Queen Victoria of England reigned over a vast British empire from 1837 until her death in 1901. During her rule, England rapidly transformed into a modern, technologically-based economy exercising global military and cultural power, roiling with class and racial conflict. Victorianism extended far beyond the boundaries of Britain and informed international movements of the same period, including in the United States.
Queen Victoria’s name signifies not only her era as a distinct time period in world history, but also a particular aesthetic sensibility in design, literature, manners, and morals. Victorian-era objects and buildings were often highly decorated and ornate. Victorian writers and intellectuals celebrated “sentiment”—feeling, emotion, affection, and passion—that found diverse expression in abolitionism, paternalistic colonialism, social reform, and celebrations of romantic love or mourning. Values defined as “Victorian” included moral responsibility and restraint as well as domestic propriety and gentility. At the same time, the Victorian era was marked by rigid gender and class hierarchies seen in elaborate codes of conduct, etiquette, and social rituals. Anxieties about science, religion, and race undermined many Victorians’ prosperity and moral certainty.
The material objects, buildings, and texts arranged in this primary source set illustrate the variety of Victorian design while revealing some of the unique cultural characteristics of the period.