The Thinking 

The Victorian Legacy in San Francisco

August 23, 2012



JANE S. writes:

San Francisco plays up its Victorian heritage for all it’s worth. Victoriana is big business there. The word “Victorian” always means something good whenever it’s applied to buildings or Christmas cards or pastries. Victorian architectural treasures are lovingly restored and endlessly photographed. There are Victorian house tours, Victorian fairs, Victorian tea rooms, Victorian B&Bs, societies that host Victorian balls, shops that sell Victorian bric-a-brac, and places where you can dress up in Victorian costumes and get your picture taken.

Used in the context of social attitudes, especially sexual mores, however, the word “Victorian” always means something bad. People don’t seem to connect the dots between the mindset of a period and its cultural products. They don’t think maybe the one was necessary to produce the other.

San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury was the Northern California mecca for the hippie movement. San Franciscans are constantly celebrating the glory of the 60s, even though the Haight lost its glamour long ago. The good restaurants and clubs cleared out in the 1980s. Even the bowling alley closed. There is no scene, no nightlife, and nothing interesting going on. The area no longer attracts artists, musicians, or creative young entrepreneurs.

Haight Street itself is blighted with graffiti, drugs, crime, and gutter punks. The businesses there are mostly shops that sell clothing, pot-smoking paraphernalia, and souvenirs, check-cashing places and bars. Tour buses will take you around to see where the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane lived. The gutter punks shoot heroin, urinate and defecate in doorways, and harass passersby. They are mostly white people in their 20s and 30s who live off handouts from tourists and handouts from taxpayers; they will almost certainly never get job training or learn to be productive. They’ll ask you for money and then snicker if you give it to them.

Haight Street ends at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco’s counterpart of New York’s Central Park, a beautiful place, except for the part that abuts the Haight, which has been transformed into a year-round junkie squat, ridden with crime, garbage, Third World-style disease outbreaks, all just a stone’s throw from the children’s playground and carousel. You don’t even want to walk through there, day or night.

San Francisco has made many futile attempts to get the gutter punks off Haight Street and out of Golden Gate Park. A couple of years ago, they spent millions of dollars passing a law that you can’t sit or lie on Haight Street; now, whenever the gutter punks see a cop car coming, they just stand up.

The Victorians, in spite of their horrid, stuffy, repressive attitude towards sex, nevertheless produced cultural goods that are still admired and used today. The Victorian era was one of the most colorful, raucous, freewheeling periods of San Francisco history.

San Francisco also still rides on the fumes of the 1969 Summer of Love, even though it produced nothing of lasting value or beauty. The only thing that keeps the Haight from sinking into an urban hellhole is the fact that the surrounding neighborhood is full of beautiful Victorians owned by wealthy people. That’s ironic, don’t you think?

—— Comments ——

Sibyl writes:

Jane made the good point that a culture’s artifacts are in keeping with its philosophy and mores. And I agree with that. However, the Victorian era was not a very good time to be a child. The Victorians of the early period still had massive rifts between rich and poor, with rich children being under the care of nannies and governesses, and poor children working desperately hard to survive in the new industrial order. The Victorian era was also the time of the empire, and one of high ideals, but family life was often completely deformed by the lack of direct parental care. Nannies, boarding schools, early military service, exploitative child labor and lower class orphanages were all common to this era.

So when I look at Victorian artifacts, especially the beautiful architecture, I often think of how this does not show the whole story. Surely home and family were commended, but in the same way that we today have such a concentration on babies and pregnancy — if you didn’t know better, you’d think that we were a culture that did truly value childhood.

Anyway, I don’t dispute that Victorian architecture is lovely, though.

Laura writes:

While the Victorian era was not without imperfections and defects, particularly its gradual embrace of a materialisic philosophy, it was an era that placed a high value on children. Aristocratic children may have had nannies but they had their mothers and fathers nearby too. They came from stable homes and often large families.

While there were parish workhouses in Britain there was also a strong horror of these places that resulted in public campaigns to close them and replace them with civilized schools. Many children worked but they also took pride in helping their families survive and most went onto to lead stable lives.

Childhood was recognized in the Victorian era, much more so than today, as a distinct period of innocence, as Neil Postman wrote in The Disappearance of Childhood. One of the major themes of Charles Dickens was the delicate moral sensibility of children and the need to safeguard it. His child characters were beset by villains but always had their protectors, such as Oliver Twist’s Mr. Brownlow.

Charles Booth, who spent 17 years researching and writing his voluminous Life and Labor of the People of London, begun in the 1880s, praised the family-centered lives of the city’s working poor. “The simple natural lives of the working-class people tend to their own and their children’s happiness more than the artificial complicated existence of the rich.”  (As quoted in Poverty and Compassion by Gertrude Himmelfarb.)

The population boomed during Victorian times, not because people were starving but because they were surviving, as a commenter points out in this entry.

The Victorian period saw an outpouring of literature specifically for children, including fairy tales, nursery rhymes, poetry and novels. Families were united by not just affection, but strong ideals. The family letters of the era are instructive. See this entry on the correspondence between the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and his parents.

 As Linda Lichter recounts in her book Simple Social Graces: Recapturing the Joys of Gracious Victorian Living,

[t]he Victorian view of parenthood sharply diverged from ours in its unbreachable bond to the sacraments of marriage and home…..

… In a letter to his wife, Nathaniel Hawthorne described a heart that “yearns, and throbs, abd burns with a hot fire, for thee, and for the children that have grown out of our love.” These sentiments were echoed by ordinary parents of the period. One woman referred to her child as a “tie to both our hearts” in a letter to her husband….

Not only did such deeply valued home-binding sentiments survive the grave, they infused daily domestic life in ways we can scarcely recall, even less, recapture. (pp. 241-242)

Lydia Sherman writes:

Regarding the view mentioned by Jane that the Victorians had “horrid, stuffy, repressive attitudes towards sex”, I believe that opinion is just an interpretation of the Victorian belief, which was common among Christians, that sex was acceptable and healthy only in the married state. In the late 1960s a rebellious generation called it stuffy, horrid and repressive, because it got in their way of doing whatever they wanted to do without the restraints of God’s laws. If the Victorians were at all snooty about it, it was usually in their disapproval of any intimacy outside the bonds or marriage. They also disliked talking of it in public. It was respected enough that they only spoke of it in private. The fact that so many of them married and had children indicates that they were not at all stuffy about it.

Jane S. writes:

I’m no expert in Victorian culture, only an appreciative admirer. But everything I’ve observed about it convinces me that the Victorians were extremely sensuous people.

The Victorian era was one of San Francisco’s most flamboyant periods, full of vigor, bold ideas and richness. I have no doubt, none whatsoever, that those people knew how to enjoy themselves behind closed doors, too. Yet, almost every discussion you hear about that period is along the lines of, “despite being boring prudes, the Victorians knew how to build beautiful houses.” “Boring prudes” being code language for “they thought sex should happen within marriage.”

The hippie era was a colorful, wild time, too, for a very short while, but it quickly degenerated into an orgy of drug use and that its only legacy. The hippies were the ones who made the Haight-Ashbury district famous, which has created the illusion that there was something gloriously wonderful about the 60s. But the only things left that attract visitors to that neighborhood in the present day–the Victorian houses and beautiful Golden Gate Park–were not produced by the hippies. Druggers who are dependent on social welfare and souvenirs like tie-dyed T-shirts–that is what the hippies left behind.

Jane S. writes:

Here’s an example from the website of the Victorian Alliance of San Francisco, “founded in 1973 by a group of concerned citizens living primarily in the Mission District where more and more Victorian homes were deteriorating or, worse, being systematically demolished. The neighborhood was quickly losing the beauty and gracious living that historic homes provide. San Francisco was also losing one of its internationally known neighborhoods as well as one of the important features that create the character of the City: Victorian architecture.

Two of the principal objectives of the founders was to raise awareness of the beauty and livability of Victorian homes and to preserve San Francisco’s architectural heritage. These objectives remain today as centerpieces of Victorian Alliance endeavors.”

Now, I would bet my bottom dollar that, when this group gets together, they don’t discuss the importance of Victorian sexual mores and I would bet even further that they don’t get it that the sexual mores had anything to do with the beauty and gracious living of the Victorian era. Left Coast elites admire San Francisco’s unique architectural heritage and want to preserve it, while at the same time ascribing to 60s era “if it feels good, do it” bumpersticker morality. George Orwell defined doublethink as the “act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in distinct social contexts.”

Say, on the other hand, you decide to devote yourself to preserving the beauty and gracious living of traditional culture by defending and upholding traditional values—say, for instance, by starting an elegant, thought-provoking blog called “The Thinking Housewife,”—people will sneer and call you a dangerous narrow-minded reactionary. I don’t believe the Victorian Alliance has any enemies. No one tells them, “Victorian architecture? Get over it.”

My point is, it isn’t difficult to teach people to admire the cultural goodies of the past. Getting them to understand that morality plays an essential role in a society’s cultural output—how do you go about that? I have no idea. I’ve tried it many times and haven’t succeed yet.

Mrs. Sherman writes:

Jane has it right: it escapes many people that the great accomplishments in art, architecture, transportation, invention, technology, etc. came from the so-called “repressed era” where people got married and had children. That they put their energies into enterprise, building cities, architecture, art, inventions, etc. is disconnected in many modern minds.

The hippies were open and “transparent” about sex, proclaiming loudly that the institution of marriage was a hypocritical farce. They then openly lived in sin and claimed it was right because it was honest and not hidden. Yet as Jane writes, they produced nothing of lasting cultural value except a few natural foods stores, beads and the peace sign, still flashed by balding hippies.

Observe the popular Victorian home decor magazines with beautiful restored Victorian style homes or new homes decorated in the Victorian style. The owners are in love with the beautiful style of the houses and all the interior embellishments from the era. The women who own these homes are photographed wearing jeans and tee shirts, shaved, spikey hairstyles, tattoos and other garish things that do not represent the Victorians at all. To me, it is as if they are saying to the past generations, “We like the material things and the beauty you left us, but we reject the values that you cherished.” They do not comprehend that many of the things the Victorians did that we benefit from, came from their altruistic, enterprising, industrious, religious, moral hearts.

Like all eras in history, the Victorian era had its share of ne’er-do-wells who did what they could to mess up the values that disciplined them. Darwin, Freud, Dewey, Marx, Sanger, and even Picasso wanted no structure and no restraint, and look at the confusion they all produced that we are constantly having to correct today.

CherO writes:

I lived in San Francisco and the Bay Area for over 30 years, and am a history and architecture buff.

I can tell you that many if not most of the Victorian homes that have been rescued and restored were done by gay men. True to ‘stereotype’, they really do have a wonderful sense of beauty in architecture and ornament. Many of them fill their homes with nearly-priceless antiques, and some even go so far as to re-connect the gaslights. One really can get the feeling of going back in time in their houses. I have done many events that filled these houses with vintage music and people in vintage costume. It’s beautiful!

Yes, there are too many Victorian houses that have been bought by thoroughly modern millionaires, stripped and turned into galleries for hideous modern-art collections… but thank goodness not all of them have. The Bed-and-Breakfast craze saved many of these beautiful homes. The Victorian ‘look’ goes in and out of style like anything else. It’s the enthusiast who keeps it going.

As far as mores – San Francisco had a 19th Century but not a Victorian Era. The Gold Rush made it a rough, cruel and immoral place in many ways, and the outrageous corruption continued until the Great Quake of 1906 inspired a reform movement. Upper- and middle-class women tried to tame it, but the Bohemian crowd was and is strong. San Francico is just that kind of place.

I bet the nineteenth-century housewife in San Francisco would be just as repelled by what the heterosexuals are doing nowadays as the homosexuals. She would be startled by the openness with which they do it. But the behavior itself would not be new to her.

Jane S. writes:

CherO has made an excellent point and one that I think is worth probing further, about the role gay men have played in protecting and sustaining traditional cultural goods. True to stereotype, they tend to be educated with good-paying jobs and expendable incomes. They don’t have families to support, so they have money to sink into things like vintage collectibles and period decorating. Many of them were well brought up and they have exquisite taste and sense of style. They have the best parties, too

CherO writes: “San Francisco had a 19th Century but not a Victorian Era.”

That may be so. Nineteenth-century San Francisco had more than its share of brothels and opium dens and saloons. From the beginning, it was famous for its rough-neck goings-on. But the people who built the Victorian houses and treasures like Golden Gate Park were bourgeois families who believed in marriage-based monogamy; their values could rightly be described as “Victorian.” Prior to the 60s, the Haight-Ashbury was a quiet, respectable middle-class neighborhood. Today, Haight Street is a crime-infested urban sinkhole with a lot of tacky shops (the hippie legacy part) surrounded by beautiful houses (the Victorian part). People who cherish Victorian lampshades would die of embarrassment before they would defend the sexual mores of the same era. They don’t get it that there’s a connection (while I’m claiming there is).

According to CherO, San Francisco in the Gold Rush days was a “rough, cruel and immoral place in many ways.” It still is. San Francisco has this deceptively laid-back ambiance but that is a thin veneer. It consistently ranks as one of the world’s most popular travel destinations–and it is not hard to see why–but the majority of people who come there to live stay no longer than two years. By the time I had been there 30 years, everyone I used to know was long gone. People come there and treat it like their sandbox for a while, then leave. No one has any long-term investment in making it a decent place to live. I can’t help but wonder what will happen to those exquisite Victorians once all the childless gay men have died off.

Hurricane Betsy writes:

In plain English, sexual “repression” or self- and social control, make for creativity of the finest kind. That is the law of the universe. You can’t have sexual degeneracy and beauty together.

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