Health Care in the Victorian Home

The following blog post was contributed by Isabel Luce, who is the Museum of Health Care’s 2018 Margaret Angus Research Fellow. Isabel has a BA in Canadian Studies and Art History from McGill University, and an MA in Art History and Curatorial Studies, and is working towards completing her PhD in Art History at Queen’s University. Special thanks to Trustees of the Estate of Larry Gibson, Graeme Fraser and Jay Rayner, for their generous support of this fellowship.

the sick room
Figure 1: “The Sick Room” from Emma Hewitt’s Queen of the Home 1889, p.209

As this year’s Margaret Angus Research Fellow, I am very excited to be able to research and share with you a topic I personally find fascinating – health in the Canadian home during the Victorian era. I will be using home advice manuals, written primarily by women authors, to explore how the day-to-day health of families did not primarily fall underneath the purview of the doctor or the midwife, but was left in the care of the mother of the home or the ‘Angel in the House’. These home advice manuals, popularized in the 1880s, were oft-referred-to encyclopedias on every aspect of home maintenance including the role of sanitation, home remedies, and interior design in upholding a family’s good health. Through biweekly blog posts here – as well as a final manuscript I will be submitting by the end of the summer and a public talk on the subject this coming fall – I will be looking at a number of home advice manuals and exploring who was writing them and what kind of advice they offer. For my first blog post, I’ll be providing some background to my research.

What was the Victorian Era?

The Victorian era encompasses the years of Queen Victoria’s reign over Great Britain and her colonies from 1837 to 1901, a period of rapid industrialization and scientific discoveries. In Britain, these innovations led to the mass production of consumer objects, resulting in the movement of people from the countryside into cities for employment in newly developing factories. Mass production meant that the cost of necessities could be decreased, allowing more people than ever to be able to afford home luxuries. A shoe was no longer hand made by the local cobbler but produced much more quickly on an assembly line along with hundreds of others. This was also a moment when the British Empire was rapidly expanding through colonization, and goods were being brought from across the empire into British and Canadian homes (from sugar and coffee to Kashmiri shawls). With the increasing number of workers entering the city, neighbourhoods soon became overcrowded and slums developed as housing became less readily available. Outbreaks of diseases permeated these slums as houses had bad ventilation, communal toilets, and little access to fresh running water, forcing a number of housing reforms that focused on improving neighbourhood sanitation.

Due to the increasing availability of consumer objects for reasonable prices, the Victorian home soon became filled with ornate furniture and covered surfaces, and decorated with an abundance of trifles and trinkets. Comfort and warmth were privileged as Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1928 book Orlando,

The hardy gentleman, who had sat down gladly to a meal of ale and beef in a room designed, perhaps, by the brothers Adam, with classic dignity, now felt chilly. Rugs appeared; beards were grown; trousers were fastened tight under the instep. The chill which he felt in his legs the country gentleman soon transferred to his house; furniture was muffled; walls and tables were covered; nothing was left bare. Then a change of diets became essential. The muffin was invented and the crumpet. Coffee supplanted the after-dinner port, and, as coffee led to a drawing-room in which to drink it, and a drawing-room to mantelpieces, and mantelpieces to pianofortes, and pianofortes to drawing-room ballads, and drawing-room ballads (skipping a stage or two) to innumerable little dogs, mats, and china ornaments, the home – which had become extremely important – was completely altered. (1)

morning glories
Figure 2: “Morning Glories” in Emma Hewitt’s Queen of the Home 1889, 220

The decoration of one’s home became a way to show one’s social status, and the objects included for display acted as symbolic indicators of class as, for example, a large mirror over one’s mantelpiece in a parlour would demonstrate the wealth of the home owner. The mid-19th-century Victorian middle-class home was ostentatious with its overdecoration; every surface was covered and every antique item one owned was on display. This slowly began to change towards the end of the century as the stuffy interiors fell out of vogue, and bright rooms with more modest decorations replaced it. This was largely due to the popularization of germ theory. By the mid-19th century, scientists (like Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and Robert Koch) were beginning to theorize that diseases could be passed from person to person through organisms that were too small to see with the naked eye. By the 1880s and 1890s, these ideas were beginning to enter mainstream consciousness as home advice manuals advertised the importance of light, cleanliness, soap, and separating the sick into another room in the house to avoid contagion. The decorations became less ornate so germs could not hide, such as in the folds of decorative curtains when shutters could so easily be wiped down.

These innovations and changes to the home were not only happening in Great Britain but also in its colonies. Canada was also experiencing vast industrialisation and rapidly growing city centres. For example, by 1871 the population of Montreal was 107,225 – double what it had been two decades earlier in 1852.(2) By the 1890s, there was a very prominent divide between social classes with 80% of Montreal’s population composed of working class tenant.(3) Many of the home advice manuals I will be looking at, although primarily written by British and American authors, would have been eagerly read by homemakers in Canada of all classes, and the advice fastidiously followed.

Throughout this summer, I will be looking at the role of women in maintaining the good health of their family. Why were they considered to be innate nurturers best-suited to care for the family? What tasks fell under their responsibility? Who were the women writing these books? How does the advice in home advice manuals differ from the more official sources written by doctors during this same time? In what ways did design help ensure good health of a family? Where these sources that a woman in Kingston during the Victorian area would have been familiar with? Keep reading this summer as I answer these questions and more!

(1) Virginia Woolf, Orlando (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 218, quoted in Nicola Humble, “Domestic Arts” In The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture edited by Francis O’Gorman (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 2010), 219.

(2) Paul-André Linteau, “Montreal 1850-1896: The Industrial City” McCord Museum Thematic Tour,

(3) Ibid.

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