Making the Frontier Home: Stories from the Steamboat Bertrand

The Victorian Home

The Victorian era, the international cultural phenomenon associated with the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901, is often characterized by the separation of spheres, driven partly by the rise of middle class values.  In industrial cities, these ideals structured gender interactions, roles, and sculpted the American nuclear family, trends that resonated in material culture.  The home, a haven of domesticity, fell under the guardianship of women. The domestic realm became a counterbalance to the public, capitalist life led by the father. In urban settings, both the material culture positioned throughout the home and the layout of the house itself reaffirmed the family’s ability to consume tastefully and visually asserted middle-class status and ideals. Women were generally responsible for purchase of household goods, selecting and placing mass-produced objects according to their function within the larger structure of family identity.  

On the frontier during this period, however, gender imbalances often resulted in a reversal or ambiguity of roles.  Men without wives took on additional domestic tasks or outsourced these duties to businesses created by women who moved outside the private sphere.  Wives who came West to reunite families, however, often retained values associated with Victorian gender roles, regardless of their ability to actualize these ideals. Many women took on male responsibilities in addition to their duties as wives and mothers. However, they did not dismiss contemporary ideals of femininity and the domestic sphere (see Jeffrey 1998). Despite being forced to live in primitive homes made from logs or sod for the first years on the frontier, women made the best of their lack of resources and comforts. Pioneers found ways to make their rough frontier houses into homes that embraced Victorian notions of order and domesticity.

Artifacts like decorative clocks, ornate glass lamps, and ironstone china mellowed the harshness of frontier life by bringing material comforts of the east into western homes.  Objects such as these communicated middle class status and values to both the family and visitors, suggesting that the ideal of the domestic sphere was upheld within the territories.  

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