Everybody loves a Victorian-era house. It’s hard not to be charmed by such a big and boisterous creation, and to be sure, Victorians had many good qualities. Spaciousness was certainly one. Another was the almost incredible amount of effort lavished on their famously ornate detailing. And there’s always something appealing in a building that expresses such confidence in its own time.
Yet often overlooked in the haze of nostalgia is the reason why Victorian architecture plummeted from favor toward the end of the 19th century, and why it was held in contempt for another six decades thereafter. And lurking in that story is a lesson that’s even more applicable to the new homes of our own time.
The Victorian house, with its towering scale and almost fanatical devotion to surface ornament, was a child of the industrial revolution. For one, the introduction of automatic machinery around the mid-19th century meant that moldings and countless other decorative doodads could now be mass-produced for pennies rather than being laboriously produced by hand. This put elaborate ornament–once an exclusive emblem of wealth–within reach of the working class for the first time.
Meanwhile, a new machine that mass-produced nails from wire coil did away with the trouble and expense of hand-wrought square nails. Wire nails, in turn, went hand-in-hand with balloon framing, a revolutionary construction technique developed in Chicago during the 1830s. Balloon framing replaced the costly and cumbersome post-and-beam construction in use since Colonial times with relatively thin, light pieces of lumber–today’s familiar two-by-fours.
These expedients made it possible to build houses faster, cheaper, and also larger and more elaborate than ever before. Predictably, putting such once-unattainable luxuries within reach of millions quickly resulted in a popular mania for large, ornately decorated houses.
Yet toward the end of the 19th century, the very traits that people had coveted in their new homes–vast size and elaborate detail–engendered a powerful backlash. Even at Victorian era’s peak, a vocal minority led by John Ruskin had decried its architecture as clumsy and vulgar, and this view now began to prevail. Housewives and social critics alike began agitating for smaller, more practical and easier-to-maintain homes. Architectural pattern books were soon ridiculing Victorian clutter while touting the latest thing in simple, modest, and clean-lined homes–the soon-to-be ubiquitous bungalow.
By the century’s end, gimcrack-laden Victorians were already seen as hopelessly crass, and this sea change in taste, combined with their nightmarish maintenance demands, soon left these houses decaying and despised. Only a revival of interest during the 1960s–long after many of the best examples had been demolished–managed to rehabilitate Victorian architecture’s dreadful reputation.
Needless to say, today’s housing trend in many ways retraces that of Victorian times. Ornament is once again cheap, thanks to plastic moldings, fake columns, and the like, which make it easy for builders to put a glitzy “Beverly Hillbillies” sheen on their increasingly bulked-up creations.
Today’s houses are built bigger because it’s easy to do and because, like the Victorians, today’s home buyers seem convinced that a huge house is that much better a modest one.
We Americans are notoriously bad at learning from history, and no doubt we’ll slog through this whole inevitable cycle all over again, until we finally rediscover what the Victorians had already taught us.
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