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The Nineteenth Century Blahs (2018-08-26)

If you haven't read Berkeley Breathed's Pullitzer prize winning comic strip 'Bloom County,' you're in for a treat. If you haven't read Berkeley Breathed's Pullitzer prize winning comic strip 'Bloom County,' you're in for a treat.
Bill the Cat by Berkeley Breathed in his comic Bloom County, june 1982

Practically speaking, the nineteenth century would have a lot to answer for if it was a person, based on the way it is usually constructed in terms of general impressions. Barring the steampunk writers, who bounce between depicting it as the best century every and imagining alternate paths out of it (to my mind by far the more interesting subcategory), there seems to be a general consensus in the mainstream at least that nineteenth century was awful, and anything that came out of it was terrible. Supposedly all the things identified as "sexual hang ups" are all due to people in the nineteenth century, especially those infamous victorians. Internal combustion engines, of course, early computers, and it seems that queen Victoria's many children were on all sides of every european war in the twentieth century, having married into "royal" families all over the place. What this actually tells us about "royals" is besides the point in this way of looking at things. Certainly the origins of the engineering and managerial mindsets I have written about before could be pinned on the nineteenth century, and sometimes is, although this strikes me as a serious oversimplification. In any case, the point is, we have a particular construction of the nineteenth century that is hegemonic in at least the english-speaking world. It is apparently derived from the novels inflicted on many hapless students who have suffered through "english" classes that in origin were developed and imposed on english colonies, especially india, in effort to pretend that only english books were real books. So we have a strange, skewed image of the nineteenth century in general and victorian england in particular via Dickens, Richardson, and a few carefully curated women including Eliot, Brontë and Austen. There was may more to read and far more going on than these few could ever encompass in their books and articles.

Bearing this in mind, what things actually did come out of the nineteenth century, besides the ones just mentioned? Quite an interesting crop, to be sure not all good, but not necessarily what might be expected.

In england, women finally won the right to vote and an increase in the number of women's public washrooms, facilitating all women's participation in daily life outside the home, and especially benefiting the poorest women, who needed to work outside the home whether they wanted to or not. The slave trade officially ended, and although that was far from the end of slavery, alas, wrecking the acceptance of it as somehow okay or inevitable was an important step. The "contagious disease acts" in england, which in effect defined any woman out in public as a potential prostitute who could be arrested and imprisoned, were finally repealed. Legislation for shorter work days and an end to child labour was first enacted in this century as well, though again, it didn't promptly end child labour or unreasonable working day lengths. That was a continuing fight, but this was a century of important successful steps to better conditions. The english practice of allowing the bodies of the destitute to be turned over to anatomists for dissection without their consent rather than allowing them to be buried decently ended. All of these things happened in england, which being at the centre of a powerful empire at the time, had considerable political and cultural influence as a result. I live in an officially "former british colony" so these are among the easiest examples to find.

In the settler state of canada, things were not going so well for everybody. The nineteenth century was after all when John A. MacDonald and his patronage appointees were busy overseeing the mainly violent takeover of the rest of what today is labelled "canada" on maps. Periodic smallpox epidemics were still pulsing along the fur trade routes, although finally vaccination was travelling along them as well, and the terror of the disease began to abate as the century drew to a close. The first big canadian "tech craze" happened in this century, the advent of the bicycle, especially once it reached the shape with two same-sized wheels and soft tires originally referred to as the safety bicycle. Everyone who could was taking up bicycling, especially women, who could afford them even if they had lower class incomes, and these facilitated their ability to travel on their own and go to work and school. And let's not underplay their determination on this point, because they were successfully riding pennyfarthings in long skirts well ahead of the safety bicycle's development and sale. Before that, early cars had won many buyers among women in the middle to upper classes for similar reasons, but they didn't take off in the same way. Bicycles helped buoy up the Feminist drive for dress reform, which of course was huge across much of northwest europe and britain. It is forgotten all too often that this reform was all about making it socially acceptable for women to stop wearing clothing and shoes that were doing them active injury. The resultant simplification of their clothing actually led to further simplification of men's clothing as well, although in the end this may have had as much to do with mass production as political activism by the end of the century.

So by all means, the nineteenth century was a mixed bag in terms of what got handed on. But when we get fed lines about sexual mores or technology changes coming from it and supposedly synonymous with whatever we are supposed to not like or want, it is worth checking the facts. It isn't even hard to today in this age of widely accessible public libraries with those expert research guides, librarians, in them, who can help you get the most out of the internet on claims about the past, let alone the present.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23