Perceptions of Class in Food and Clothing – George Hills

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Advertisement produced by F Allen and Sons Confectionery in 1880, an intriguing insight into perceptions of perceived class (I)

 Advertisements, such as the image above produced by F. Allen and Sons Cocoa and Chocolate Confectionery Works in 1880, can be particularly useful as a means of determining how class was perceived during the Victorian period. In this instance, we have an insight into the ways in which class was perceived during the late 1800s and, given the theme of this particular page, we also have an insight into the ways in which food and clothing can form part of that perception of class and identity. Of importance here is the advertiser – a company analysing its target audience with the image above being the result with two families depicted, one clearly comfortable and enjoying “prosperity” and the other confined to a life of poverty and apparent misery. From the ways in which both families – or one could say, perhaps, more accurately, “classes” – are depicted, the creator of the advertisement shows us a family in poverty that is dressed in scruffy clothing with no visible comforts in the way of luxurious items or food, whereas the prospering family has apparently earned the various luxuries depicted. This simple comparison provides much more to be analysed, however, with the finer details offering a more developed insight into ideas of class and identity when combined with the historical context of Victorian poverty in the late 1800s.

One detail that deserves closer inspection is the apparent class divide portrayed.  The late 1880s were a period of changing attitudes towards the poorer classes; however that is not to say that changing attitudes spread throughout the nation as soon as they were realised by their respective investigators.[1] The poor were no longer being marginalised as “people of the abyss”, vagrants, unemployed and destitute; however that does not seem the case for the creators of the advertisement[2]. The poor family is hardly depicted as a family of vagrants, but the idleness is highlighted vividly in comparison with the prospering family. With this contrast, the advert almost casts aside the plight of the poorer family as though they are simply not fit for purchasing such a luxurious consumable as this chocolate produced by F. Allen and Sons.

Advertisement 2
Another example of F Allen and Sons Advertising (II)

The use of the words “temperance” and “intemperance” are of particular note also, as temperance in this context would be taken to mean restraint or moderation, suggesting that the poorer family has simply squandered any and all comforts in life as a result of their idleness, either due to unemployment or wasting income on other indulgences such as alcohol. The presence of a tankard in the poor man’s hand is an indicator of the issue of alcohol within the family, further playing upon the assumption that the family’s resources have been spurned upon the wrong desires[1]. The prospering family, in its clean and warm environment, have clearly invested their efforts and income wisely, therefore allowing the family to earn the desirable products of F Allen and Sons as a reward for their apparent wisdom. In this regard, the lower class is portrayed as wasteful and ignorant of the luxuries one could afford with a little restraint and care for the upper class values portrayed within the prospering family – the man and woman look educated, smart and clean, the children well cared for and all of them apparently well fed. This is in stark contrast to the reality of the time on a nutritional basis – the food and drink consumed by individuals within the Victorian period, regardless of class, posed significant health risks to the consumer by modern standards.[2] This was hardly common knowledge for such people, however, particularly within the lower classes.[3]

The clothing, however, requires further analysis within the wider context of class and identity. The wealthier family is hardly sporting radically different attire to that of the poorer family, rather the wealthier family is portrayed as the “elite” version of the poorer family, as though all poor families are capable of earning a life of luxury if certain measures are taken. We are, of course, only gaining a limited insight into the lives of such families with only a single advertisement for one product, but in that sense, we are instead offered a microcosm of an upper class looking down upon the lower. Such a viewpoint is represented by the clothing of the individuals depicted, for there is little else to base assumption upon regarding the nature of the persons shown for the viewers of the advertisement. Considering the appalling reality of housing for the lowest classes, particularly in the slum housing that housed so many of London’s poorest residents during the Victorian era, the dwelling of the poorer family looks rather flattering.[4]

Product Details
A print detailing the products and prices of F Allen and Sons Confectionery, produced in 1886 (III)

In this regard, the clothing of the individuals becomes much more noticeable for inspection as the creators of the advertisement could have applied a much more vivid depiction of life in poverty. Upon inspection of the clothing, the poorer family sports patchy, worn and dirty clothes devoid of colour, adding to the sombre image presented of poverty compared to the bright and warm scene featuring the more luxurious family.  These are not people one should aspire to be like, it is almost a warning for the upper classes – live an upper class lifestyle with economic and social control and you will be rewarded with more than just chocolate. For the poorer family, this outcome seems beyond them, further emphasising the gulf between the classes shown, indicative of the class divide apparently evident in the subconscious of the upper classes of the time.

As an image of identity, the advertisement provides very valuable insight into the class divide between the rich and the poor, at the same time making evident the social differences between the wealthy and the impoverished.  The impoverished are a forgotten people who have apparently squandered their chances of a desirable living altogether. The poor family looks beaten, with no apparent means to extract themselves from the poverty that they have found themselves in. There is no sympathy for the poor either; their only purpose seems to be to serve a caricature to attract the attention of the wealthier consumers purchasing products from the confectionery. These are not people to be remembered – it can also be argued that they are not even to be viewed as living beings at all, but a lifestyle to be avoided through middle class ideals of temperance and healthy living.

George Hills

References

[1] Hopkins, E., A Social History of the English Working Classes 1815-1945 (London: Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd., 1979), p. 206.

[2] Searle, G.E., A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) p. 94.

[3] Englander, D., Poverty and Poor Law Reform in 19th Century Britain, 1834-1914: From Chadwick to Booth (Oxon: Routledge, 2013) p. 24.

[4] Evans, E.J., The Shaping of Modern Britain, Identity, Industry and Empire, 1780-1914 (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2011) p. 425.

[5] Evans, The Shaping of Modern Britain, p. 425.

[6] Searle, A New England?, p. 191.

Images

(I) Advertisement for a product of ‘F. Allen & Sons Chocolate and Confectionery Works’ c. 1880, obtained from the website of the British Library, available online: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/evanion/Record.aspx?EvanID=024-000002444&ImageIndex=0

(II) Product details of ‘F. Allen & Sons Chocolate and Confectionery Works’ c, obtained from the website of the British Library, available online: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/evanion/Results.aspx?SearchType=Heading&ID=660

(III) Product details of ‘F. Allen & Sons Chocolate and Confectionery Works’ c. 1884, obtained from the website of the British Library, available online: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/evanion/Record.aspx?EvanID=024-000002600&ImageIndex=0

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