The USA: Early Victoriana

In the decade between the late 1840s and the late 1850s, the face of the United States was changing, politically, socially, economically.  What was going on?

The USA: In the 1840s and 1850s

Whether Queen Victoria was British or not, she was popular in the United States and her influence would be felt strongly.  Early Victoriana was the epitome of gemultlichkeit, a German word (thank Prince Albert) denoting the pleasures of a warm family life.

In 1849, the country celebrated its sixtieth anniversary since George Washington was inaugurated as president.   The railroad had been invented a decade earlier, which literally changed the face of the country.  Rail lines were being built at breakneck speed (all things considered), connecting the major cities along the east coast.  Agricultural goods were being brought directly to the shipyards.  Commerce was booming.  Steamship travel was practically old hat by then.


Men of the mid-nineteenth century, frock coated, top hatted and very dapper.

Samuel Morse had just perfected his amazing telegraph system so people could send messages through the air – and have them received seconds later a hundred miles away.

Gold had been discovered in California!  The likelihood that the country would truly enjoy its manifest destiny, reaching from sea to shining sea, was becoming a reality.

The Presidency in Early Victoriana

In the decade since the age of Andrew Jackson, the role of the President itself had shifted, however.  A strong President, one who would chart the course of a nation, was not what the country seemed to want.  Indeed, between Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt seven decades later, with the exception of Lincoln (who was a complete surprise), the Presidents were hardly spectacular leaders.  Few of them are even remembered.

Most of the nominees and candidates at that time were selected not for the leadership at all (other than military), but for their “availability.”  This meant they led respectable business and personal lives, paid their political party dues (metaphorically speaking), and most importantly, came from the right geographical part of the country and had not incurred any powerful enemies.  As the country splintered more and more over the slavery and secession issues, it became harder and harder to find acceptable candidates.

Since men usually choose wives of similar stations and dispositions, those mid-nineteenth century First Ladies were exactly what was expected:  exemplary wives and mothers, content to remain in the background.  They had not been educated or exposed to the cosmopolitan experiences of Elizabeth Monroe or Louisa Adams, who had spent years in European capitals.  According to historian Betty Boyd Caroli, some of the subsequent First Ladies lacked some of the training in etiquette and protocol that the growing Washington population deemed important.  Thus some of the presidents’ wives chose to abdicate their public roles, rather than bear the brunt of “society.”

US Women in the Early Victoriana

1840 fashions

Women of the mid-nineteenth century, decorous, modest and very correct.

While there were always women who worked the fields, pioneered the west, wrote poetry, tended to their husbands’ business or otherwise made a huge impact on daily life, most women did not.   The “successful” man wanted his wife to be reasonably educated and reasonably civic-minded, but to focus primarily on providing a contented home and family, seeing to their comforts.  While most middle class women were educated alongside their brothers, “higher” education for women was a rarity, and opportunities for accomplishment outside the home were even more rare.  Women pursued their traditional roles, and thus women became more dependent on social influences for their personal happiness.

Some of them would find outlets in espousing abolition.  Or temperance.  Or (shudder) votes for women.  But it would take decades for their influence to be felt.


Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995


About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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