Culture & Society

The nineteenth century was a time of great social change. In both Britain and the United States, increased industrialization brought about a massive shift in the population from the countryside to the towns and cities and a rise in consumerism. Positioned between landowners and laborers, the rising middle class sought to share in the pursuits of the leisured class and to demonstrate their gentility and good taste through the decoration of their homes.

As sewing machines became more affordable and widely available in the middle of the century, women spent less time on essential household sewing and more in genteel pursuits such as fancywork and embroidery. The many women who had joined the work force in offices, shops, and factories could purchase ready-made clothing.

The Victorians had a passion for collecting, and displays of ceramics, textiles, and other objects became an important part of interior decoration and markers of status amongst the middle classes. Though they could not afford the more expensive antiques found in aristocratic homes, they could purchase exotic imports including ornamental needlework. Such goods were sold at affordable prices through outlets such as Liberty’s of London in the United Kingdom, and Sears and Roebuck in the United States.  

Magazines and periodicals were a valuable means of guidance in matters pertaining to the home. Written by, and primarily for, women, the literature was full of advice on all aspects of home decoration, though the advice given was frequently quite prescriptive. In line with the Aesthetes, an "oriental corner" was considered the height of good taste.

Crazy patchwork provided a vehicle through which a woman could demonstrate her engagement in genteel pursuits. It also provided her with the opportunity to engage with consumer culture and collect a variety of wares. The patchwork, made with luxury fabrics, ribbons, and embellishments, and often including "oriental" references, was the perfect object to be displayed in the parlor or boudoir to demonstrate her sophistication.