Victorian Literature Material Culture
Deborah Wynne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0041


Material culture is a broad term covering all aspects of the material world, including clothing, household goods, tools, buildings, roads, books, periodicals, photographs, paintings, museums, and ornaments. In other words, material culture encompasses everything which involves the design, manufacture, and use of the material world. The Victorian period coincided with the development of mass production, the industrial revolution transforming Britain from a rural economy to an urban industrialized nation. Social historians of the period have long explored the abundance of products generated by the industrial revolution; however, there has in recent years been a growing interest in the study of commodity cultures and consuming practices. These have generated new areas of debate in literary studies, resulting in examinations of representations of material culture in the work of Victorian writers. From the industrial novels of Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Dickens, and Elizabeth Gaskell to the work of John Ruskin, William Morris and Walter Pater, Victorians engaged in complex ways with the diversity of material cultural forms, whether cheap cotton goods, handmade crafts, or the art and architecture of the period. Research has also moved toward examinations of the global exchange of goods between Britain and its Empire, the display of artifacts in the newly built museums of Victorian London, the development of retail centers in towns and cities, the advertisements of goods in periodicals and on the streets, the cultural role of the fashion industry, representations of objects in literature, design reform movements such as Arts and Crafts, the Victorian home, the collection of objects and collecting practices along with other human interactions with the material world. Research on Victorian literature and material culture often engages with a range of disciplines, including social history and cultural studies.

General Overviews

The student of Victorian literature’s engagement with material culture would find it helpful to explore important general studies that, while not necessarily focused on the Victorian period, offer useful paradigms for thinking about the role of things in human culture. Appadurai 1986 is a much cited collection of interdisciplinary essays that have inspired literary critical work in numerous ways. While none of the essays in this collection is based on Victorian literature, each demonstrates the complexity of material cultural studies in a range of cultural and national contexts. Tilley, et al. 2006 also offers invaluable short introductory essays on ways of approaching material culture. These essays cover such topics as collecting, photography, “biographical objects,” and museums. Trentmann 2009 offers an excellent introduction to the interdisciplinary nature of material cultural studies, highlighting the limitations of some approaches and suggesting areas for future development. Steedman 2001 is a historical study based on the concept of the archive and covers a range of historical sources, including literature, to discuss the importance of material culture in the 19th century. Of particular relevance to students of Victorian culture are Briggs 1988, written by a prominent historian; Mills 2008, which contains essays that explore literary contexts; and Victorian Web, which combines historical, literary, and cultural approaches to the material culture of the past.

  • Appadurai, Arjun, ed. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    An important and influential collection of interdisciplinary essays demonstrating the role of material culture in social and cultural life.

  • Briggs, Asa. Victorian Things. London: B. T. Batsford, 1988.

    An early but still useful historical account of the plethora of manufactured objects in Victorian social life.

  • Mills, Victoria, ed. “Special Issue: Victorian Fiction and the Material Imagination.” Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 6 (2008).

    A special issue of the free online journal presenting a selection of interdisciplinary essays relating to 19th-century material culture. Offers a good introduction to the field of material cultural studies.

  • Steedman, Carolyn. Dust. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2001.

    Contains eight chapters exploring historical approaches to the material world in relation to “archivization.” The chapter “What a Rag Rug Means” offers a useful example of using theory to approach Victorian material culture.

  • Tilley, Chris, Webb Keane, Susanne Kuchler, Mike Rowlands, and Patricia Spyer, eds. Handbook of Material Culture. London: SAGE, 2006.

    Presents a wide range of short essays on all aspects of material culture studies. While most essays do not specifically cover the Victorian period, this book does offer useful guidance on ways of theorizing and approaching the study of objects.

  • Trentmann, Frank. “Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics.” Journal of British Studies 48 (April 2009): 283–307.

    DOI: 10.1086/596123

    An important and readable essay urging critics to move beyond studies of commodity culture to engage with “material politics” in wider contexts.

  • Victorian Web.

    A useful online resource with discussions of Victorian material culture via the Technology, Visual Arts, and Social History links.

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