It’s an unfortunate element of human existence that we are selfish and self-centered. Even those of us who don’t consider ourselves to be so…are. We’re always looking out for Number One. Numero Uno. But at the same time, we’re also jealous and envious, thinking of other people. What’s on the other side of the fence? Why is their grass greener? How can we keep up with the Joneses? What’s the latest way in which we can prove that we’re better than everyone else, or if not everyone else, then at least somebody else!
For a long time, this wasn’t really possible. Global society was greatly, and brutally divided into two very distinct classes: The Haves, and the Have-Nots, and for a long time, it remained like this. As times advanced and society changed, however, something called the ‘Middle Class’ started to emerge. Aspirational and ambitious, they were eager to carve out a niche for themselves, and to prove to everyone around them that a third, middle class, neither high, nor low, was now firmly in existence.
But where did the middle class come from? What defined someone as middle-class? And more interestingly – did anything exist before middle class?
Most historians will say that the Middle Class was a product of the Victorian era. Mass production and manufacturing jobs gave rise to a clerical and labouring class, but in this posting, I want to see how far back we can actually trace the existence of a ‘middle class’, and what defined a ‘middle class’ throughout history…
The Medieval Yeoman
Probably the first type of ‘middle class’ was that of the Yeomanry. In Medieval society, which was highly, highly hierarchical, everybody was expected to know their place, and there were a great many places to be had. At the top was the king. Then below him came lesser royals. Then came noblemen and aristocrats. Below them came lower orders of noblemen, then the clergy comprised of bishops, abbots, priests and monks.
Below them came the higher orders of the military, then the lower orders of military, and below them came…everyone else – the various classes of European peasantry, ranging from freeholders, cottagers, villeins and right at the bottom – the serfs, propping the whole damn thing up!
So who were the yeomen?
The word ‘yeoman’ referred to a middle-ranking officer in the navy and it’s believed that the term is a corruption of the two words ‘young man’ (since it was mostly younger, stronger men who manned the ships of the Royal Navy). As the Middle Ages progressed, the term extended to mean any middle-ranking person in society who was not nobility, but who was also not dictated to by the nobility. A yeoman was his own person, and his own master. Most yeomen were farmers or free landowners who had the freedom and privilege to work, sow, harvest, and build whatever they desired on their own land. In the Middle Ages, land more than most other things, was what defined you as having ‘arrived’ at a certain station in life. The more land you owned, the more control you had, and the more power you had that came with it.
The yeomanry were a station or class of people who were beholden to nobody and nothing, except the law of the land. They were not peasants who worked their lord’s estate, they were not tenant farmers who had to pay rent to the landlord for the privilege of farming on the lord’s land. A yeoman and his family owned their own land, worked their own land, employed their own staff, labourers and servants, and were what we’d probably call a ‘gentleman farmer’ – a reasonably well-off, hardworking and industrious individual, who was working to support his family and immediate associates.
A variation of the yeoman existed all over the world in one way or another. Independent, smallholding landowners who tried to beat out an existence, however meagre, from the land they owned, confident that they had to answer to no higher power than the law of the land.
The ‘Middling Sort’
By the Renaissance era of the early 1400s and 1500s, life had moved on. Yes, most people still lived off the land, but the Renaissance – the ‘Rebirth’ of a Europe shattered by war, plague and conquest, to say nothing of the power-vacuum created the the implosion of the Roman Empire in 476AD – had done much to help create a new society.
Starting in the Italian City-States, spreading to France, the Prussian principalities, and further afield to Scandinavia and the British Isles, the Renaissance was the flowering of European culture which for the first time really made celebrities out of craftsmen. Carpenters became cabinetmakers. Builders became architects. Painters became artists. Masons became sculptors. Writers became poets, philosophers and great thinkers.
The destruction of Europe wrought by the Black Death meant that people began to realise that life was short, unpredictable, and dangerous. The most should be made of it, while it existed. For the first time, commerce, self-preservation, self-interest and making money, began to seriously trump over thoughts of the Afterlife, the Church, religion and faith. The Church could not solve all your problems, so people started looking for ways to solve them themselves!
One of the ways to do this was to make money. To make a comfortable living. To be well-off enough to support yourself and those whom you cared for.
In cities like Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice, Italian merchants who started out as silversmiths or goldsmiths began to branch into the business of lending money. To make themselves known to the public, they set up shop in grand squares or busy streets, sitting behind wooden benches known as banca. At these ‘banca’, merchants would lend money, write out terms of repayment, secure the deposits of customers, and calculate interest rates. Suddenly, a new profession had been born. That of the…
The people who patronised these bankers were merchants and craftsmen. People who were not poor, but not excessively wealthy. People who had a bit of money and who were trying to make it in this new world. In England, this new merchant-trader class of craftsmen and small-businessmen became known as the ‘middling sort’. It’s the first time in history that the term, or an approximation of the word ‘middle’ was ever used to actively describe a class or group of people.
What differentiated the ‘Middling Sort’ of people from others was that they were commercially-minded. They weren’t just subsistence existence clingers-on to the fringes of society. They were in it to make money, make profits, and do well for themselves! The middling sort were people with skills, trades and crafts. They were watchmakers, jewelers, bankers, printers, bookbinders and shopkeepers.
The phrase ‘middling sort’ lasted from the 15oos all the way up to the mid-18th century. In 1745, the first-ever appearance of the term ‘Middle Class’, was written down.
The Rise of the ‘Middle Class’
Most people would say that the ‘Middle Class’ didn’t show up until the Victorian era. But as we’ve already seen, the very origin of the term dates back to the 1700s, well before Queen Victoria was ever born, let alone before there was an era named after her. But what WAS the Georgian and Victorian ‘middle class’? How did it differ from other classes? Why?
The Victorian Middle Class
By the 1800s, a class or group of people now existed which was solidly in the middle of the social spectrum. They were well-to-do, comfortably off with good earnings. They were not titled, excessively wealthy, land-owning aristocracy or gentry, and neither were they what the Victorians liked to call ‘the working-poor’.
So. Who were the Middle Class? What made them middle class? Why and how did they define middle class in the 1800s?
Victorian society around the world, from London to Paris, New York to San Francisco, Singapore to Sydney was defined by a lot of things. There were always small variations from place to place. But in general, back in the 1800s, to be considered ‘Middle Class’, you had to have certain things…
- You had to be a homeowner. The middle-class didn’t do anything as crass as RENT property! Oh God no! During the Victorian era, thousands of easily-constructed, mass-produced homes were produced for the new ‘middle-class’. They were compact, comfortable, affordable family-homes.
- You had to be white-collar, or an artisan of some kind. A teacher, a banker, a silversmith, jeweler, or stockbroker. The middle-class were independently wealthy, and hardworking. They didn’t rely on handouts and charity from anybody!
- You had to keep servants! The ability to pay for domestic (ideally, live-in) servants was one of the biggest signs that you had arrived! Employing housemaids, butlers, valets and cooks were what solidified you as being ‘Middle Class’. To answer the door yourself, or to do your own cooking and cleaning was something that only poor people did! In Britain, domestic service was the biggest employer during the 1800s.
- Nicknacks! The Victorian obsession with nicknacks, tchotkes, dust-collectors and bric-a-brac was a direct result of the Middle Class. It proved that you had the extra, disposable income to buy cute, pretty, decorative things for the home. It proved that you could go shopping, and that you had free time to blow on pointless fripperies!
- Entertaining! Being middle-class has always meant that you had at least some free time. Free time to have fun, free time to make fun. Free time to entertain others! Parties, luncheons, and dinners were one of the biggest preoccupations of the Victorian middle-class, in their attempts to emulate the heady lifestyles of European aristocracy, or American old money.
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management
Of all the thousands, millions, billions of books produced every single year, and out of all those printed during the Victorian era, one of the most famous has to be Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
First published in 1861, and continuing to be published today, ‘Beeton’s Household Management‘, as it was also called, strove to be the be-all-and-end-all, the absolute, total, and only strategy guide and walkthrough that you would ever need, to be a successful middle-class Victorian!
…So what is it?
In the 1840s, 50s and 60s, the growing Victorian middle-class wanted to prove that they had left the gutter and the poorhouse far behind. They were self-sufficient, with their own homes, steady incomes, dutiful wives and with their own broods of cheery, chubby-faced, healthy, perky children running around at their feet.
But the problem was that to have the money and occupation to make yourself ‘middle-class’ wasn’t enough – not in the highly judgmental world of the Victorians. Oh no! You had to be SEEN, and had to ACT like you were middle-class, as well! And for a whole group of people who had never been born into this way of life and had only climbed up to it through their own graft, this was intimidating!
Part of it was the whole thing about ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, and the other part was, I suspect – sheer insecurity. Having attained middle-class status, the new Victorians were determined to bloody well stay there, and if they could, climb higher! Under no circumstances at all could they possibly go backwards – something which was very possible in the Victorian world – a time before widespread government financial and social aid.
‘Beeton’s Household Management’, and books like it (such as ‘Cassell’s Household Guide’, published in 1869), therefore existed to show these new, aspirant and determined middle-class Victorians how to lead comfortable, frugal, economical lives. And it showed them how to entertain, how to keep staff, how to cook, how to clean, and how to manage the running of their homes.
In looking through the contents of a copy of ‘Household Management’, you will find instruction on, or commentary relating to…
- The mistress of the house.
- The master of the house.
- The servants (the hiring, firing, discipline, wages etc).
‘Household Management’ therefore served as much more than a simple cookbook – it aspired to be nothing less than the ultimate how-to guide for the aspirational Victorian middle-class, who aspired to be as much like their much-revered upper-class rivals as it was possible for them to be.
Why did this matter so much?
Today, ‘putting on airs and graces’ as they might’ve said 150 years ago, smacks of snobbery and self-aggrandisement. It sounds snooty and stuck-up. Given that the Victorian era is generally seen as moralistic, straitlaced and stuffy, why did this culture of showing off among the middle-class exist?
It existed because of the social climate of the age.
Remember that this was a time before widespread government financial support. If you were poor, if you were out of a job, if you were in straitened circumstances, then you were pretty much on your own. There was no such thing as the welfare state, free healthcare, pensions for disabilities or unemployment, and government employment schemes…beyond the dreaded and hated workhouse.
Therefore, people who had managed to attain the Middle-Class status which so many people dreamed of reaching, wanted to be sure and bloody well certain, that everybody else knew about it! It was a sense of pride that these people had about themselves, that made them want to do this. They had made it! They had secured for themselves a comfortable existence, and having secured this existence, they wanted to show that they were not working-poor, or ‘vicious, semi-criminal’, as Henry Booth put it, in his famous 1890s map of London poverty. They were self-sufficient, well-to-do, independently wealthy, comfortably-off, white-collar, respectable citizens!
And don’t you DARE suggest that they were anything less!
It was to ensure that people didn’t suggest this, that the middle class turned to guidebooks like Beeton’s Household Management, to ensure that they didn’t put a foot wrong, and suddenly be accused of being nothing less than mutton dressed as lamb.
The Middle Class and Consumerism
Although the Victorians didn’t really invent the concept of a ‘middle class’, what they did invent was the concept that it’s the people who make up the middle class, and above, which buy the majority of consumer-goods. Part of being middle-class has always been owning stuff! Owning stuff, especially stuff you don’t need, has always shown people that you were comfortably off, and had money to burn on things that weren’t absolutely essential!
The Victorians took this whole ‘owning trinkets and nicknacks’ thing to absolutely insane levels. Victorian households were notorious for their shelves, cases, cabinets, whatnots and display-units, which were crammed to bursting with brassware, silverware, porcelain, books, pressed flowers, jewelry, family heirlooms and countless other things.
Times may have changed from the 1800s, but one thing which hasn’t is our insatiable desire to own things which we consider ‘must-have’ or ‘status’ items. These have changed over the years, decades, and even centuries. What were some of these items? Let’s find out…
A Fine Watch
For much of history, owning a fine timepiece has always been a mark of respectability, prosperity and class. This became especially true in the Victorian era, when industrialisation made possible the mass-manufacture of increasingly accurate, increasingly elaborate, complicated and more highly-embellished timepieces than at any other time in history.
To own a gold pocketwatch in the 1800s, was the Victorian equivalent of owning a luxury automobile today. They were the ultimate status symbol. If you couldn’t own a gold watch, then you might own the next best thing – a gold-filled pocketwatch. Or if not that, then maybe a watch made of sterling silver. I have read articles which have proposed that of all the ‘gold watches’ ever made, only a microscopic amount were ever actually solid gold – the vast, vast majority of the others actually being gold-filled (gold-filling being a type of heavy, gold-plating of precious metal onto a base-metal case of brass).
Everybody who could afford a gold watch probably went out and bought one, unless they preferred silver. Those who did not, but who were still eager for the gold ‘look’, invariably purchased gold-filled watches instead.
A Sewing Machine
Ever since Isaac Merritt Singer manufactured the first really successful lockstitch domestic sewing machine in the 1850s, for much of history, owning a sewing machine was one of the most important indicators of social rank, for both men, and women.
In Victorian times, sewing machines were HIDEOUSLY EXPENSIVE. Frightfully expensive! So expensive that most people couldn’t afford them! To own one at all, almost everybody who bought one, unless they were really, really rich, had to pay via installments, or what was called ‘hire-purchase’. Singer knew this, and offered payment plans on its machines via hire-purchase for much of its existence, all the way from the 1850s up until the 1950s and 60s…a testament to just how long a good sewing-machine remained an expensive, luxury item.
Robust, beautiful and easy to use, a domestic sewing machine could be found in millions of homes around the world as men and women strove to save money and make and repair their own clothes and fabrics. This is a Singer 128 from the 1930s.
In an age when people on a whole owned fewer clothes, and when all women were expected to know how to sew and make clothes, and when men were expected to do absolutely everything they could to prolong the lives of the clothes they did have, to own a sewing machine – like I said, a big expense in those days – was a big indicator of your social status. It suggested that you had taste, it suggested that you were creative, it suggested that you had skills, or perhaps spare time to acquire them, or practice them, and use them! It also suggested that you made enough money to splurge on something as costly as a sewing machine!
A Fountain Pen
By the early 1900s, with more products available to a growing number of people who were able to buy them, one of the most aspirational things you could own before the Second World War, was your own fountain pen!
Extremely expensive (about $5.00 for a fountain pen at a time when a cheap pocketwatch was only a dollar!), owning one of these self-filling, no-dip, no-mess, no-fuss writing instruments was something that most people could only dream of. They were the sorts of things you got for birthdays, Christmas, work-promotions, or if you mowed every lawn within a three-block radius of your house every weekend.
Fountain pens were considered luxury items when they first came out, and their praises were sung upon high by such luminaries as Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and even Anne Frank, who brimmed with pride when she received one as a gift from her grandmother.
A personal fountain pen remained a must-have accessory for the well-to-do right into the 1950s. During the Second World War, with materials like rubber, steel, plastic, and nickel in short supply, fountain pens became scarce. What few pens which were manufactured were almost exclusively for use by the armed forces or government, and civilians were encouraged to do everything they could to keep the pens which they did have, ‘fighting-fit’, by cleaning them regularly to avoid expensive repair costs.
The Family Car
By the 1920s and 30s, more and more companies were producing more and more of these newfangled ‘auto-mobile’ thingies. And all around the world, people started becoming motorists!
At a time when almost every car was a handmade, coach-built, custom-tailored machine which one used to swan around in within the bounds of their country estates, a car for the masses was unthinkable, but companies such as Ford in America, Fiat in Italy, and Austin and Morgan in the United Kingdom, fought to make reliable cars something that everybody could buy! This might not have happened at all if Henry Ford hadn’t gone to court and sued over the infamous ‘Selden Patent’.
The Model T Ford was one of the first mass-produced production-line cars, manufactured for the ordinary working man. This 1910 model features a folding hood, space for passengers, a folding windscreen – and headlamps fired by acetylene gas (produced by water and calcium-carbonate – stored in the brass cylinder on the running-board)…you would light those by hand with a match, if you wanted to go driving at night!
The patent was named after lawyer George Selden, who, along with cronies, declared that they had invented and filed a patent for the automobile!
This meant that everybody else who built automobiles using internal combustion engines had to pay them royalties!
Ford proved that this was a falsehood and the case collapsed, which allowed the American (and by extension, global) motor-car industry to grow.
The result was that by the 20s and 30s, owning a motor-car was part of the middle-class dream. Having a nice car and being able to drive where-ever you wanted was part of the privilege of having a good job, a stable family and a nice house. These days, most people consider owning a car to be as part of everyday life as owning a pair of shoes.
Exotic Foods, Drinks and Spices
From the medieval Yeoman all the way to the present day, what you ate on a regular basis said as much about your social status as anything else. What foods were considered ‘luxurious’ or ‘special’ or ‘treat’ foods rose and fell with the times, sometimes flipping entirely on their heads.
Chocolate, sugar, salt, and various spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, pepper and saffron were all considered ‘luxury goods’ at one point or another. Spices were expensive and used rarely. Chocolate, imported from South America or Africa, was a rare treat, as was sugar, grown in the Caribbean in sugar-cane plantations.
Right up to the Victorian era, easy access to spices and flavourings were seen as a sign of wealth and prosperity. Sterling silver nutmeg-graters like these became common in the 1700s. Owning something this expensive meant that you could clearly afford the spice that it was intended to grind, as well!
By the 1700s, sugar started being harvested in Europe, extracted from the more widely-available sugar-beet. By the Victorian era, access to sugar (and by extension – chocolate), had become much more democratic.
As did the consumption and availability of tea.
Introduced to Europe at the end of the 1600s, tea was a huge luxury. Imported from Asia, it was so expensive that it was housed in lockable tea-caddies and the whole act of preparing, serving and drinking tea became something akin to a religious ceremony because of how costly it was. Sea-captains made big money by sailing to China, picking up the first crop of each season, and then flying back home across the waves to Europe.
‘China clippers’ were ultra-fast sailing ships, designed to whisk back and forth between Europe and Asia, to deliver the first crop of tea to Europe every year. The first ship carrying the first harvest of tea was always bound to get the highest price paid for its goods – so competition was fierce!
Seafood, like lobsters and oysters were once considered peasant food. They were so plentiful that everybody from the Romans to the Edwardians ate them around the clock with almost no thought for the consequences. The consequence now of course, is that rampant overfishing has led to them being rather more expensive these days than they were back in Edwardian times, when scoffing them down at dinner was almost commonplace.
A Solid, Dependable Bicycle
For a long time if you were a kid, owning your own bicycle was a big status symbol. I don’t know a single kid who didn’t have one. I had one when I was a boy! The modern bicycle as we know it today was invented in 1885, by John Kemp Starley, an English bicycle designer who wanted to create something safer and easier to ride than the ‘penny-farthing’ or ‘high-ordinary’ bicycle of the 1860s and 70s, which was notoriously unstable, difficult, and dangerous to ride.
A Chinese-made ‘Flying Pigeon’ bicycle. If it looks oldschool, that’s because the design has barely changed since the 1930s.
In Europe and America, bicycles were seen as cheap, fast, efficient ways to move around. In Asia, in countries – especially China – bicycles were seen as democratic and equalising – anybody with a decent sense of balance and a half-decent income could ride, and own one. Along with the Butterfly sewing machine, the Flying Pigeon roadster bicycle was seen as one of the biggest social markers in Chinese culture in the decades after the Civil War. In China in the 1970s and 80s, to own both these items – a means of making a living, and a means of getting around – meant that you had officially arrived in the new Middle Class of the People’s Republic of China.
The Middle Class and the Modern Era
In the modern world, most people would like to consider themselves middle class. Most people would define this by the type of house they live in, the number and type of cars they drive, the kinds of electronics they have, and probably, by how many overseas holidays they take.
The Middle Class has often been described as aspirant, showy, and with a magpie-like desire to hoard, display and demonstrate. To show that they have ‘arrived’. Like Hyacinth Bucket (Pronounced ‘Bouquet!’), lord help us if the Middle Class be seen as anything lower than, and only equal or higher than, what they are.
Did the Victorian era create the Middle Class? I don’t think it did. But I do think that the sentiments and temperaments, the attitudes and actions which define the middle class to this day, originated, or were at least greatly strengthened, during the Victorian era – and they’re markers and attitudes which persist to this day.