The Victorian era, 1837-1901, is characterised as the domestic age par excellence, epitomised by Queen Victoria, who came to represent a kind of femininity which was centred on the family, motherhood and respectability. Accompanied by her beloved husband Albert, and surrounded by her many children in the sumptuous but homely surroundings of Balmoral Castle, Victoria became an icon of late-19th-century middle-class femininity and domesticity.
Indeed, Victoria came to be seen as the very model of marital stability and domestic virtue. Her marriage to Albert represented the ideal of marital harmony. She was described as ‘the mother of the nation’, and she came to embody the idea of home as a cosy, domestic space. When Albert died in 1861 she retreated to her home and family in preference to public political engagements.
Queen Victoria was a supporter and promoter of embroidery and domestic crafts.
There is a very interesting video on Royal baby clothing at the Museum of London that includes a pair of shoes that Queen Victoria embroidered.
Following Victoria’s lead the middle and upper class ladies devoted much of their time to needlework which had evolved from a craft to a feminine accomplishment which signified gentility.
Idleness was considered frivolous and profitable use of a lady’s time was morally important. Fancywork was a display of genteel industry.
In the 19th century the creation and giving of a handmade gift was the ultimate expression of feminine arts and an important ritual.
Embroidered gifts were made for births, marriages and birthdays. They were also given to celebrate the New Year. Fancywork manuals and magazine devoted sections to the production of the homemade gift. Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1847 advised their readers
“Not the most costly present bought with money would be so highly prized as the delicate trifle made by the fair hand that presents it”
Queen Victoria’s childhood diary notes that she gave a pin cushion to her governess and and received a pincushion from her maid. When she became Queen she continued to make needlework gifts. All her daughters handmade gifts for family birthdays and Christmas.
The Lady’s Manual of Fancywork (1859) lists suitable items for presents. A pdf of the BOOK is available to view.
Despite its age it is still an interesting book packed full of information on “Ornamental Embroidery”
Today in the age of commercialism when stores are constantly promoting gifts for one holiday or another it is easy to overlook the importance of the homemade gift.The pleasures of giving and receiving homemade gifts are many. They are a gift of affection, imagination and creativity. Gifts that show time was put into them are the most meaningful.