Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Prudery and Pianos – a Victorian Myth

Every once and a while I hear an odd story that Victorians were so very modest and prudish that they wouldn’t show their ankles or mention the word “leg” and that they covered piano legs with little drawers so as to not offend. Even as a young teenager I didn’t buy into the Victorian prudery myth. They were still having a lot of kids weren’t they? Victorian fashions, as varied as they were, all strove to exaggerate and accentuate the female form. I would expect a prudish society to hide bust lines and hips under lose sacks not make veritable billboards pointing them out. So, I set out on a hunt to uncover the origins of the myth. I expected a long and convoluted trail given the span of years but instead quickly found what seems to be the origin.

In 1839 Englishman Frderick Marryat published a three volume work detailing his travels in America, A diary in America: with remarks on its institutions. In volume one he wrote:
“They object to everything nude in statuary. When I was at the house of Governor Everett, at Boston, I observed a fine cast of the Apollo Belvidere ; but in compliance with general opinion, it was hung with drapery, although Governor Everett himself is a gentleman of refined mind and high classical attainments, and quite above such ridiculous sensitiveness. In language it is the same thing. There are certain words which are never used in America, but an absurd substitute is employed. I cannot particularize them after this preface, lest I should be accused of indelicacy myself. I may, however, state one little circumstance which will fully prove the correctness of what I say.

When at Niagara Falls I was escorting a young lady with whom I was on friendly terms. She had been standing on a piece of rock, the better to view the scene, when she slipped down, and was evidently hurt by the fall: she had, in fact, grazed her shin. As she limped a little in walking home, I said, "Did you hurt your leg much ?" She turned from me, evidently much shocked, or much offended,—and not being aware that I had committed any very heinous offence, I begged to know what was the reason of her displeasure. After, some hesitation, she said that as she knew me Well, she would tell me that the word leg was never mentioned before ladies. I apologized for my want of refinement, which was attributable to having been accustomed only to English society; and added, that as such articles must occasionally be referred to, even in the most polite circles in America, perhaps she would inform me by what name I might mention them without shocking the company. Her reply was, that the word limb was used ; " nay," continued she, "I am not so particular as some people are, for I know those who always say limb of a table, or limb of a piano-forte."

There the conversation dropped ; but a few months afterwards I was obliged to acknowledge that the young lady was correct when she asserted that some people were more particular than even she was.

I was requested by a lady to escort her to a seminary for young ladies, and on being ushered into the reception-room, conceive my astonishment at beholding a square piano-forte with four limbs. However, that the ladies who visited their daughters might feel in its full force the extreme delicacy* of the mistress of the establishment, and her care to preserve in their utmost purity the ideas of the young ladies under her charge, she had dressed all these four limbs in modest little trousers) with frills at the bottom of them !”

The first red flag for me is the date, 1839. A very few years earlier most dresses were worn with skirts above the ankle, work dresses even shorter. Through the 40’s genre paintings show women in work dress with their ankles and even lower calves showing. They are not depicting fallen women, they are showing respectable mothers and wives. Even as women’s fashions changed and their skirts feel nearer to the floor girls and teens still wore shorter skirts.

Was uttering the word “leg” really taboo? I’ve always found this notion amusing. Imagine trying not to use it – have a limb of lamb for dinner. I haven’t ever noticed any creative use of English in an attempt to explain “leg” without saying it. Did they prefer “limb”? I doubt it. In a very unscientific study….I searched Googlebooks for the complete reign of Queen Victoria. “leg” was used in 36,000 volumes and “limb” in only 21,300. Yes, quite unscientific. But the difference seems to much to be explained away by chance.

So, am I right that it’s a myth or are we to believe those who perpetuate it as truth? How are we to interpret the passage, why would he write this is it wasn’t true? Taken out of context, by someone not well versed in the era, I can see someone buying into it, maybe. Of course taking a passage out of context can contort all manner of things. A closer look at Marryat’s work show a hefty dose of British wit, aka, satire. In fact just two years later Tait's Edinburgh magazine said in “Miss Sedgwick’s letters from to abroad to kindred at home:
“There are, however, many degrees between the ultra-delicacy of the American lady, who, according to the facetious Marryat, furnished the legs of her piano with nice little decent frilled trousers, and the natural feelings of Miss Sedgwick, who enters as strong a protest against the ballet as her mother may have done against the waltz”
Granted, Tait’s doled out sarcasm in generous heaps. But, this passage ends a larger passage telling about how shocked American women were by the ‘vulgarity” of the ballet. If poking fun at American women they wouldn’t then pull back on the sarcasm, making fun of the Americans was (is) a British hobby.

The notion showed up very sporadically in fictional works through the era. Every single one I found was describing some scene set not to the ninth degree but something done even more over the top.

For a time Victorians did have a penchant for covering all manner of things with pieces of muslin or other plain cloth (likely to protect from bugs or the ever-present ash and dust). Looking glasses, frames, brass items and upholstered furniture all come to mind. I've found no references to covering any part of a piano aside from draping a very decorative large shawl over it, more to show off the shawl than anything else.

Still reading but still not believing that this is a myth? Here's a challenge: find me images - photographs, paintings, home interior how-to's, fashion plates, etc. that show a piano with little leg coverings. Just make sure it's not accompanying a bit of satire written by some Brit trying to pick on the upstart Americans,

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