Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain – Judith Flanders (2006)

A book that is absolutely *packed* with interesting tidbits about Victorian social history and then the history of that history. (Yes, it’s quite meta.) Flanders is not an academic scholar; she is a journalist and author who really knows her stuff and who knows how to convey that stuff to the reader. She is just a pleasure to read, for the most part, especially if you are a Victorian nerd comme moi.

It’s a thick book that documents the rise of leisure time in all classes in UK and has an emphasis on Victorian times (as specified in the title), but it also thoroughly covers the eighteenth century as well as that gives a more complete perspective on how things came to be the way they were in the nineteenth century. The title is slightly misleading as there is rather a lot about the eighteenth century (which is fine, of course), and I understand why the author covered the time periods that she did. The title just gives the impression that it’s JUST the Victorian time, and actually, you get more than that (which is an unexpected bonus in my book).

Increased leisure time arrived for a lot of the Victorians due to loads of different factors: Industrial revolution which lead to better infrastructure which lead to better roads/invention of trains; better infrastructure meant a healthier population and also a better paid population so more people had more disposable income (or even some disposable income). It’s really fascinating to learn about the myriad ways this whole trend grew over the years – it’s a multi-tangled spider web and covers a vast range of subjects and reasons.

Each chapter covers a specific topic or category of leisure, so there are chapters on the history of live theater, of horse racing and other sports, of media (including newspapers and advertising), of literacy, of museums and concerts, and on it goes. It’s an extremely thorough book and chapters are quite lengthy at times (but perhaps that is also a little dependent on how interested the reader was in the chapter topic).

Some of the nuggets that have stayed with me include:

  • 1851 signaled the opening of the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace which triggered loads of new inventions, industries and communication. Such new inventions included felt hat ventilation (to stop your head sweating), “harlequin” furniture (i.e. furniture that could be used for more than one purpose), and also a replacement nose made out of silver (in case you needed one). It was also one of the first large public events that included all the social classes (although obviously not at the same time. You know better than that.)
  • Lord Shaftesbury requested that all the statuary at this exhibition should be “respectfully covered” (as nudity was too shocking for Victorian taste). Uh-huh.
  • Grocers (as in shops that sell food and household supplies) derived their name from the fact that they used to buy “in gross” or wholesale in order to get the good prices through volume.
  • Newsagents (as in shops that sell newspapers etc.) derived their name from the fact that they were originally agents for early newspapers (in 18th century) who would then sell localized news to the newspaper in question, along with advertising and newspaper distribution around their area. Thus, they were “agents” for the large city newspapers.
  • Prior to the nineteenth century, people in England only had two choices when it rained: they could stay in and stay dry and go outside and get wet. There was no such thing as waterproof materials (so no macs etc.) and umbrellas had not yet been invented. Makes sense but I suppose I had thought that umbrellas had been around for much longer.
  • Other names for waterproof coats (according to Flanders): siphonia, Paletôts, ponchos, Burnouses, sylphides, Zephyr wrappers, Chesterfields, llamas (!), Pilot wrappers, wrap-rascals, Biscuiniques. It was only in 1823 that Charles Macintosh invented the first waterproof fabric by sandwiching rubber between two pieces of fabric. (Thus Macintosh name for the raincoat.)
  • A plummesier is a feather merchant (important for hat decorations at the time). A blacksmith worked with iron. A whitesmith worked with tin.
  • The Hanna Barbara cartoon series of Tom and Jerry (cat and mouse) originated from a series of chapbooks by Pierce Egan (1821) called an incredibly long title of “Life in London, Or, the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq., and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their Rambles and Sprees throughout the Metropolis.” It was published on a monthly basis and cost one shilling. (I am not sure how this evolved into the cat/mouse battle that it became though.)

And, actually, I could go and talk for hours about this, but I am not sure you are as riveted by Victorian social history as I am, so I will spare you… 🙂

One more super-great thing was the lengthy bibliography of both primary and secondary sources. Wow. Treasure trove, including an author with perhaps the best name ever: Edmund Swinglehurst… 🙂

This is a very good read if you like that sort of thing (which I do). Just try not get irritated by the typos that are scattered fairly regularly throughout. (Grr.)

And if you’d like to see my review of her other book, The Victorian Home, see here.

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