Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women

By Lori Anne Loeb | Go to book overview

Preface

The Victorian advertisement exposes materialistic fantasies. It tells of goods that excited the imagination and of mundane realities of everyday life. It is concerned with concrete embodiments of existence, and also with chimerical images of prosperity and progress. It captivates, alarms, and amuses. Yet its potential as an historical document is unrealized. Within the pages of innumerable magazines, the advertisement seems hidden. A once lively and provocative instrument, it is ready to be uncovered, to reveal the rise of consumerism, the emergence of a materially defined cultural ideal and the transformation of a society.

In the late nineteenth century, I will argue, many middle-class Victorians gradually turned away from the puritanical focus that has been so strongly identified with the Victorian period in general. They moved toward a new and surprisingly more hedonistic emphasis that glorified democracy; the access of all not simply to political participation, but to consumer participation; the access of all to a good life, increasingly defined in material terms. The Victorian advertisement provides an iconography of this new emphasis in cultural orientation. 1

The material redefinition of the late Victorian middle-class ideal is more than tangentially linked to an intriguing paradox illuminated by historians of the Victorian family. The Victorian home has been seen as a "walled garden," a refuge from sordid industry that both nurtured family virtue and prepared family members for confrontation with the outside world. 2 But the maintenance of the "sanctuary," argues Patricia Branca, contributed to the early demise of many a frail, unassisted "angel in the house." Moreover, even when well equipped with a retinue of experienced servants, the angel became a shrewd chancellor of the exchequer of the family purse. 3 Domestic economy literature analyzed by J. A. Banks in Prospetity and Parenthood suggests that middle-class angels were voracious consum

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