With its newest exhibit, the Centre County Historical Society looks at what life was like for woman in our area during the years leading up to the Civil War. “The Veiled Arts of Victorian Women” is a fascinating examination of the unique etiquette, social codes and so-called tools of the trade that defined how a middle-class woman would raise her family and attend to her daily life in central Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s.
Looking through the lenses of the influential Centre County couple Moses and Mary Irvin Thompson, who raised their family at the Centre Furnace Mansion during that time period, the exhibit details the lengths aristocratic families of the area would go to in order meet the new and evolving manners that have been echoing with the upper crust throughout the country. Everyday practices, including home decorating, party planning and food storage, began to take new meaning and spoke volumes about the family and the way they were perceived.
“The exhibit came from an effort to utilize some of the collections of Centre County Historical Society and those of our committee members,” said Mary Sorensen, executive director of the Centre County Historical Society. “We had just received a gift of a new set of china said to be from Gov. James Beaver (1887-1891), and that inspired us to start thinking about table settings and the various sorts of specialty silver serving and dinnerware of the Victorian period. It then evolved into looking at etiquette manuals and the other roles of women in the management of their households.”
“Of the traditions that have lasted, and some people will debate that these are also on the way out, are things like holding the door for someone and not visiting someone at their home without first contacting them,” said Olivia Perdew, a State College native and senior at Penn State majoring in integrative arts who has been interning with the CCHS for the past three years. “But, during the Victorian period, you would have never just arrived at their house without establishing some sort of plan ahead of time.”
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While some of these customs are still prevalent and perhaps are even begrudgingly practiced today, there are even more that have been swept away in favor of more practical and compassionate.
“A lot of the enjoyment in researching this exhibit came from reading the etiquette manuals and learning about the things that we don’t do anymore, especially with children,” Perdew said. “One really interesting quote from an etiquette manual was ‘If the child is old enough to be brought to the table, they may be expected to sit quietly and eat their food neatly.’ So, this idea that a kid will be at the high-chair throwing food on the floor was simply unacceptable in Victorian America, where today we wouldn’t be surprised at all to have that happen at dinner.”
Of course this movement and newfound way of life wasn’t exclusive just to Centre County, but was happening all across the United States, especially in the northeast. However, much like today, there were differences between the ways that rural women approached this way of thinking that separated them from their urban contemporaries.
“I think that the Thompsons offers us a unique perspective because they were living in rural Pennsylvania and they weren’t necessarily experiencing the social atmosphere that was apparent in Philadelphia and New York at this time,” Perdew said. “But they were affluent enough to have their own expectations while they were also socializing with people who had similar expectations.”
“The women in Centre County probably weren’t beholden to as strict of rules as they were in the more urban areas,” Sorensen said.
With a range of materials designed to further engage those who are curious, the Centre County Historical Society is well-equipped to provide an unparalleled peek at the origins that helped make us.
“I think that we often have a rosy picture of the past and we think of it as life being so easy where the women sat at home and drank tea, but it wasn’t,” Perdew said. “It was complicated and you had to worry about preserving food for the winter and how they interacted in society and what was on the table. ... There was a lot of knowledge that was required and I don’t think that we really have an appreciation for that today.”