A Window to the Past

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An old book can be seen as a window into the past and is a way to learn about the lives and interests of previous generations.  In our household library we have an original copy of The Universal Self Instructor (1883) that was a popular book for the home in the 19th century in Australia and America.  In it’s day this book would have given anyone who had basic schooling some kind of further education.  What I find fascinating about this book are the sections related the to the visual arts and crafts, particularly with regard to women.

The frontispiece depicts a goddess figure holding a torch with the words “knowledge is power.”  It was a way to improve your life whether you lived in a city or the country.  This book contains all kinds of information about business, law, agriculture, the domestic domains, leisure activities and general knowledge on many subjects, as well as social etiquette.  It is full of detailed black and white illustrations and is very much a depiction of the ideal life more than a century ago.

There is a whole section in The Universal Self Instructor devoted to handwriting.  It was considered important to be able to write well.  The cursive script is beautiful and would have taken pains to master.  Flourishes and images were added to documents so it was a real art.  Today, unless you are a calligrapher, many people’s handwriting has definitely deteriorated probably due to the constant use of keyboards and the ballpoint pen.  Inside the Self-Instructors cover is a beautiful example of handwriting done by it’s first owner.

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The book is all about rules and shows how restrictive it must have during that period. There are whole sections on social etiquette.  Life was a minefield of manners that included etiquette for introductions, visiting, conversation, public places, clothes, marriage, birth and death, the carriage trip, riding, debuts into society and entertaining. Nothing was relaxed.

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The situation that amused me was the visit to an artist’s studio or gallery exhibition. Artists had reception days when ladies could “pay their respects” to artist friends and were to be on their best behavior.  Pushing in front of others to view a work (something that is really annoying today), talking loudly and laughing were all considered extremely rude and you must never ask if a work is for sale unless you wish to buy it, which seems a bit stupid given that artists are not always great at selling their creations.  In galleries negative comments about the works should be kept to a low voice in case the artist is nearby and you should not linger in front of a work for too long.  Adherence to such etiquette today would make visits to crowded exhibitions a lot more enjoyable and artist’s would feel more comfortable if they did not have to listen to any uniformed criticism.  So not all etiquette is obsolete and without merit.

By the look of the accompanying illustration it was assumed that the professional artist was a man.  Women and girls were expected to keep to the domestic circle.  Girls were to be discouraged from being idle. To quote:

“Girls are very apt to fall into a habit of lounging about doing nothing, gaping out of the windows or napping on the sofas.”

Sounds a lot like teenage boy behavior as well but there is no mention of this.

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To keep them busy, Girls (and boys) were encouraged to learn drawing and painting for pleasure.  It was also a way to decorate the home.  Suitable activities for girls were to paint china, greeting cards, furniture, book covers, and silk for clothing.  Many ordinary women must have produced some beautiful creative artworks, often as a way to save money.

One of our female ancestors was a talented painter who took oil painting classes for young ladies at an artist’s studio in the 1880s.  She did some large paintings of landscapes.  I have included a photo of a small oil painting that she did on glass and a large seascape of Cape Schanck in Victoria (my photo does not do the latter justice as I was teetering on a ladder and kept wobbling).   Unfortunately after she was married and had children she did not continue with her art.   She was probably not taken seriously or encouraged to become a professional artist.  There are a couple of tiny painted china plates in the first photo that were probably considered a more acceptable pursuit for women in that era.

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Needle point items, pressed flowers and moulded bread dough flowers would have been typical crafts of the period

There are all kinds of suggestions for appropriate craft activities for women and girls. Of course there is embroidery, lace work, knitting, crotchet, patchwork and dressmaking, all  popular textile crafts.   There are also crafts such as creating scrapbooks, molding coloured wax flowers and fruit and the making of trifles (not the dessert).  Trifles were attractive but fairly useless little novelty gifts made to pass the time.  Inside the Self-Instructor, which is quite a tome, I found some dried flower petals pressed by a previous owner.  I wonder if they were for the creation of some “trifle.”

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Pressed flowers found in our copy of The Universal Self-Instructor

Another craft mentioned and probably long gone is “wall pockets,” decorative baskets lined with odds and ends of fabric, filled with dried flowers and foliage, tied with ribbons and attached to the wall (more like dust traps and spider homes to me).   Such gentille activities would have only been possible for middle class women and girls who were not forced by their circumstances to work long hours in underpaid jobs.

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A beautifully illustrated poem by Longfellow

Poetry is included in the book.  There are a few by women poets, like American Magaret E Sangster, and this would have been an inspiration to young girls who loved to write poetry and demonstrated that they could also become writers.

The Universal Self-Instructor conveys an idealized view of the period, but for ordinary people who did not possess many books or have the means for further education, it would have been a valuable asset.   It was like having access to the Internet in its day and opened up a world of possibilities in all kinds of fields for many people.

It’s a fascinating book and I hope it inspired some girls, as well as boys, to pursue their dreams in the arts despite the social restrictions.   With all our modern freedoms, resources and technology there is nothing to prevent us from living an artistic life.

Kat

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