Does “Victorian” Really Have Any Meaning?

by Hollie on June 22, 2009

Victorian sofaPhoto courtesy of Liveauctioneers

Now that we’ve tackled the semantics of Empire vs. Late Classical, let’s take a crack at something larger – the word “Victorian.” Does “Victorian” really have any meaning? Did it ever? There are those who would argue that the word has become a generic term with muddied applications, while others would say that it’s a valid one-word shortcut to conveying a great deal.

Regardless of your current opinion, it was probably inevitable that “Victorian” would end up overused and conflated. After all, the Victorian era began in 1837 and lasted until 1901, an incredible period of history to cover with just one term. Just think of the changes in those 60+ years: advances in industry, evolving concepts of medicine, dental care and health, massive changes to the European map. To allow one word to stand for all that happened during that time does seem to be more than a little oversimplified.

The issue is, as always, complicated by the fact that styles were in vogue in different places at different times, but in America, the Victorian era encompassed everything from the waning days of Federal/Neoclassical to the opening days of Art Nouveau. In between you’ve got Rococo, Baroque, Arts & Crafts, Anglo-Japanese and a whole lot more. When you add to that the fact that “Victorian” is a stand-in for architectural styles as various as Gothic Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne and Greek Revival, it’s easy to see how things ended up this way. Victorians, ironically, were only known for their restraint in the personal or emotional aspects of their lives, not in the decorative arts or architectural realm!

One could make the argument that “Victorian” is not acceptable or useful. First of all, Victorians themselves would certainly have differentiated between the styles. If we want to be historically accurate, should we not work hard to label things as they were labeled in the period? And further more, does a generic term like Victorian simply imply a lack of knowledge of the more detailed aspects of styles? Is it even possible for one word to accurately convey so many different styles and influences?

At the same time, when a style period does juggles so many influences, perhaps a generic term is called for. Should we not occasionally forgive people who, after a lengthy attempt to identify some stylistic roots, just throw up their hands and resort to something vague like “Victorian”? Some times the antecedents are straightforward, but more often than not, attempting to unravel whether some vaguely classical foliate design is more Italianate than Greek Revival is an exercise in futility. And “Victorian” does inarguably conjure up a certain image or a certain style. (Of course, the issue of whether or not this stereotypical image is harmful or helpful to Victorian-era decorative arts is another issue altogether….)

Personally, I think the issue might just be usage. Despite the fact that our language grows and grows, we’ve become a rather imprecise society, and as a result, the meaning of words becomes blurred. To me, the issue isn’t whether or not “Victorian” continues to be a useful term, but whether or not it continues to be used in a reasonable way. I would argue that words are inherently neutral; they are neither good nor bad, appropriate nor inappropriate, until they are used. To paraphrase Shakespeare, there is nothing good or bad but usage makes it so!

But what do you think? Has “Victorian” been so overused and so incorrectly applied as to have little meaning? Or is it a valuable word that conveys accurately a sense of style and taste?

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

john hopper June 22, 2009 at 8:12 am

I suppose it would be better to use the phrase ‘nineteenth century’ and then quantify a particular style and era within that century. But, as a general term it helps people to understand the larger difference between interiors and accessories of say the Victorian era as opposed to the Georgian era. Academically of course, you would have to be more succinct.

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1836 June 22, 2009 at 9:52 am

It all comes down to the difference between Style and Period.

Victorian is a period in time. Georgian is a period in time. Edwardian is a period in time. Art Deco is a style. The Renaissance is a period in time. Renaissance Revival is a style. Gothic architecture refers to a style. Gothic Revival architecture refers to a style. Medieval is a period in time. Regency is a nine year period of time now more often used to refer to a style that may or may not fall within the years 1811 – 1820.

“Victorian style” sometimes is used unthinkingly by thinking people, or by people who haven’t a clue about the dates of Victoria’s reign or the styles that fall within that period, to refer to something fussy and ornate and covered with ornament and antimacassars.

The French don’t have a “Victorian” to worry about.

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misslilybart June 22, 2009 at 1:00 pm

What 1836 said. *

*(With the small aside that I believe s/he clearly meant to place the Regency period at 1811-1820 rather than 1881-1820.)

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RareVictorian June 22, 2009 at 1:38 pm

mlb: fixed.

All: I agree with you guys. I asked Hollie to open up this can of worms so that hopefully this line of thinking can become more prevalent. I don’t see it having been addressed out there anywhere, so might as well be this site.

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james conrad June 22, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Well, i say the term Victorian is meant to convey a particular style/time that is well known by the public at large and as such hopefully includes people who otherwise would not have a clue what furniture historians, collectors, dealers, etc. were talking about. In my view , thats a good thing as most folks have neither the time nor inclination to study sub groups of broad furniture periods.

It’s kind of like saying Early American, what is early american exactly? It’s william& mary, queen anne, chippendale, hepplewhite, sheraton, etc. see what i mean?

I say these generic terms are good in that it hopefully draws in people to at least take a look and just maybe have an emotional connection which causes them to pursue their interest further.

The point here is to draw in/include as many people as possible, not to exclude them by using language that hardly anyone understands.

my 2 cents

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zeke June 22, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Use of the word “Victorian” when applied to American decorative arts has always been a pet peeve of mine as well. The American English language is constantly evolving and changes of word meanings occur on a regular basis, Victorian has long been acceptable usage for the type of furniture etc. we discuss here. I just don’t think it’s going to go away but there always is hope and this is as good of a place to start as any. The name of the site here is “Rare Victorian” for a reason, people can relate to that! Great posts everyone, this is a very interesting subject and one we all can relate to.

Dictionary.com states:

Vic⋅to⋅ri⋅an??[vik-tawr-ee-uhn, -tohr-]
–adjective
1.
of or pertaining to Queen Victoria or the period of her reign: Victorian poets.
2.
having the characteristics usually attributed to the Victorians, esp. prudishness and observance of the conventionalities.
3.
Architecture.
a.
noting or pertaining to the architecture, furnishings, and decoration of English-speaking countries between c1840 and c1900, characterized by rapid changes of style as a consequence of aesthetic and philosophical controversy, technological innovations, and changes of fashion, by the frequent presence of ostentatious ornament, and by an overall trend from classicism at the start to romanticism and eclecticism at the middle of the period and thence to classicism again, with attempts at stylistic innovation occurring from time to time.
b.
noting or pertaining to the massive, elaborate work characteristic esp. of the period c1855–80, derived mainly from the Baroque and Gothic styles and characterized by the presence of heavy carved ornament, elaborate moldings, etc., by the use of strong and generally dark colors, by the frequent use of dark varnished woodwork, by the emphasis on geometrical form rather than on textural effects, and frequently by an effect of harshness.

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woodwright June 23, 2009 at 12:52 am

I should hope the word Victorian has some significance/ meaning. If not John, why would you pick it for the name of your blog/ website and use it in your your URL?

I think it covers a large group of things and is the best word I can think of to envelope them all. I like (most) Victorian Architecture – not just Gothic Revival, or Greek Revival or Second Empire or Queen Anne or Italianate. Likewise – I like (most) Victorian furniture, not just Gothic Revival or Rococo or Renaissance Revival or Aesthetic, etc. Same with Victorian decorative arts. Yes, it is a bit of a catch all phrase, but I think it does it’s job well. It allows “Rare Victorian” – to discuss (correctly) the many styles that do fall under and fit the broad heading of “Victorian”. woodwright

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English Classics June 23, 2009 at 11:45 am

I know it sounds cynical, but it in addition to all of the above reasons, “Victorian” also gets overused because it’s a great marketing term. Once the tendency to overuse a catchphrase picks up steam, it becomes marketable. RareVictorian, for instance, shows on page 1 in Google for “Victorian furniture.” Consider the following monthly search volume list from Google’s keyword tool (these numbers are a global average):

Greek revival furniture: 320
Jacobean furniture: 4,400
Rococo furniture: 6,600
Georgian furniture: 9,900
Arts and Crafts furniture: 12,100
Greek revival: 14,800
Queen Anne furniture: 22,200
Jacobean: 60,500
Victorian furniture: 74,000
Queen Anne: 301,000
Edwardian: 368,000
Rococo: 550,000
Arts and Crafts: 673,000
Georgian: 823,000
Victorian: 4,090,000

I didn’t even cover other combinations but I believe these numbers stand for themselves. So, in the online world at least, I believe the overuse of “Victorian” is a continuous reciprocal feedback loop between the consumer and the marketeer.

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RareVictorian June 23, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Imagine what getting on page one of Google for “Victorian” does for one’s website with 4 million searches a month.

hmmm… I need to get to work.

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