Ralph Mills

Objects of Delight

5: Green parrots and spotted cats

The archaeology of a mantelpiece

Artefacts do not lie, but it is often difficult to get them to give up the truth. Even the most mundane object can embody political controversy or particular sets of social and cultural values
(Graves-Brown 2015, vii)

The Working-Class Context

It is important firstly to discuss perceptions and misconceptions of working-class life in the nineteenth century, paying particular attention to people Howard Jacobsen realised tended to be "unnoticed" and whose everyday existence was (and is) often dismissed as "tedious and trivial" (Jacobsen 2008, 21). It is also necessary to locate gaps in knowledge and understanding and to attempt to explain why they have arisen. Using contemporary illustrations it is possible look into working-class domestic interiors and suggest what they can tell us.

In 1980, Lizabeth Cohen was moved to write that: "While in recent years historians have pursued the often elusive lives of working people, they have almost totally ignored domestic settings, and the material culture within them, as sources" (Cohen 1980, 752). Although since 1980 the situation has improved, scholars have mostly ignored, overlooked and generally neglected the materiality of nineteenth century "working people". When they do look at objects they often do so within the narrow confines of literary studies1.

Like Cohen, I believe that "workers who left no private written words speak to us through the artifacts in their homes" (Cohen 1980, 753). Cohen's subsequent essay based on her 1980 paper, in Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach's 1986 book Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, is introduced as "a kind of visual archaeology, in which photographs are used to resurrect real physical environments that once existed, but no longer do" (Cohen 1986, 261), which closely parallels my own approach. That the essay is in a collection of papers written around vernacular architecture underlines the still prevalent interest in the homes of working people as terraces of bricks and mortar rather than terraces of living people.

At the start of the industrial revolution the acquisition of small decorative objects was generally restricted to elites. They were craft objects, created singly or in small numbers, and as a result were of high monetary value. Come the nineteenth century, the combined growth of industrialisation, along with mass production, the emergence of mass workforces, the move of populations from rural to urban communities and increased incomes led to the expansion of cities and of worker housing, with concomitant demand for the trappings of domesticity.

While most of a nineteenth-century household's requirements were utilitarian — furniture, pots and pans and the like — there arose, probably from the very beginning, a desire, if not a need, to "decorate" the home. This can be seen in contemporary depictions of even the poorest homes, where flaking plaster or peeling wallpaper more often than not bears a calendar, a picture torn from a magazine or a religious tract.

As the nineteenth century continued, the conditions of the impoverished in cities attracted much almost ghoulish and voyeuristic interest, and a number of commentators recorded the horrors they witnessed amongst the insanitary alleys, "rookeries" and courts of industrial cities. The works of writers such as Friedrich Engels, Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew have become well known, and perhaps over-utilised, as records of what everyday life was like for the "industrious classes" in the nineteenth century. This is understandable, because there has been little exploration of the materiality of the lives of the hundreds of thousands of working-class households who didn't live in the foetid squalor familiar from popular accounts. As Francis Thompson pointed out in The Rise of Respectable Society: "...four fifths or nine tenths of the people did not live in slum conditions" (Thompson 1988, 181; my emphasis). In addition, there have been few attempts to link nineteenth-century working-class lives across continents and oceans.

This section examines a material aspect of domestic life that, I suggest, reflects working-class thinking and attitudes. I will suggest that knowing more about the ornaments — "useless things"2 — displayed in homes will enable us to envision working-class lives that differed markedly from the Dickensian tropes that currently result from an online search for information about the "Victorian working class," that world of slums, gloomy Dore prints and "filth".

Although the nineteenth century was the beginning of an age of mass communication, working-class people created few records of their lives, and those few that did, rarely focused on materiality. Despite the existence of vast archives recording a literate society, we still know little about the everyday lives of millions of people who lived in the nineteenth century.

Because we encounter its surviving material culture in museums across the world (Batchelor 1994, 139) we are, we believe, very familiar with nineteenth-century working-class life. Stark, dark black and white etchings, Gustav Doré's gloomy engravings (Figure 1) and gloomy greyscale photographs are reproduced over and over. Dickens, Mayhew, Engels and others are quoted repeatedly. We've visited "Victorian parlour" reconstructions, most of them middle-class but some purporting to represent the homes of workers, are a popular display in museums throughout the westernised world.

As a result our perception is that everyone seemed to be poor, wretched, starving, weak, immoral, diseased, dying or criminal. Skeletal people dwelt in crumbling, collapsing hovels and slept on heaps of rags. Half-naked, grubby children wandered cold, filthy, streets, selling watercress or sweeping crossings, or suffocated in chimney stacks; permanently-foggy streets were awash with raw sewage, patrolled by beggars, cripples, prostitutes, pickpockets, Jack the Ripper and Bow Street Runners.

This is, however, a pinhole glimpse of the recent past. For example, if all the reconstructed "Victorian parlours" in the world were added together, the total would probably be less than 100. The same images of the same rooms appear repeatedly in books and online and are repeatedly used as teaching resources. This means that our view of millions of homes that existed around the world in the nineteenth century is based on a very small number of mostly middle-class reconstructions, which themselves are created from whatever material is held by the museum and based on the knowledge and approaches of individual curators, again a tiny minority.

A bias towards towards the middle classes is understandable, because descriptions of the contents of their parlours are more common in contemporary literature, more photographs were taken of middle-class interiors, and more of their material culture, especially standing structures, has survived. If at all, working class interiors were usually described negatively in the writings of social commentators and activists (see Ginn 2006). The vast bulk of working class homes went unrecorded. This has resulted in the mournful (to me) emptiness, both of possessions and emotions, of most lower-class interior reconstructions (for example, Figure 2). They were poor, we understand, therefore logically they didn't own anything significant.

If we examine the interiors of present-day impoverished homes they are likely to contain plenty of stuff, as Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas found when they carried out an archaeological investigation of a British council house in 1997 (Buchli and Lucas 2001, 158). It is cheap and cheerful stuff, or stuff gathered as part of a survival process, stuff that is "unnoticed" (see Jacobsen 2009) except, perhaps, by an archaeologist. I demonstrate below that the same was true of the nineteenth century working class homes.

What "ordinary" people owned can also be gauged from what they lost. The proceedings of the Old Bailey include lists of what people were accused of stealing from the homes of those who lived in places like Plumtree Court, indeed in Plumtree Court. The proceedings also include approximate values. A number of relevant cases are included in Appendix III.

In his book Folk Housing in Middle Virginia (1976) Henry Glassie proposed what could act as at least partly as a manifesto for this study:

A method based on the document is prejudiced; fated to neglect the majority of people, for they were non-literate and, within the boundaries of literacy, to neglect the majority of people, for they did not write. Even today in societies of almost universal literacy, it is a rare soul who bequeaths to future historians a written account of his thought... How can you study a society if you attend only to the expressions of a small and deviant class within the whole?
(Glassie 1976, 8)

On the other hand, working class people were certainly written about, and some of these records feature importantly in my research. Most of these broad-brush records focus on living conditions of the poorest and tend to focus on a perceived absence of material culture rather than its presence.

A challenge of this study is not only that the recent past of working people is under-recorded, but also that their material culture, in the form of assemblages of archaeological "finds," has either been destroyed, or has been transformed into objects that have little if any connection with their past, that have been extracted from their life histories and "curated", rather like butterflies — netted, killed and pinned down in meaningless rows. "Our knowledge is thin and faulty," explained museum curator Jette Sandahl in a recent lecture. "We have torn these objects out of their contexts. We have to reconnect to our knowledge that is in the objects and to the living memories that they still carry" (Lubar 2016, pers comm).

Working-class materiality: the parlour problem

Working-class homes, if illustrated at all, were routinely depicted as almost unfurnished, with just a bottle or two on rickety shelves and mantelpieces and a pile of rags on the floor (e.g. Figure 3. Contrast this with the bright colours in Figure 24.

Perhaps the archaeology of the recent past adds to this conundrum, because most excavations reveal what is left after what remains above ground has been removed — a jumble of decayed and crumbling below-ground structures, cellars and basements, which are by definition damp and gloomy and, when lived in, were the homes of the poorest (see Figure 3 and Figure 5). Contemporary commentators tended to report and exaggerate the most extreme conditions that supported whatever cause they were espousing (Ginn 2006, 191).

Museum curators face a number of dilemmas. They have a limited collection of artefacts on which to draw. Few of the collected objects will have originated in the same or known contexts but will usually be from a large number of unrelated sources. They often have to create a display within an unsuitable environment, usually a building/room that is either (a) recently designed and constructed or (b) is not a working-class structure. An example is the Castle Museum in York, which includes working-class exhibits created inside what was once a prison. This is naturally poorly lit, has thick stone walls and a generally oppressive atmosphere. Another example is the Abbey House museum in Leeds (Figure 2), where working-class rooms are displayed in a dimly-lit series of small, low-ceilinged rooms in what began as a C12th gatehouse, though much altered.

The reconstructions of "Victorian" parlours in so many museums are myths, as fictional as "Sherlock Holmes' house" in Baker Street, London. As discussed by Robert Ascher in his 1974 paper Tin*Can Archaeology, they are chance comings together of objects from museum storage rooms. Like many myths (Santa Claus, fairies and so on) they have influenced our thinking to the point that we are able instantly to visualise them. This doesn't make them any the more "true".

Fictional realities

Writers, especially journalists and novelists, aimed to entertain and grip and hold the reader, and nineteenth-century working-class people were represented in their works as 'characters' who suited the story. They were aiming at a middle-class readership to who "the poor" were horribly fascinating at a time when touring the poorest districts — "slumming" — became a tourist attraction and general entertainment for the better-off. Novelists like Dickens used this marketing technique to such a degree that "Dickensian" entered the lexicon (Hudson 2011). Marx, Engels, Dickens and others wrote about working-class people with pens sharpened by their individual political stances, and in Dickens' case, with a deliberate use of imagination and an admitted lack of direct experience (Spector 1984, 365). Those who illustrated the times also drew with pencils similarly pointed. Although Dickens and other nineteenth century writers were attempting to describe reality, or reality as they experienced it, and indeed in some cases used their writing to attempt to focus attention on inequality, injustice and cruelty, they found that they needed to enhance, to "colour", often-mundane reality.

There is no doubt that extreme poverty existed in the nineteenth century, and that the examples reported by social commentators and activists such as Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth were based on intensive and detailed observation. Many working-class people did indeed live in appalling conditions, especially the "poor", the homeless, the unemployed, old, sick, drunk, mentally-ill, criminal and feckless. But as mentioned above, the vast majority lived relatively comfortable lives. Geoff Ginn quotes W.W. How, The Bishop Suffragen for East London, who wrote in 1888: "the vast majority of inhabitants live quiet respectable lives of hard work" (Ginn 2006, 193).

There were, therefore, many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who, whilst not living in the lap of luxury, did accumulate possessions and, importantly for my research, decorative objects. It is instructive to recognise the stark and striking contrast between the text and the accompanying illustrations of The Daily News Handbook of the Sweated Industries Exhibition of 1909. Whereas the writers describe sweated workers living in "wretched" conditions, the accompanying illustrations show workers, whilst often crammed into a room that often also acts as kitchen or bedroom (or both), against backgrounds that include pictures and arrays of objects arranged for display on shelves, dressers and mantelpieces (for example, Figure 4).

These photographs, taken presumably in the very early years of the twentieth century, nevertheless appear typically "Victorian". It might be argued that by this time workers were better off than their nineteenth-century forbears, but the text of the report seems to suggest that this was not so; artificial flower making, the activity illustrated in Figure 9, was "one of the worst paid" (Mudie-Smith 1906, 30). The illustrations mostly show people working in rooms that were often crowded (though not "cluttered" in the middle-class sense; these were simply small dwellings, often single-roomed, with everything squeezed into them). It is possible to make out belongings set against backgrounds of patterned wallpapers, draped mantelpieces, framed pictures displayed china and much similar materiality. In one, of a doll maker, stands a 'Number 14' bentwood chair, a twin of which stands a few feet away from me as I write this (Mudie-Smith 1906, 85). While modern readers might leap on and indeed relish the handbook's description of squalor and poverty amongst home workers, Figure 4 shows a room containing ornaments, framed pictures, flowery wallpaper, draperies and a large chest of drawers. Yes, the couple live in a single room (a bed is visible, and drying linen) but their home is not achingly naked like those that so horrified nineteenth-century observers and which have survived as tropes.

The working-class home

George Godwin, who recorded the empty poverty of Figure 3, shows us a slightly more luxurious interior in Figure 5, a room that that has a few pictures hanging on the chimney-breast and some objects on the mantelpiece. Although its sparseness horrified Godwin, this is a cared-for environment: framed pictures are symmetrically arranged on the chimney breast, with prints centred above them. Keys hang from nails. There is a clock and what appears, significantly, to be a pile of books.

Artists like Phiz would use their skills to fill or empty their illustrations of detail as suited the theme they were illustrating: mantelpieces could be crowded or bare as necessary. The mantelpieces depicted by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne) in two contrasting illustrations (Figure 6 and Figure 7) show the working-class mantel as bearing a few utilitarian objects, and the middle-class mantel displaying three characteristically "Victorian" ornaments. I suggest that this is artistic licence, carried out to emphasise differences.

As with much that follows, this distortion isn't limited to the Old World. Lizabeth Cohen describes "typical" American working class parlours of the late nineteenth century overflowing "with store-bought, mass-produced objects, carefully arranged by family members: wall-to-wall carpeting enclosed by papered and bordered walls and ceilings; upholstered furniture topped with antimacassars; shawl-draped center tables displaying carefully arranged souvenir albums and alabaster sculptures; shelves and small stands overloaded with bric-à-brac and purchased mementos" (Cohen 1980, 754). Here there is no doubt a blurring with middle-class interiors, but the interior of a well-ordered tenement (Figure 8) illustrating William Elsing's 1895 essay Life in New York Tenement-Houses as seen by a City Missionary emphasises that it is difficult to generalise, especially as the illustration on the opposite page shows the grim reality of "The Dark Side—under the Same Roof" (Figure 9).

Broughton's drawing reveals a draped mantelpiece displaying several figures, as well as two figures standing on wall-brackets. The Christmas tree suggests that this is a family of German origin. This is again a late nineteenth century example, but the grinding poverty shown in The Dark Side (Figure 9) reveals a picture that could illustrate any year in the century (Elsing 1895, 46-7). Similar interiors are not hard to find in contemporary sources, especially those published towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, when photography was becoming more often used as a recording tool.

This is supported by other illustrations that were created not to show working class life in a positive light, but reality. In the age of photography, and especially in the early years of the twentieth century, records were made of so-called "slum" dwellings, usually to encourage the authorities to take action to improve or condemn them. Again, in the background, decorative objects can be seen on mantelpieces and shelves (Figure 10 Figure 11, Figure 12).

In addition, crime scene photographs, most of which were taken in working-class environments, sometimes inadvertently showed ornaments in the background to some foreground horror (Figure 13 and Figure 14).

Instead of people living in empty rooms, the cross-sections of mid-nineteenth-century New York tenements show households that, although even the best of them are far from 'cluttered', nevertheless mostly include material possessions. Yes, some of the occupants of the Drake engraving (Figure 15) are shown in rooms lacking furniture, but the majority have furniture, including sideboards, tables and chairs. Significantly there are several mantelpieces with objects on them as well as pictures on the walls (Figure 16).

A larger, and clearer 1865 engraving (Figure 17) includes a wide range of levels of materiality. Once again the dwellings, though small, contain furniture, pictures on the walls and objects ranged on mantelpieces. These engravings were made to illustrate poor living conditions (it includes "Murder Alley"), so there was no reason to include details that wouldn't have been there. In fact it would be justifiable to suggest that the poverty in these images was subject to exaggeration. These illustrations are useful in emphasising that the industrious classes enjoyed varying levels of materiality, with the majority being able to accumulate at least some decorative objects on their mantelpieces.

Materiality and mantelpieces

Often and often I've known a woman to sell the best part of her husband's stock of clothes for chany3 ornaments for her mantelpiece
(Mayhew 1849, 368)

The study of seemingly prosaic objects that were nevertheless regarded as important enough to be displayed at the heart of the home is to research a valuable element of the material culture of the people who originally owned them. Art historian Jules Prown tells us that: "...the study of material culture is the study of material to understand culture, to discover the beliefs—the values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions—of a particular community or society at a given time" (Prown 2000, 11).

Our investigation of these objects "provides a way of understanding the social world because of the ways we appropriate it, through living with objects in our everyday lives; interacting with them, using them, allowing them to mediate between us and having quasi-social relationships with them" (Dant 1999, 201). Judy Attfield believes that "'the material culture of everyday life', acknowledges the physical object in all its materiality and encompasses the work of design, making, distributing, consuming, using, discarding, recycling and so on" (Attfield 2000, 3).

The mantelpiece commands the focus of the domestic interior; an altar, serving as a place to exhibit precious and sentimental objects. It has permanence and somehow stands quietly separate from the daily life around it. On the mantelpiece everyone is able to curate the things they most love
(Goode et al 2011)

Mantelpieces were almost ubiquitous in working-class homes. The cross sections of tenements (e.g. Figure 17) show that every dwelling included a hearth4. Although mantelpieces rarely survive on archaeological sites, hearths and fireplaces do. In Manchester, two examples of basement dwellings were recently excavated in Chorlton-on-Medlock. Figure 18 is part of early nineteenth century Ebenezer Plat Terrace, on Lawson Street, demolished in the 1940s and until recently a car park, and which featured several basement dwellings, complete with slate fireplaces. It is now the site of Manchester University's Graphene Institute. A second example, again discovered beneath a car park, and conveniently next door to my local pub, The Salutation Inn5, and the site of Manchester Metropolitan University's new Student Union, uncovered more nineteenth century cellars with fireplaces, one complete with water heater and sink (Figure 19) (Mottershead 2013, 2014).

The Lawson Street excavation also uncovered the remains of the Albert Club, once a haunt of Friedrich Engels. He would have passed by these buildings and taken note of them and their inhabitants. Perhaps they influenced some of his views of the lives of those working people he wrote about in his 1845 book The Condition of the Working Class in England.

What the archaeological investigation recorded were dwellings reached from street level via narrow passages and precipitous stairways, and lit by small windows opening onto the street. All the cellars featured large, slate fireplaces, each of which would have almost certainly included a mantelpiece. The fireplace would have been used for both cooking and heating (probably containing a cast iron range), and these functions would have put it at the centre of family life. Things placed on the mantelpiece would have included utilitarian objects such as candlesticks and containers. But they almost certainly would have included artefacts with purely decorative functions.

The materiality of the mantelpiece

You may often see on no very rich mantel-piece, a representative body of all the elements, physical and intellectual; a shell for the sea, a stuffed bird or some feathers for the air, a curious piece of mineral for the earth, a glass of water with some flowers in it for the visible process of creation, a cast of sculpture for the mind of man; and underneath all is the bright and ever-springing fire running up them heavenward, like hope through materiality
(Hunt 1822, 10)

The poet Leigh Hunt, writing one chilly day in October 1819 for his journal The Indicator, musing romantically about the materiality that was displayed above the fireplace on a "no very rich mantel-piece" sees the presence of "a cast of sculpture" as something "for the mind" (Hunt 1822, 10). He was probably warming himself in front of a somewhat impoverished but nevertheless middle-class fire, but the meaning of the passage could apply to many a working-class hearth.

That the hearth was regarded as central to the home is underlined by the adoption of the Latin word for "hearth"—focus—by Johannes Kepler in 1604 to describe the meeting point of rays of light. The hearth was also the location for the shrine to the guardian spirits of the house, a place associated with the hearth goddess, ancient Greek Hestia and Roman Vesta (Anon 2016b).

Judy Attfield quotes Cox, who wrote in 1951 that "many people still feel the need for a room apart, where photographs and souvenirs can contribute to memories and where the fireplace can be treated as an altar to household gods" and went on to remind us that "one of the features that proved most intransigent to modernist reform was the primary focus given to the fireplace in the traditional interior…even after central heating became more common and there was no longer a practical reason for grouping the furniture around the fireplace, it still formed the main focus of the living room" (Attfield 1999, 79, 80). Even if the traditional hearth and mantelpiece were rejected, horizontal surfaces were still commonly used to display bric-à-brac and a coffee table might become "a small altar featuring an ornamental arrangements of objects" (ibid).

We have to look to less poetic sources than Leigh Hunt for evidence for what objects stood on working-class mantelpieces. Contemporary writings occasionally mentioned what was on the mantelpiece or "chimney-piece," although not usually in great detail. Henry Mayhew, in writing about the homes of Northumberland and Durham miners, mentions that "the mantelpiece is generally crowded with little ornaments of china and glass" (Razzell and Wainwright 1973, 227). In London he is surprised to find "traces of household care" in the homes of the "Street-Irish", including "the mantelpiece with its images" (Mayhew 1851, 110). In one house he notes "a long looking glass reflecting the china shepherds and shepherdesses on the mantel-piece, while framed and glazed, all around were highly-coloured prints, among which, Dick Turpin, in flash red coat, gallantly clearing the tollgate" (Mayhew 1851, 85) while in the home of a costermonger he records that "the wall over the fire-place was patched up to the ceiling with little square pictures of saints, and on the mantelpiece, between a row of bright tumblers and wine glasses filled with odds and ends, stood glazed crockeryware images of Prince Albert and M. Jullien"6 (Mayhew 1851, 47).

Expressing a common attitude at the time, Mayhew regarded these objects as something of an extravagance:

Above and upon the poor man's mantelpiece was a profusion of small pictures and common china ornaments (his notion of the beautiful), among which his crucifix (for he was a Roman Catholic) was not wanting...The same improvidence — which is the invariable concomitant of every kind of labour that is uncertain — prevails among this class as among all others where the income is of a precarious character
(Mayhew 1850)

In his 1849 exploration of the homes of "operatives" in Hulme, Manchester, Angus Reach also had found that "upon the chimney-piece was ranged a set of old-fashioned glass and china ornaments". Even the "older, worse-built, and in all respects inferior quarter of Ancoats" Reach came across "now and then a row of smoke-browned little china and stoneware ornaments on the narrow chimney-piece" (Aspin 1972). In a Northampton shoemaker's home, Reach noted that "Shakespeare and Milton are headless as they stand upon the mantel-piece" and "bear witness to the dissipated habits of their occupiers" (Razzell and Wainwright 1973, 81). On the other hand, in a London furniture workers lodgings, he found "very white and bright-coloured pot ornaments, with sometimes a few roses in a small vase, are reflected in the mirror over the mantelshelf" (Razzell and Wainwright 1973, 134), and in the home of Middleton Silk Weavers he saw "On the high chimney-piece were tiny pieces of nick-nackery, china, and glittering ware, in the usual cottage style" (Razzell and Wainwright 1973, 198), while in a Northumberland and Durham pitman's cottage "The mantelpiece is generally crowded with little ornaments of china and glass" (Razzell and Wainwright 1973, 227).

On the other side of the world, the mantelpiece would be similarly decorated. A description of an Australian pub invites the reader to "imagine a snug little parlour in the back part of a snug little house, in a snug out of the way part of this very snug little town…the mantelpiece with its shells and china ornaments; let him imagine all these sorts of things, and he will have a very correct idea of the little back parlour attached to the Old Kangaroo" (Launceston Courier 1842). The Georgian Index web site informs us that "In humbler households in England, Europe, and the colonies, inexpensive chalkware copies of the desirable and expensive Staffordshire ware sat atop mantels. Chalkware ornaments cast of gypsum-based plaster of Paris came in all the favorite Staffordshire ware shapes: kings, queens, heroes, animals, and the latest fad--shepherds and shepherdesses complete with sheep" (Anon 2008b). Even in that then-new African country of Liberia the traditions continued:

Nearly all of the dwellings in Liberia, outside of Monrovia, are furnished plainly–very much in the style prevalent amongst colored folks in America. There were the familiar plaster of Paris images, dogs and cats on the mantels, the familiar gaudily gilded and painted china cups and mugs, and the familiar ghastly caricatures of Scriptural scenes...I could easily imagine myself in the best room of a respectable colored family down south.
(The Anderson Intelligencer, South Carolina, August 22nd, 1878)

This paragraph allows us to catch a glimpse of another rarely-reported domestic context; "the best room" of a southern black household.

Diana Maltz points out that the lack of a mantelpiece was considered a major disadvantage (Maltz 2006, 55), while Clarence Cook, writing in 1881 of his ideas of the House Beautiful, pours scorn on those who kept "putting in expensive make-believe fire-places, and erecting mantel-pieces over them, as if they couldn't bear to give up the memory of what had once been so pleasant" (Cook 1881, 111). He goes on to similarly describe the horrors of make-believe logs, "marbleized slate" used in cheap fireplaces to "tickle the buyer's eye", veneers and "meaningless mouldings" (Cook 1881, 112-3). Cook is writing of middle- and upper-class homes, but his belief that "however willing people have been to give up fireplaces, they have not been willing to give up mantel-pieces" (Ibid, 117) also applies to working-class homes, and there too Cook's conclusion runs true, that "the mantel-piece ought to second the intention of the fire-place as the center of family life—the spiritual and intellectual center" (ibid, 121).

We can obtain glimpses of working-class mantelpiece materiality from a scatter of contemporary illustrations. For example a Venus de Medici and a Mercury appear on the mantelpiece in Rowlandson's caricature of The Profligate (Figure 20).

In the view of a hospital ward in Figure 21, the huge mantelpiece is crowded with figures.

A cat and three kittens gambol in front of the fireplace in George Cruikshank's watercolour Mr Bumble and Mrs Corney Taking Tea (Figure 22/a>). Cruickshank's illustration for Dickens' Oliver Twist includes part of a mantelpiece, on which stands a figurine of Paul Pry (Figure 23) with his usual umbrella tucked under his arm.

Paul Pry was the principal character in a successful comedy written by John Pool and premiered in 1825 (see also p 173). Pry was a voyeur and Cruikshank's inclusion of the notorious character adds to the sexual element suggested by the romping cats (see also Philip Allingham's and Michael Steig's 2014 commentaries on The Victorian Web site). He and we are spying on an intimate moment, forcing us to echo Pry's famous utterance "I hope I don't intrude."

A fine striped cat is seen on the mantelpiece in Interior of a House in Compton Bassett (Figure 24), painted by Elizabeth Pearson Dalby, 1849, along with a miniture building and two smaller figures. This and the rest of the interior remind us that nineteenth century interiors could be places of light and colour.

Another mantelpiece, this time apparently rural, its extent frustratingly hidden by a curtain, appears in James Collinson's painting of 1850, Answering the Emigrant's Letter (Figure 25). The artist included two figures, probably Staffordshire ceramics, as well as a toy horse. Collinson painted one figure, of a boy and seated girl enough detail that I allowed me to identify a surviving example that appeared on an online auction site.

The patron saint of lost objects

Captured accidentally during the official recording of poor living conditions, a variety of decorative objects can be seen on the mantelpieces and shelves of "slum" tenants in photographs taken in New York in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Figures 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 and Figure 34). Some are identifiable, while others are tantalisingly trimmed by the edge of the photographs, are out of focus or blurred. Cats and dogs are visible, as are religious figures, including St Anthony, the patron saint of lost objects, and, interestingly given that these images are from New York, British royalty.

That these assemblages of objects were not unusual is also borne out by an examination of the objects stolen by various petty criminals operating in London, as well as those objects that played minor roles in their and others' crimes7. Objects were often hidden beneath or inside "images" on mantelpieces: examples include the highway robbers Millson and MacDonald who hid a watch inside an "image:"

I found this watch (producing it) crammed up in the hollow part of a plaister of Paris image; a piece of rag was stuffd in to keep it up.
(Proceedings of Old Bailey, 12th September 1770)

One of the interesting facts to emerge from Old Bailey proceedings was that furnished "lodgings" often included decorative objects (sometimes subsequently stolen by tenants).

Punch celebrated the materiality of the mantelpiece in a number of cartoons. In Figure 35 the shelf displays the (fanciful) busts of politicians, while in Figure 36 we can see what I identify as a nodding Buddha.

Individually, the items may be viewed as beautiful, incredibly crafted or even plain ugly and pointless, yet when arranged on a mantelpiece this stuff creates a narrative, expressing the design handwriting of the creator.
(Curtis 2011)


Last updated 20th April 2020


Footnote 1

For example Cale et al 2010; Boehm 2012 and a number of conferences such as "Victorian Things: Nineteenth-Century Literature and Material Culture" 2012 and "Objects of Research: The Material Turn in Nineteenth-Century Literary Studies" 2016.


Footnote 2

"Useless things": Brown 2003; Maltz 2006, 2011; Schwarzbach 2001 and others./p>


Footnote 3

"Chany" was slang for "china".


Footnote 4

Because these examples are from the US the fireplace was often replaced by a cast iron stove, but the mantelpiece usually survived..


Footnote 5

The Salutation Inn bears a plaque recording that Charlotte Bronte started her novel Jane Eyre here in 1846.


Footnote 6

Louis-Antoine Jullien (1812-1860) Conductor of popular light music.


Footnote 7

See Appendix III


Figure 1

Railway viaduct over houses
Figure 1: A much-reproduced engraving; Over London, by Rail, 1872. Gustav Doré.

Figure 2

Mantelpiece in reconstruction of Victorian parlour
Figure 2: Mantelpiece in "Working-class home," Abbey House Museum, Leeds. Note the miniature tripod cauldron. Photograph, the author.

Figure 3

Illustration of interior of room in working-class home
Figure 3: A Clerkenwell Interior. (Godwin 1854, vii).

Figure 4

Photograph of interior of home with family making artificial flowers
Figure 4: Artificial flower makers. 1909. Illustration from the Handbook of the Sweated Industries Exhibition (Mudie-Smith 1906).

Figure 5

Interior of working-class home
Figure 5: Interior of House in Court (Godwin 1854, 5).

Figure 6

Illustration of scene described in Bleak House
Figure 6: The Visit to the Brickmaker's. Working-class interior, 1852. Phiz illustration, Bleak House.

Figure 7

Illustration of scene described in Bleak House
Figure 7: Mr Chadband 'improving' a tough subject. Middle-class interior, 1852. Phiz illustration, Bleak House.

Figure 8

A well-appointed tenement room
Figure 8: The Bright Side of Life in a Tenement-house, 1895 (C. Broughton: Elsing 1895, 46).

Figure 9

A poorly-kept room in a tenement
Figure 9: The Dark Side of Life in a Tenement-house, 1895 (C. Broughton: Elsing 1895, 46).

Figure 10

Objects including figurines on a tenement mantelpiece
Figure 10: Ornaments on mantelpiece in New York tenement. (Detail) Early twentieth century. New York Public Library.

Figure 11

Objects including figurines on a tenement mantelpiece
Figure 11: Ornament on mantelpiece in New York tenement. (Detail) Early twentieth century. New York Public Library.

Figure 12

Detail of figurines on mantelpiece in Collinson painting
Figure 12: Ornaments on mantelpiece in New York tenement. (Detail) Early twentieth century. New York Public Library.

Figure 13

Crime scene photograph with figurine on mantelpiece
Figure 13: Crime scene, New York. Note the figurine on the mantelpiece.

Figure 14

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Figure 14: Crime scene, New York. Note the figurine on the mantelpiece.

Figure 15

Cross section of tenement building
Figure 15: Cross-section of nineteenth-century New York tenement, Drake.

Figure 16

Detail of cross section of tenement building
Figure 16: Cross-section of tenement, (Detail, digitally clarified) Drake.

Figure 17

Cross section of tenement building in New York
Figure 17: Cross-section of New York tenement (detail) 1865, Frank Leslie's Illustrirte Zeitung (New York Historical Society).

Figure 18

Archaeological excavation showing several cellars with large fireplaces
Figure 18: Fireplaces in the basements of Ebenezer Plat Terrace, Manchester (photograph, the author).

Figure 19

Archaeological excavation behind the Salutation pub, showing cellar with fireplace
Figure 19: Fireplace in basement adjacent to The Salutation Inn, Manchester (photograph, the author). This hearth can be seen preserved below the floor of the Manchester Metropolitan University Student Union bar.

Figure 20

Detail of Rowlandson's paintin entitled The Profligate, showing a man dressed as a jockey and figurines on a mantelpiece
Figure 20: The Profligate. Before 1827. (detail) Rowlandson

Figure 21

Detail of an illustration of a hospital ward, with a mantelpiece crowded with figurines
Figure 21: Early hospital ward (detail) Thackray Museum, Leeds.

Figure 22

Illustration showing couple in parlour, with figurine visible on mantelpiece
Figure 22: Mr Bumble and Mrs Corney Taking Tea, 1838 (George Cruikshank). (Scanned by Philip V. Allingham, The Victorian Web)

Figure 23

Detail of mantelpiece showing Paul Pry figurine
Figure 23: A figurine of Paul Pry stands on the mantelpiece in Cruickshank's Mr Bumble and Mrs Corney Taking Tea (Detail).

Figure 24

Interior of cottage showing figurines on mantelpiece
Figure 24: Interior of a House in Compton Bassett, 1849, Elizabeth Pearson Dalby (Salisbury Museum).

Figure 25

Painting showing family writing a letter, with mantelpiece in background
Figure 25: Answering the Emigrant's Letter, 1850 James Collinson (Manchester Art Gallery).

Figure 26

Detail of photograph of tenement room showing figurine on mantelpiece
Figure 26: Ornaments on New York "slum" tenement shelf (detail). They include a figure of St Anthony carrying the Child Christ and a lily. (New York Public Library).

Figure 27

Detail of figurines on mantelpiece in abandoned tenement room
Figure 27: Ornaments on mantelpiece in abandoned tenement 1935 (detail). They include a St Anthony carrying the Christ Child and an unidentifiable family group, perhaps the Holy Family. (New York Public Library).

Figure 28

Detail of figurines on shelf in tenement
Figure 28: Figurines, including King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra and two children, on New York tenement shelf. (detail) (New York Public Library).

Figure 29

Detail of figurines on tenement mantelpiece
Figure 29: Ornaments on New York "slum" tenement shelf. (detail) The lower half of a figure is visible. (New York Public Library).

Figure 30

Detail of figurines on tenement mantelpiece
Figure 30: Ornament in New York tenement 1930s (detail). A figurine of a dancer is visible. (New York Public Library).

Figure 31

Detail of figurines on tenement mantelpiece
Figure 31: Ornaments on New York "slum" tenement shelf. (detail). Two small, unidentifiable figures are visible. (New York Public Library).

Figure 32

Detail of figurines on tenement mantelpiece
Figure 32: Ornaments on New York "slum" tenement shelf. (detail) They include a Madonna, probably plaster of Paris. (New York Public Library).

Figure 33

Detail of figurines on tenement mantelpiece
Figure 33: Ornaments on New York "slum" tenement shelf. (detail). They appear to include a Rogers figurine and a pair of larger plaster "images." (New York Public Library).

Figure 34

Detail of figurines on mantelpiece in Collinson painting
Figure 34: Ornaments on New York tenement mantelpiece 1902 (detail) At least one small bust is visible in this blurred image. (New York Public Library).

Figure 35

Cartoon with mantelpiece bearing figurines in background
Figure 35: The Politician, 1842. Punch or the London Charivari, Vol 2 p 74.

Figure 36

Cartoon of cupid in front of fireplace with figurines
Figure 36: Cupid out of place, 1841. Punch or the London Charivari, Vol 1, p 247.