Self-culture in the 1890s

self-culture in the 1890s

Professor Elisabeth Bardwell dreaming big

The pandemic has forced us all to reflect on how we choose to fill our schedules. Where our problem in 2019 may have been a lack of hours in the day, now it seems our days are never-ending. Everything’s felt a bit like a vague blob, but that’s encouraged me to find new ways to leverage my indoor environment. I’ve painted more canvases in the last few months than I did during my 20s. And while I’ve always been a keen reader, I find myself craving the refuge of literature more and more. That quest to dig in brought me back to one of my favorite reference books, Manners, Culture and Dress.

This book was published in 1891 and my particular copy was handed down from my great-grandmother to my grandmother and finally to me. I’m always intrigued how the advice can seem so timely despite the massive gap in generations. One chapter in particular caught my eye today: self-culture. So let’s answer the question, what would our great-grandmothers do during this period of introspection? Join us on a quick spin through self-culture in the 1890s and let me know how it informs your self-care in the 2020s…

One of the first concepts the author introduces is balance. “Self-culture may be divided into three classes – the physical, the intellectual, and the moral. Neither must be developed exclusively” (Wells 205). Turns out being a well-rounded person has always been in vogue (whether you are riding around town in a barouche or a Tesla!).

The next concept is one that we hear a lot about these days, and it’s proof that our ancestors worried about this too – how to make the most out of our available time. But for the reader in the 1890s this quest wasn’t efficiency just for efficiency’s sake, it was being intentional with your time and lifting yourself up with your efforts. Here are some choice quotes that inspire me:

“It is astonishing how much may be accomplished in self-training by the energetic and persevering, who are careful to use fragments of spare time which the idle permit to run to waste” (Wells 205).

“One must believe in himself if he would have others believe in him. To think meanly of one’s self is to sink in his own estimation” (Wells 205).

“Set a high price on your leisure moments. They are sands of precious gold. Properly expended, they will procure for you a stock of great thoughts – thoughts that will fill, stir, and invigorate and expand your soul” (Wells 206).

Expanding on this notion of purpose, the author introduces another tried-and-true theme: put in the work. Under the sub-section of study he shares another inspirational tale. “Franklin, the printer’s boy, did not become Franklin, the philosopher and statesman, by reading only, but by study; and we do not hear of his studying under teachers and of being guided by them, for, like many of us, he did not possess these high advantages, but his education progressed under the supervision of his own mind. He had to feel his way along, and to correct his own errors ever and anon as the dawning of fresh light enabled him to see them, and you may do the same; you, with few acquirements now, and few opportunities, may, if you only will it, become as useful and eminent a man as Franklin. But you must work for it” (Wells 208).

Dear reader, if you are feeling a tad overwhelmed by this undertaking you aren’t alone and the author has considered your feelings. Wells goes on to say: “Any one to become great through his own exertions has undertaken a large contract. But the perspective of this superstructure looks larger and more formidable than it is in reality. One is likely to look at a successful life rounded out and complete, and then measure his own life by this model. He must not say – ‘I cannot do as these men do,’ but rather – ‘I should try to do what they have done.’ These models, whose memories are finger-posts for a succeeding generation, did not become such by accident, nor by a single leap. No! they rose by successive, single degrees, each of which was wrought out by sweating brow and aching muscle” (Wells 208-209).

During this age of social media and photoshop, it is easier than ever to fall into the trap of comparisons. It’s a game no one wins and it only seeks to destroy your own happiness. People in the Victorian age didn’t have to deal with Instagram faux-perfection, but they knew a thing or two about putting on airs. So rather than comparing yourself to the proverbial Joneses, work hard on big dreams! I really like what Wells says about the mirage of big leaps. Keep on taking steps in the right direction, even if it feels like the tiniest step – it’s all good! So tell me, dear reader, now that you’ve had your 1890s pep talk, what are you going to tackle today? Share your dreams with us in the comments…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments will be subject to approval by a moderator. Comments may fail to be approved or may be edited if the moderator deems that they:

  • contain unsolicited advertisements ("spam")
  • are unrelated to the subject matter of the post or of subsequent approved comments
  • contain personal attacks or abusive/gratuitously offensive language