primping for a debutante ball, she donned a stiff corset and tight corset cover beneath her sheer evening gown. But the corset cover — which she described as “a boxlike armour of whalebone and pink cordage” — poked through her gown. “Bring me two of my pocket handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon,” she told her maid, who helped her sew the materials into a simple brassiere.

Crosby’s invention was the talk of the party; other girls crowded around, asking how she danced so freely. When she unveiled her creation, they immediately asked her to sew bras for them, too. When strangers offered a dollar for one of her bras, she decided to start a business and patented her “backless brassiere.” She managed to attract a few orders from department stores, but her startup fizzled. At her husband’s insistence, Crosby sold her patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Co. in Connecticut for $1,500.”[2]

So, the bra actually began as a freeing piece of clothing, designed to allow a woman to enjoy herself rather than writhe in discomfort and pain. When did this change? Honestly, it changed when the fashion industry became involved in its production. With the introduction of the underwire, the padded cups, and adjustable straps, the bra changed from a breathable undergarment to, in my humble opinion, an instrument of restraint. Nineteenth century doctors apparently agreed with me, as they attempted to dissuade women from wearing anything that was too restrictive and could cause ailments. So, bras began as something wonderful and freeing, and with modern changes, have become the one garment I despise wearing, especially on a hot summer day.


[1] Oneill, Therese. Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Manners, and Marriage. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016.

[2] Pandika, Melissa. Bra History: How a War Shortage Reshaped Modern History. http://www.npr.org/2014/08/05/337860700/bra-history-how-a-war-shortage-reshaped-modern-shapewear (August 5, 2014),  accessed July 5, 2017.

Victorian Etiquette and Modern Travels

From Museum Director Jackie Spainhour:

I recently went on a trip, the first family trip with our fifteen month old son, to introduce him to his great-grandmother in Columbia, South Carolina. My husband was eager to see his grandmother, who is in her nineties, but was even more excited to experience the tastes of his childhood at a local burger joint and a barbecue restaurant. I was really looking forward to introducing our son to the aquarium and zoo, but my excitement quickly turned to anxiety a mere three hours into our trip. We made the decision to travel by car, which would have been a seven hour drive should everything have gone as smoothly as we planned. Unfortunately, in a small town called Micro, North Carolina, our lovely Honda Odyssey, whom we affectionately call Bertha, began to shake violently. We pulled into a mom-and-pop gas station, shut off the car, and considered our options. I took a deep breath. The baby was sleeping, thank goodness, and I knew we needed to make arrangements quickly to get this vehicle towed and get us into a working one before my son became a walking terror. I pulled out my AAA card and was certain we would be on the road within the hour. I was wrong.

AAA couldn’t locate us. When they did, they said it would be an hour and a half, but there would be a tow driver coming from the next town over and he would take the car to an AAA recommended repair shop. They connected me to Enterprise to rent a car. The problem was two-fold- the gas station attendant either didn’t know what a taxi was or was confused why I needed one, but couldn’t recommend a taxi service, and I had $10 in cash. I called a service, only to be told they only accept cash. I spotted a nearby bank and walked to it. There was no ATM, so I pulled out money from the teller. I called the taxi service back and waited for my driver to arrive. She picked me up and turned up the radio station as she drove me the ten miles to pick up my rental car. I heard all sorts of interesting snippets- an older lady was selling a deep freezer for $100 and gave her telephone number ON AIR for someone to call her to buy it, someone else had chickens and pigs for sale, and the town market was having a sale on blueberries. Let’s just say, that would never happen in Norfolk!

I picked up the rental car, drove back to my husband and now screaming baby, and waited. And we waited. And we waited. I called AAA three more times over the next two hours before they finally sent a driver- who had no idea what was going on- and he took the car. We got back on the road for the longest leg of the trip. I called the repair shop to let them know the details of the engine trouble. You know what was hilarious? They don’t work on Hondas! AAA sent my car to a place, that they recommended mind you, that didn’t work on my type of car. So, I called AAA back…again…for the umpteenth time. They apologized, said they could tow it to another facility that DID work on Hondas, but I would have to pay for it. I said in my sweet southern voice, “How can I say this nicely? No. I don’t think so. I can’t for the life of me justify why I should pay for your mistake. I would like to speak with your supervisor to have this worked out.” Insert supervisor, tow is now free, and Bertha will make her way to a larger town ten miles out. Great. I will hopefully be able to pick her up and return the rental on the day we planned to come home.

Lo and behold, I was given inaccurate information about where it was towed the second time. I miraculously found the phone number of the tow truck driver, who told me where it actually was, and I called the right place. So, what was the silver lining? The problem was covered by a recall and I paid $0, plus we didn’t have to delay too long to pick it up. But, needless to say, I had a trying day by the time we made it to Columbia.

We arranged to have dinner with my husband’s aunt and uncle, after picking up his grandmother, at a nearby Cracker Barrel. We were hungry and the baby was fussy. We sat down and he immediately started to get agitated and cry. He didn’t want to sit after being in the car all day. I picked him up to walk him outside and a woman said very loudly, “What terrible parenting. That’s what’s wrong with parents today; they pick the kid up every time they cry.” I held my tongue and walked away. When he seemed calm I returned, only for him to start again. I walked past a different woman, who proceeded to say to her waitress,” You all should provide earplugs if you’re going to let people like that eat here.” I fought back tears. Tears of exhaustion, frustration, embarrassment, anger. I went outside. My husband hadn’t heard any of it. He came outside to find me and I told him I would not go back in there or I would lose it. Needless to say, we left along with the other family members we were visiting. We took our business elsewhere. All of this to say, this trip to Columbia was not what I had imagined.

Fast forward to a much more normal car ride home, I started to imagine how different a trip like this might have been if I were a Victorian woman. First, a nanny would have been caring for my son, if he would have been brought along at all. We would likely have travelled by train, which would have taken a bit of time, but would have been much more relaxing. I could have dined on delicacies in the dining car. I would be wearing a plain, nondescript outfit so as not to attract attention to myself or my escort, who happened to be my husband. I don’t think the Lularoe top and leggings I was wearing would have cut it. If the train broke down, I wouldn’t have had to stress about finding a way to fix the situation on my own, and I would likely relish in the downtime to catch up on my reading or letter writing, which I could only do when we stopped, naturally. But, I may not have those materials in my satchel, as women were encouraged to pack lightly on their person- this is not to be said of the dozens on trunks many used when they travelled via ship, etc. I would likely not even have much money on me, to ensure it would not be stolen. Typically, I would have given the majority of it to my escort for safe keeping. So, while a lot of my autonomy might have been lost, I may have found some peace without it. Isn’t that a strangely exhilarating concept?

If those interactions with those rude people at the Cracker Barrel would have taken place on the train, there would even have been etiquette to follow in such a situation. Interestingly, I actually did what would have been advised. In many etiquette books about travelling as a woman in the Victorian Era, it was advised that a woman should never “return rudeness with rudeness.” One source argued, “Nothing will rebuke incivility in another so surely as perfect courtesy in your own manner [and] many will be shamed into apology, who would annoy you for hours, if you encouraged them by acts of rudeness on your part.” So, ignore them and save yourself the hassle of arguing with them. That, I think, is good advice. I am glad I reacted that way, although every fiber of my being wanted to react negatively towards them.

Travelling as a Victorian lady would have been much more exhilarating as well, because women so rarely were able to move about unaccompanied. That is one of the reasons I find the subject so fascinating. Many women who made the bold and brave decision to travel, sometimes even alone, did so to foreign places and kept diaries about their travels. Some simply wanted to explore the exotic; others wanted to make advances in botany or Christianize foreign peoples. Their diaries are fascinating- often times they describe the people they encounter not only with awe, but occasionally with a hint of desire and jealousy. Some wanted the same freedom to speak about sexuality as the Italians and Ottomans did; others wanted the ability to travel alone without ridicule or to live a much simpler life like many of the African tribes. If, like me, this subject is of interest to you, I hope you will join me Thursday, August 17th at 7 PM at the museum, where I will give a talk on women in the 18th and 19th century who travelled to the Middle East and other areas and recorded their movements. This will be one part of the event, which is titled Arabian Nights, and will also feature readings, music, and refreshments.

So, would you want to travel as a Victorian? Do you have experiences travelling that echo the terrible experience I had last week? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and call 623-9814 if you want to register for our Arabian Nights event. It is going to be a fun evening!


Sources for further reading:

Beeton, Samuel Orchart, Family Etiquette, 1876.

Hartley, Cecil, The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness.

Hartley, Florence, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, a Manual of Politeness, 1875.

The Hand-book of Etiquette, 1860.

Own a Piece of the Hunter House!

It’s that time of year for spring cleaning- and we are really cleaning house around here! There comes a time in the life of any house that de-cluttering needs to occur. For an historic house museum like ours, that means taking the time to really think about our mission as an organization and how the ‘things’ on display and in storage further that mission.  After taking the time to craft our mission statement, we came up with the following:

“The Hunter House Victorian Museum is a non-profit historic house museum located in Norfolk, Virginia which seeks to educate the public in late nineteenth and early twentieth century decorative arts, culture, and the structure’s significance in Norfolk’s local history.”

With this mission in mind, our staff assessed the value of the items in our collection and each piece’s relevance in telling the story of the Hunter family and their home as it pertains to the Victorian Era. Lo and behold, we found some very interesting items tucked away in corners, in attic spaces, and in boxes that we didn’t even know existed.  After a series of discussions with our Board and amongst ourselves, we decided that you can bid to own small pieces of the Hunter House. All proceeds will benefit the continued restoration of the museum’s archive. Isn’t that exciting?!

So, we are going to be hosting a silent auction that will begin on May 3rd at 10 AM and end at 3:30 PM on May 7th, which will be the end of our Kentucky Derby event. Derby attendees will be given the opportunity to bid during the tea, but anyone may stop by to place their bids at that time as well.  During the week, items will be displayed throughout the museum with sheets for you to place your bid. During the Derby event, some items will be added to those that were on display throughout the week for the silent auction. Some of our items are too large to display inside of the house, so they will not be available for viewing until the Derby event itself. We still have spots for the Derby if you would like to sign up! Call us at 757-623-9814 to make reservations.

For now, here is a sneak peak of some of the items that will be available for sale. Please note that artwork, architectural, and larger decorative items are not pictured.


(From above and below: silver items only)


(From above: Excludes the tussie mussie holder)


(From above: Hypo items only)


(From Below: Don’t forget! We are accepting items for care packages for our deployed military. Why, you might ask? We are doing this in honor of the anniversary of the US entering WWI. Any contribution, monetary or otherwise, is welcome. In exchange, enjoy 10% off  in the museum shop. Be on the lookout for more WWI-related events throughout the rest of 2017.)


We hope to see you at our silent auction!

Note: Cash or check only will be accepted for the auction. You do not have to present at the end of the auction to win.

We’re Back!

Thank you to everyone who made our opening day such a success!

We’re Back!


It’s that time of year again-time for flowering cherry blossoms, random thunderstorms, and the opening of the Hunter House Victorian Museum! It has been a trying winter for us as the staff has been navigating around the realities of working in an old house- old pipes needing repair, ceilings caving in, and finding the right people to do the work. Luckily, we have prevailed and the museum is now functioning at an optimal level, until the next round of ‘this old house’ of course. There are never dull moments around here!
We are very excited to invite you to join us during our 2017 operating season. Our goal this year is two-fold. First, we wish to make strides to fulfill our mission to educate the public on nineteenth century decorative arts, Victorian lifestyles, and the museum’s place in Norfolk’s local history. Second, we want to preserve, protect, and reinterpret our collection to allow for the fulfillment of our educational mission. These are lofty goals, indeed. Here are some of the ways we are going to meet them (and how you can be a part of what we are doing):
1. Raising funds through programming to support work in our third floor archive
Through programs like our silent auction (of REAL Hunter family/museum items!) at our Kentucky Derby Garden Party on May 7th, we hope to raise funds to purchase archival quality boxes and paper, page protectors for our extensive postcard collection, and cataloguing software.
2. Museum Memberships
Our Museum membership program is in its second year, and we hope you will consider joining! Like our special programming, funds from the museum memberships will be used to aid in restoring our archive, which will help us fulfill our educational mission. As a member, you will receive special pricing on events and become our valued partner in preservation.  Please call us for more details!
3. Spring Lectures and Symposium
Our lecture series is the purest form of educational programming we offer, and we would be delighted if you would consider attending- or even presenting- a program. Lectures are offered Fridays mornings at 11 AM in our parlor in April and May. Our scheduled programming includes:
April 7th- Alex Shelanski, ODU Student, 19th Century Boating
April 14th- Lisa Lyman, Fine Arts Specialists, Painting Conservation
April 21st- Alexandra Whiteside, Art Institute, Evolution of Interior Design
April 28th- Seth Feman, Chrysler Museum, 19th Century Art
May 5th – Jim Fish, Numismatics or the Art of Coin Collecting
May 12th- Stacy Weissner, Regency Society, How the Regency Period molded  Victorian Identity
May 19th – Joshua Weinstein, Chrysler Museum of Art, Women and Norfolk Arts:  The Victorian Origins of the Chrysler Museum
We are always on the lookout for interesting topics and presenters for both our lecture series and the 19th Century Symposium, which we cosponsor with the Eloise Hunter Chapter of the Victorian Society in America. Let us know if you would like to present on an interesting topic! If you would like to attend our spring symposium on April 29th from 10-3, give us a call at 623-9814.

4. Offering Guided Tours
Our regularly scheduled guided tours allow us to fulfill our most basic and primary function: to present our collection to the world for historical interpretation. In order to do this, we need a dedicated team of volunteer docents and interns to give tours to guests, participate in special programming, and share their love of Victoriana. Won’t you consider joining our team? Applications can be emailed to hunterhouse@juno.com.

5. Tapping into our community
After many talks and pow-wows with our lovely neighbors at the Hill House Museum in Portsmouth, we are thrilled to be partnering for a weekend honoring our fallen soldiers and Victorian mourning customs on May 27th and 28th. Come to the Hunter House on May 27th for a cemetery tour and lectures to be held throughout the day (we will post times on our social media- Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) focusing on the traditions of Memorial Day. On May 28th, journey to the Hill House for a thematic tea featuring Civil War Reenactors commemorating those who lost their lives during the conflict. Reservations for the tea must be made through the Hill House directly. Cost is $40 per guest and reservations can be secured by calling 393-0241.
But, let’s face it, sometimes we just want to party like a Victorian! So, we will continue to offer our afternoon teas filled with fun and friendship, make-and-take classes like our Paint en Plein Air, and evening programs which may or may not feature libations. Sometimes immersing oneself in a culture is the best way to educate yourself about it. Whether you choose to know the Victorians through books or Brandy is your prerogative- and we will offer you programming and support your thirst for knowledge either way!

Questions about our mission, getting involved, or our current programming? Call 623-9814 or email hunterhouse@juno.com. We’d love to hear from you!

5 Reasons You Should Take your Children to Museums

Why should you take your children to museums?  Find out the top five reasons from our Director Jackie Spainhour!

5 Reasons You Should Take your Children to Museums

If you’re like me, some days the furthest thing from your mind is dressing your screaming child, packing the diaper bag full of endless supplies, and jetting off to a supposedly fun destination as a solo caregiver. As a parent with a partner, I cannot even fathom how much more difficult it would be as a single parent. So, what I am about to suggest may seem impossible, but hear me out. I vote that you start taking your child, no matter the age, to museums. Yes, we all love the convenience of mall play centers and the park, but how many of us really take the time to introduce our children to our local gems of history, art, and culture? Really, why should we? Here are a few of my reasons why you should take that leap and adventure to your closest museum with your lovable, frustrating child.

  1. Live Through Their Eyes (Or Wandering Fingers…)


(Two of our younger guests with their moms at the witch’s tea October 2016)

Every time I take a child through the museum, I am able to view our collection in new and exciting ways. Children have a talent for pointing out the mundane and making it revolutionary. I once gave a tour to a kindergartner who had an obsession with trees and the color green. So, she proceeded to call my attention to every shade of green throughout the museum and every instance where a tree was in a pattern- on the wallpaper, on a book cover, on the upholstery and draperies- until I was convinced I was actually touring a lush forest rather than a nineteenth century house museum. This tour, and others like it with children, allowed me to appreciate surroundings that have become so familiar to me that they sometimes feel ordinary rather than extraordinary.

My child is too small at this point to really interact with museum collections, but every time I have toured a museum with a friend or family member’s child, I find the same idea holds true- they notice things you would otherwise overlook as commonplace. Children ask the best questions too, like why do the mommy and daddy sleep in different rooms? What is that chair with the opening in the seat used for anyway? Where is the television and DVD player? You can really get your money’s worth with children engaging in a Q&A with your tour guide. Of course, we can’t forget the amount of bonding you will do with your child that isn’t focused on yet another episode of Sesame Street or Bubble Guppies. That should be reason enough to get out of the house and visit a museum, but I digress.

So, in order to shed your adult haughtiness and sensibilities bring a child to a museum to find your own sense of wonder and appreciation once again.

  1. Have an Adult Conversation (With an Actual Adult)

I find that one of the most difficult parts of parenting, especially in those first few months, is getting used to being void of the normal amounts of adult human contact to which you were accustomed prior to the birth of your little one. I spent entire days having conversations aloud with a tiny person, whose only response was a dirty diaper, crying, or confused blinking.  Honestly, the lack of mature conversation is enough to drive any educated person insane. I found myself watching Ancient Aliens and other ‘historical’ programs just so I could argue aloud, rather intelligently and enthusiastically, with another adult. I guess you could say getting back to work couldn’t come fast enough.


(Gloria, Kristen, and Patsy volunteers from the Hunter House 2016)

The great thing about museums is that the majority employ a volunteer or paid docent staff, most of whom are intelligent adults. Taking your three month old son to a museum may sound insane, but it really is the perfect opportunity to watch him sleep in his buggy while you engage in articulate, adult conversation over a Monet or Van Gogh. In many instances, this may be the only adult conversation you have for a while that does not focus on your baby. In-laws, parents, and even your partner generally only engage in conversation with you to discuss the baby in some way, shape, or form. So, if you are craving adult interaction and your brain hasn’t yet turned to mush, take your little one to a museum to give yourself a much needed adult intervention.

  1. Save Money


Let’s face it- a movie will cost you and your little one $20 easily. Add in a fast food lunch or a sit down meal at Panera and your afternoon could cost close to $40- and that’s just for the two of you! Many museums offer free admission, are donation only, or offer very low-priced rates for visitors. Most of the museums in our area (with the zoo, aquarium, and Nauticus as the exceptions) cost $5 or less per person, with some offering children’s rates as low as $1. Places like the Chrysler Museum are free, thanks to the generous patronage of their members. The Hunter House charges $5 per guest, with a $1 child rate. Children under 5 are free. While I cannot argue that a museum is always a more economical outing than one to the beach, park, or mall, I do think the benefits of such a trip outweigh the nominal costs.

  1. Be a Tourist in Your Town


(Tourists visiting the Hunter House Fall 2016)

Travelling with young children can be difficult and sometimes impossible. As a result, the last time you had a vacation was probably a few years before they were born and most likely involved expensive dinners and copious amounts of alcohol. Gone are those days, my friend. Still, you can find time to have new experiences like you would have on vacation if you choose to visit places in your town that are not necessarily new, but new to you. Grab a Visitor’s Guide to your city or contact the local welcome center to discover places you may not have even known existed. People tell us all of the time, and I mean ALL of the time, that they have lived their entire lives in Norfolk and never heard of the Hunter House. Private entities like ours are not affiliated with the city and often do not get as much exposure as a result, but you can find us in Visitor’s Guides and centers because that is where we are most likely to spend our limited advertising dollars. So, plan a weekend of discovery in your town by plotting a course to visit museums and cultural centers you never knew existed. It will be much less expensive and more educational than that weekend in Cabo.

  1. Experience New Children’s Programming

Children’s programming at museums has come a long way from drawing pictures or simply touring facilities. Many museums now offer programs designed specifically for children that focus on educational milestones, STEAM education, and more. The Hunter House offers a patch with the Girl Scouts that is designed specifically around our collection. The Chrysler Museum has educators who will engage with children on their level to interpret the historical artifacts in their collection. Some museums offer puppet shows, outdoor movies, craft classes, and more for nominal or no costs. You can often subscribe to websites like http://hamptonroads.myactivechild.com/ to learn about all of the children’s programming happening in your area. Libraries are also treasure troves for children’s programming, but for an equally educational but different experience, take your child to a local museum and watch them learn first-hand.


There are so many more reasons to take children to museums, but in the interest of not talking you to death I will end here. What are your reasons for taking children to museums? What are your favorite local spots or children’s programs? Leave us feedback in the comments- maybe we can try to incorporate some of your favorites into our programming!

Charles Dickens and Christmas Culture

It wouldn’t be a Victorian Christmas without discussing Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol!  Enjoy our Christmas post below from our intern, Megan, and learn about the darker context behind  A Christmas Carol.

From Megan:

The celebration of Christmas predated the Victorians, but the culture that surrounds the holiday today coincided with the work of Charles Dickens. In A Christmas Carol – the story of heartless capitalist who found himself confronted by the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future – Dickens constructed the myth of the spirit of Christmas. While Dickens has been credited with inventing Christmas, many of the traditions now integral to celebrations were not included in A Christmas Carol. Modern practices – even caroling – were not present in the infamous story. The most essential contribution of A Christmas Carol to modern holiday celebrations derived from the endurance of the idea of Christmas spirit: emphasis on family, food, decorations, and goodwill. An examination of the context in which Dickens’s tale was conceived, however, revealed a darker side of the story.[1]



As with A Christmas Carol, Dickens organized his literary works around the class struggle in Victorian England. Charles Dickens’s fixation on the plight of the poor derived from his childhood experience in a family living in poverty. As a result of his father’s inability to manage the family’s finances, Dickens and the rest of his family were held in a debtors’ prison for six months. With power came responsibility, and Dickens used his eventual success and celebrity platform to elucidate the prevalence of economic disparity within England – helping to propagate the term “red tape” for bureaucratic policies that marginalized the poor. Perhaps the most significant motivator for his efforts toward social justice, Dickens venerated children and was tremendously disturbed by the plight of poor, uneducated, and often imprisoned juveniles. This devotion to children shaped his story-telling with an emphasis the innocent, pure-hearted child.[2]


(Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. Title page.)

The romanticized image of Christmas presented in A Christmas Carol demonstrated Dickens’s hope for children and for the betterment of society. The beautiful, snowy Christmas Day that served as the setting for a revival of the human spirit and blessings to all characterized the spirit of Christmas for Dickens’s readers. A biographer of Charles Dickens, Peter Ackroyd, disputed criticisms of Dickens’s allegedly unrealistic expectations of Christmas. Dickens’s portrayal of the rare white Christmas as ordinary, for example, was defended by Ackroyd as having been inspired by the first eight years of Dickens’s life during which it always snowed at Christmas time. According to this interpretation, Dickens may have found the inspiration for this idealized holiday in his own reality. A second biographer and expert on Dickens, GK Chesterton, similarly defended the idealized version of the holiday, as well as the moral fortitude of the story. “Whether the Christmas visions would or would not convert Scrooge, they convert us,” Chesterton explained.[3]

Victorian England shaped Charles Dickens as a writer and as a legend. The Christmas spirit evoked by A Christmas Carol created the modern incarnation of the holiday festivities. The advancement in the commercialization of Christmas served as an ironic consequence of Dickens’s writings and social activism. To Charles Dickens, for the literary masterpieces – most notably A Christmas Carol – and for the spirt of Christmas, we remain eternally grateful.[4]


[1] Geoffrey Rowell, “Dickens and the Construction of Christmas,” History Today 43, no. 12 (1993): 17, MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost, accessed December 9, 2016.

[2] Alex Hudson, “Charles Dickens: Six Things he Gave the Modern World,” BBC News, December 15, 2011, accessed December 9, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16184487.

[3] John Sutherland, “The Origins of A Christmas Carol,” Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians, British Library, accessed December 9, 2016, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-origins-of-a-christmas-carol.

[4] Sally Ledger and Holly Furneaux, Charles Dickens in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).


Hudson, Alex. “Charles Dickens: Six Things He Gave the Modern World.” BBC News. December 15, 2011. Accessed December 9, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16184487

Ledger, Sally and Holly Furneaux. Charles Dickens in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Rowell, Geoffrey. “Dickens and the Construction of Christmas.” History Today 43, no. 12 (1993). MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost. Accessed December 9, 2016.

Sutherland, John. “The Origins of A Christmas Carol.” Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. British Library. Accessed December 9, 2016. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-origins-of-a-christmas-carol

Victorian Christmas Traditions

Have you ever wondered how the Victorians celebrated Christmas?  What did they do differently than us or similarly?  To find out how the Victorians celebrated Christmas and which modern traditions they practiced please continue reading!

From our intern, Megan:

The marriage of Queen Victoria to German-born Prince Albert introduced some of the most prominent Christmas traditions to Victorian Britain, and later, to the United States. The custom of decorating a Christmas tree, for example, gained popularity after the Illustrated London News, 1848, published a drawing of the royal family surrounding an evergreen tree, or Tannenbaum, – continued from the medieval tradition in which the tree represented eternal life – adorned with candles, sweets, and handmade decorations. Evergreen plants – trees, mistletoe, holly, and ivy – served as holiday decoration, protection from evil spirits, and hope for spring. The decorations quickly became extravagant and Victorians encouraged uniform elegance (“History of Christmas,” BBC; Johnson, “A Victorian Christmas).”

The advent of the commercialization of Christmas celebrations, like everything else in the Victorian era, did not occur independently of industrialization. The invention of the Christmas card took place in 1843, but the average Victorian could not afford the one-shilling price tag. Not long after children were encouraged to create their own cards as an inexpensive alternative, color printing technology allowed for the mass production of affordable cards. By the 1880s, mailing Christmas cards was wildly popular.


(Victorian Christmas Card from the 1890’s from Archives New Zealand’s former Post and Telegraph/Telecom Museum Holdings collection)

Excess wealth accumulated with industry allowed Victorians to take time off of work. Christmas Day and Boxing Day, December 26, became recognized holidays in the Victorian period. Boxing Day earned its name for the opening of boxes of money gifted by the wealthy and do-gooders to servants and working people (“History of Christmas,” BBC; Johnson, “A Victorian Christmas).”


Industrialization in the Victorian period similarly led to the marketing of sweets designed especially for Christmas, such as Christmas crackers. The giving and receiving of Christmas presents also started with the Victorians, evolving from the tradition of gift-giving during New Year celebrations. Industrialization allowed for the widespread availability of factory-made children’s toys as an alternative to the handmade toys that were only affordable to the wealthy. The Christmas stocking became popular in the early 1870s, as poor children generally received only stockings filled with fruit or nuts. The United States recognized the commercial potential of Christmas earlier than Britain, and in 1880s New York department stores filled their windows with European toys and manufacturers began the production of ornaments – often decorated with “diamond dust,” or powdered glass (“History of Christmas,” BBC; Johnson, “A Victorian Christmas).”

Two of the most beloved Christmas traditions, carol singers and Santa Claus, were popularized in the Victorian period. Caroling, celebrated in Britain as musical entertainment, gained popularity as a Christmas celebration by Victorians. In the United States, the sight of carolers marked the beginning of the holiday season. Carolers sold sheet music, often frequenting market areas, and traveled door-to-door performing. Christmas carols have remained one of the most celebrated Christmas traditions. Also in the Victorian period, the figure of Father Christmas originated in the legends and stories of many different countries and many different languages. Clement Moore’s 1822 poem, “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” inspired Bavarian artist Thomas Nast’s illustrations of Father Christmas on which the modern-day depiction of Santa Claus was based (“History of Christmas,” BBC; Edwards, “A Victorian Christmas).”

Modern Christmas traditions were modeled after Victorian Christmas celebrations – including decorating Christmas trees, singing carols, and mailing greeting cards. Often credited as the inventor of Christmas, Charles Dickens, in The Christmas Carol, depicted the most meaningful characteristics of the Victorian Christmas. The morals of Dickens’s story – the importance of family, peace, and goodwill – have been adopted as the cornerstones of the present-day Christmas spirit (“History of Christmas,” BBC; Phillip V. Allingham, “Dickens: The Man Who Invented Christmas)”.

Question for the reader: Does your family have any Christmas traditions?  If so what are they?






“History of Christmas.” BBC. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml.


“A Victorian Christmas.” The Complete Victorian. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://www.thecompletevictorian.com/christmas.html


Allingham, Phillip V. “Dickens: The Man Who Invented Christmas.” The Victorian Web: Literature, History, and Culture in the Age of Victoria. Last modified December 14, 2009. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/authors/dickens/xmas/pva63.html


Edwards, Sylvia. “Victorian Christmas Traditions.” Ancestry: Blogs. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://blogs.ancestry.com/uk/2011/12/01/victorian-christmas-traditions/


Johnson, Ben. “A Victorian Christmas.” History Magazine: History of England. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/A-Victorian-Christmas/


Victorian Superstitions

If you missed the Spiritualism Faire at the Hunter House don’t fret!  Below is a post from our intern, Megan, on some of the Victorian’s superstitions and death omens.

From Megan:

Victorians strongly believed in the mystical and subscribed to a variety of superstitions. The most common of these superstitions were related to death. There were specific procedures for dealing with corpses as well as funeral proceedings, and every action had to be perfectly executed to prevent spiritual possessions or additional deaths. Improper handling of a corpse or ignoring a death omen threatened imminent death or spiritual damnation for many Victorian believers.

Following the death of a loved one, all mirrors in the house were covered with a heavy black cloth. The covering was believed to prevent the deceased’s spirit becoming trapped within the glass while awaiting burial. It was warned that the next reflection seen in the mirror would be the next to die.


Spirits were also believed to have the ability to escape one’s body while living. Victorians thought that the mouth must be covered while yawning to avoid a person’s spirit from leaving his or her body or from becoming possessed by the devil. Corpses were removed from the home feet first to avoid the deceased from looking back and beckoning another family member. If two deaths occurred within a family, it was believed that a third would soon follow. When several deaths occurred within the same family, a black ribbon was tied to everything living that entered the home. The ribbons were thought to stop the spread of death to the other people and animals within the household. Similarly, stopping the clock at the moment of a loved one’s death prevented other untimely deaths.


Victorians believed in a variety of death omens. Some omens foretold imminent death, but others described ways to avoid it. When a member of the household was ill, Victorians believed that a dog’s howl signified impending death. This omen could be reversed by the turning of a shoe, upside-down, under the bed. The hoot of an owl or an owl sighting in the daytime portended death. If a bird pecked on or crashed into a window, death had already occurred. When a vase contained only red and white flowers together, or a person experienced an inexplicable smell of roses, it was believed that death was near.


After death, flowers were thought to only grow upon the graves of good men. Victorians also believed that a person must always turn around when coming into contact with a funeral procession. If turning around was not possible, it was believed that the danger could be quelled by holding tightly to a button.

Modern superstitions derived from Victorian beliefs. The idea that an umbrella opened indoors signified bad luck originated in the Victorian belief that an open umbrella, or one that had been dropped on the floor, forecasted murder within the home.


Large rain drops warned that the death had already occurred. It was also thought that three knocks at the door, followed by no visitor, indicated the death of an acquaintance or a loved one. This was also indicated by a picture falling from the wall.

Commonly characterized by their obsession with death, Victorians’ behavior was dictated by superstitions and omens. Many modern ideas of bad luck derived from the death omens that originated with the Victorians, but the supposed repercussions drastically diminished in severity. Seven years of bad luck could not be compared to Victorian’s fear of eternal damnation. But remember the Victorians’ warning: Do not speak ill of the dead, or they will come back for you.


Do you believe in any superstitions? 





“Death Rituals and Superstitions.” History. Accessed October 10, 2016. http://www.history.co.uk/study-topics/history-of-death/death-rituals-and-superstitions


“Victorian Superstitions.” Last Modified July 31, 2013. Accessed October 10, 2016. https://classicbookreader.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/victorian-superstitions/


Corbella, Alexandra. “Superstitious Beliefs of Victorian Society.” Synonym: The Classroom. Accessed October 10, 2016. http://classroom.synonym.com/superstitious-beliefs-victorian-society-5443.html


Dziedzic, Shelley. “Victorian Customs and Superstitions.” Friends of Oak Grove Cemetery. Accessed October 10, 2016. https://friendsofoakgrovecemetery.org/victorian-funeral-customs-fears-and-superstitions/


Luckhurst, Robert. “The Victorian Supernatural.” British Library. Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. Accessed October 10, 2016. http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-victorian-supernatural


Morgan, Rosa. “Superstitions.” The Victorian Times. Last modified October 17, 2011. Accessed October 10, 2016. http://thevictoriantimes.blogspot.com/2011/10/superstitions.html

Votes for Women!

If you missed our Suffragette Tea in October you are in luck!  Our intern, Megan, who helped design the Suffragette Tea menu and decorations has written a blog post about the Suffragette Movement.  Please see below for more from Megan!

The history of women’s suffrage has reemerged as a relevant issue in today’s politics. With the first female candidate for presidency (Hillary Rodham Clinton) running against a man (Donald Trump) who has been deemed a shoe-in for office – if only women were unable to vote – has inspired an unsettling slogan trending among Trump supporters: “repeal the nineteenth.” With the heated debate surrounding this new mantra, the historical significance of the Nineteenth Amendment has been disturbingly overlooked.


One way to enlighten today’s voters on the significance of women’s rights to contemporary politics is to celebrate the women who achieved this victory. These women, credited with pioneering women’s suffrage movements in 19th and 20th century Great Britain and the United States, are known as suffragists or suffragettes. These activists comprised various organizations that worked to attain women’s rights, primarily the British Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). On October 16th, the Hunter House Victorian Museum held a Suffragette Tea in honor of these women who fought for women’s right to vote.


It may seem counterintuitive when analyzed in connection to contemporary feminists, but the pioneers of the American women’s suffrage movement occasionally relied on the proceeds from the sale of cookbooks. One of these cookbooks, The Woman Suffrage Cookbook, served as inspiration for our Suffragette Tea. Charitable volunteers recreated modernized versions of a few of the recipes found in the Cookbook, while copies of the originals were posted throughout the front parlor. These recipes, the sale of the Cookbook and others like it, demonstrated the independent successes of suffragettes in the struggle for personal agency and a voice in public and political affairs.


This newly created female political culture was perpetuated through the utilization of recognizable symbols that indicated commitment to the movement. The pro-women’s rights journal, Justicia, published in 1887 an explanation of the significance of the sunflower to the women’s suffrage movement:


“It has remained . . . for the ‘Equality before the law’ agitators to don an emblematic color. Yellow, the color of sunflower petals, has been adopted as the distinguishing badge of the woman suffrage army;. . . The sunflower seems an appropriate flower, as it always turns its face to the light and follows the course of the sun, seemingly worshipping the [arche]type of righteousness. Let us all don the yellow ribbon, and fling our banners to the breeze. By this sign let us be known, and the more who wear it the greater our strength will be … ”(National Women’s History Museum).


Members of the movement relied on the use of symbols and colors to signify solidarity. Adhering to sunflower imagery, American suffragettes wore gold, purple, and white, which was modeled after their British counterparts’ use of violet, white, and green. We incorporated these colors into our celebration, along with handmade reproductions of the buttons worn by the suffragettes.


                                           (Image from National Women’s History Museum)

Tasked with planning this particular event – relying heavily, of course, on the wisdom and experience of the director, assistant directors, and docents – I became entrenched in studies of women’s suffrage and received crash-courses in public history, contemporary politics, and event planning. My hope is that, in light of today’s political culture, voters will be reminded that a political voice is not an inalienable right. To exercise the hard-won right to vote is to honor the suffragettes.




“An Introduction to the Woman’s Suffrage Movement.” National Women’s History Museum. Accessed October 13, 2016. https://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/votesforwomen/exhibit_text.html

“I’m No Lady; I’m a Member of Congress: The Women’s Rights Movement, 1848-1920.” Women in Progress: Historical Essays. History, Art and Archives: United States House of Representatives. Accessed October 13, 2016. http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/WIC/Historical-Essays/No-Lady/Womens-Rights/.

“Symbolic Suffrage Colors.” National Women’s History Museum. Accessed October 13, 2016. https://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/votesforwomen/tour_02-02l.html.

“Volunteers and Museum Labor.” Center for the Future of Museums: Blog. American Alliance of Museums. Accessed October 20, 2016. http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2016/10/volunteers-and-museum-labor_18.html.

Burr, Mrs. Hattie A. The Woman Suffrage Cookbook. Boston, MA: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1890.

Why I love William Morris

If you missed our Docent Becky Fawcett’s lecture on William Morris here is a snippet of what you missed!  Please don’t forget to check out our next lecture on Science Fiction in the 19th Century on Friday October 21st at 11am.

There are many reasons to love William Morris.  He was a Victorian of renown: a lover of nature, quality workmanship, and medieval times. His work reflects these three loves.  He produced fabrics, textiles, paintings, books, and furniture of great beauty and functionality.

In the Hunter House Victorian Museum we have rooms wallpapered with his patterns of leaves, flowers, and birds.  The parlor displays a lovely period reproduction of his wallpaper as does the gentleman’s bedroom with my personal favorite of leaves and blue birds.


(Wallpaper from the front parlor of the Hunter House)


(The ceiling of the back bedchamber of the Hunter House)

In the doctor’s office there resides a Morris chair, a recliner that he invented and made in books written during the 1920’s and 30’s you can find references to characters sitting in a Morris chair.


(A Morris chair from the doctor’s office in the Hunter House)

I remember reading an article which told of William Morris being the first to display peacock feathers in his home.  The British, and then the Americans, quickly copied this man of talents in decorative arts, including the wealthy Hunter family with their feathers in the parlor.  This tale may be a myth, but it is one I believe.

Now I will share some reasons for my fascination with William Morris: Morris and his Pre-Raphaelite brethren adored medieval times: its Gothic architecture, and love pathos in Sir Walter Scott’s and Mallory’s stories of King Arthur and Camelot.  Chaucer’s stories and illuminated manuscripts plus the fonts used in those times fascinated Morris and his friends.

Tragically, his very life paralleled the Arthur saga.  Among the Pre-Raphaelites was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a marvelous painter and poet whom Morris developed a deep friendship.  Rossetti spotted a beautiful girl among the spectators at one of their events, a poor, but lovely girl named Jane Burden.  Her parents agreed to let her model for the painters.  When Morris saw Jane, he was immediately smitten.  Rossetti was a suave, charming man while Morris was awkward with a mancap of red hair that earned him the nickname ‘Topsy’.  What Morris had in his favor that Rossetti lacked was wealth.  It is not known for sure that Jane was seeking security, and that was why she chose Morris, but for whatever reason Morris proposed and she accepted.  They had five wonderful years of marriage resulting in two daughters.

‘Arthur’ and ‘Guinevere’ were enjoying ‘Camelot’ when who should move in (literally) but ‘Sir Lancelot’- er, Rossetti, the tempter in paradise.  Jane and Rossetti had an affair that lasted many years and caused poor Morris much grief.  But, just like King Arthur, he continued to love his ‘Guinevere’ and spent much time in Iceland to escape his pain.

How can one NOT love such a man!  And this is just one of my reasons.

Which room in the Hunter House has your favorite wallpaper?