Geffrye Museum and The Evolution of the London Middle Class. Amanda Smith Beaufort County Early College HS Washington, NC

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1 Geffrye Museum and The Evolution of the London Middle Class Amanda Smith Beaufort County Early College HS Washington, NC NEH Seminar For School Teachers, 2013, London and Leiden The Dutch Republic and Britain National Endowment for the Humanities University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Geffrye Museum focuses on the changes that have taken place in the lives of middle class residences in London over the past 400 years. In order to demonstrate this change, the museum reconstructed eleven living rooms from 1630 to present day. Each living room is used as a discussion point to show not only how furnishings have changed, but also how domestic uses have evolved over time. While studying artifacts is not new, using artifacts to interpret a given society s culture shows a shift in the way people in different fields study the past. Material culture views artifacts as cultural tools, which can be used to reconstruct patterns of meaning, value, and norms shared by society. 1 The purpose is to move beyond the use of the artifact to be able to grasp more vague concepts of the culture. There are potential problems with material culture. When people interpret an artifact, they have to be careful not to impose assumptions based on their own cultural experiences. Interpreters have to be able to remove themselves from their own society in order to reach objectivity. 2 Also, artifacts do not provide a complete picture of the past. The survival of artifacts usually depends on random factors. Museums for example have a tendency to preserve unusual and valuable items. As a result, items that belong to elite members of society have a higher rate of survival. Artifacts can be changed or modified over time, which may affect their essential nature. 3 Due to these potential problems, the most effective way to interpret artifacts is to combine written evidence with physical evidence. 4 Geffrye Museum 1 Richard Grassby, Material Culture and Cultural History, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4 (2005): Jules David Prown, Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method, Winterthur 17 (Spring 1982): 4. 3 Prown, Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method, Grassby, Material Culture and Cultural History, 600.

2 provides visitors with written evidence in the form of letters, diary entries, and novels that support the museum s interpretations. The museum is housed in an 18 th century almshouse. The building provided homes for around 50 poor pensioners before it was converted into a museum in The choice to focus on the middle class is interesting since for 200 years this space housed the poorest of the poor. The first room of the museum was kept in its original condition so visitors could compare the spare furnishings of the poor with those of the middle class homes in the museum s main displays. The museum makes an attempt to define the middle class. The middle class is described as, businessmen, traders, as well as professionals such as law, finance, and medicine. It is interesting that the museum chooses to define the middle class not by income but by profession. Keith Wrightson, in Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain, writes that distribution of wealth in the 17 th century was based on social and occupational groups. Most of the middle class would have been connected to merchants. The merchants had different concerns from the landlords that largely made up the upper class and the tenant farmers and laborers that made up the poor. 5 The museum makes the claim that, the middle class is not a lesser version of the upper class but has its own culture. Since the middle class was not tied to agricultural land like the poorest and richest people in society, they had a distinct urban culture that the museum explores. The museum begins in the 17 th century as England starts to create a national market with London at its center. 6 The museum explains that the middle-class houses are used both as a living and business space. The ground floor was generally used as a store or workshop with the living space above. The family had a hall on the first floor that was used as a dinning room and to entertain guests. As seen in figure one, the hall was usually paneled in oak with a large fireplace for log fires. Cloth, silver, brass, and pewter were on display as status symbols. The family might also have a separate parlor, which was a private space most often used by the female family members. Women and children were not separated from the family business. Wrightson describes the household economy as spheres of interdependence, with men making the majority of the decisions. Women assisted their 5 Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), Wrightson, Earthly Necessities,

3 husbands because life expectancy was short, if something happen to their husbands, women needed to know how to run the business. 7 There was not a strict separation between business and domestic life that prevented middle class women from participating in business. Figure One, 17 th Century Hall The major change in the 18 th century was the introduction of trade with Asia. Consumerism drove the economy by increasing demand for luxury goods. The middle class showed off their increased buying power by purchasing luxury goods like tea. In the past only a small elite part of the population could purchase luxury goods, but now more people could afford to drink expensive tea in tiny cups. The Geffrye museum mentions that increased purchasing power of the middle class threatened the social position of the elite. As more people were able to afford luxury items, it became hard to distinguish the elite from middle class. Entertaining guests became a major function of the middle class home. The London fire of 1666 destroyed as much as 80 percent of the city. When the London middle class rebuilt their houses, they increased their living space by moving their business out of their houses. Instead of a hall, the middle class built parlors on the first floor where they showed off their wealth by decorating with paintings, prints, and mirrors. The middle class could not afford original Asian furniture and other goods so British factories began producing imitation. As seen in figure two, the tea set in the parlor is an 7 Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 48. 3

4 imitation of an Asian design produced in a British factory. In Maxine Berg s The Pursuit of Luxury: Global History and British Consumer goods in the Eighteenth Century, she makes the argument that luxury goods were the key to industrialization. 8 The workers were able to purchase these luxury goods because they earned higher wages than in other countries. Robert Allen s The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, points to higher wages and low energy cost of coal as major driving forces behind industrialization. 9 While the museum does not address the causes of industrialization, the effects of industrialization can be seen in the higher standard of living in Britain. Figure Two, 18 th Century Parlor In the 19 th Century a growing urban population and the expansion of the railway led the middle class to move to the outer suburbs of London, while the poor were forced to live in crowded tenements in the inner city. The drawing room on the ground floor was the main reception area because dirt and noise from the streets were not problems in the suburbs. Public rooms were generally lit by gaslights. The third figure shows the drawing room filled with large quantities of furniture, pictures, and ornaments as a way to express the taste and 8 Maxine Berg, In Pursuit of Luxury: Global History and British Consumer Goods in the Eighteenth Century, Past and Present 182 (2004): Robert C. Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009),

5 wealth of the family. While the style looks crowded, it reveals the Victorians love of unusual objects. In the Victorian age, social etiquette assumed greater importance among the middle class. The drawing room was a place for women to gather after dinner, as the men stayed in the dinning room to drink and discuss politics. The drawing room provided a place for women to show off their accomplishments like needlework and painting. Women s education changed from more practical house management to becoming accomplished in the arts. Victorian middle and upper class women were not expected to do their own housework. Instead they managed servants by assigning tasks and ordering supplies for the household. Women took pride in their homes as domestic life came to be seen as their sphere of influence. Figure Three, 19 th Century Drawing room The museum ends with a look at 20 th century London homes. The living spaces became less formal and more practical as Londoners adapted to the expensive housing market. The living room was used as a space for activities ranging from socializing to eating in front of the television. It is not uncommon to hear visitors share their experiences with their family members and friends. In addition to the museum, there is a café, garden, and library, which provide several places for people to sit and discuss. The museum is 5

6 located in the middle-class neighborhood of Shoreditch on the outskirts of London. The museum is free, but it closes at 5 p.m. everyday which makes it hard for working people to find time to visit. With the vast variety of museums located in London, The Geffrye Museum does not get a lot of attention from tourists. Instead it has become a gathering place for locals, who enjoy this hidden gem. In the past economic history has focused on production and ignored most of the social and political aspects. The Geffrye Museum s approach of focusing on the evolution of the London middle class through material culture provides a format for discussion of all aspects of culture. Each living room can provide an overview of how furnishings and domestic uses evolved over 400 years of London history. Works Cited Allen, Robert C. The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Maxine Berg, In Pursuit of Luxury: Global History and British Consumer Goods in the Eighteenth Century, Past and Present 182 (2004): Richard Grassby, Material Culture and Cultural History, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4 (2005): Jules David Prown, Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method, Winterthur 17 (Spring 1982): Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,

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