Skip to main content

A Glimpse at 19th Century British and American Society from Newspapers of the Era

I love history; it forms the basis of my interest in genealogy and has an influence on our itinerary when on family holidays.


Victorian Life, Culture and Society

Victorian Society in America and Britain in the 19th century was rich and varied; it was an age of discovery and innovations benefiting many people. Yet, as in any society there were those less fortunate who were not always given the care and respect they deserved, and needed. Fanny Fern 1811-1872 (real name Sara Willis) was an American who cared and wrote a number of newspaper articles about these issues, some of which are published on my Nathanville genealogy website.

However, this article highlights other aspects of Victorian life, culture and society by showcasing a selection of other Victorian era newspaper articles from Britain and America:

  • A touching story about a faithful dog
  • An entertaining story about American statesman travelling in Massachusetts
  • Household waste
  • Anecdote of the Late Daniel Webster
  • Vastness of Victorian London
  • Meanings and origin of Christmas

The source of these newspaper articles is from the Victorian Scrapbook of British and American newspaper articles saved by my great-great grandfather, George Burgess (1829-1905) who lived in America from the age of 16 to finish his apprenticeship in stone-cutting and marble works. He returned to England in 1857, and having learned about Phrenology while in America in 1861 he setup his own successful Phrenologist practice in the Arcades, Bristol which he ran for 40 years until his retirement in 1901.

Further reading is available from the free online copy of the Victorian scrapbook on my Nathanville genealogy website, link below.

Also included here is a short video of Clovelly, a Victorian village in North Devon, England.

Clovelly, a Victorian village in Devon, England

Clovelly, a Victorian village in Devon, England


An English Victorian Village in North Devon

Clovelly, the only privately owned village in England has been privately owned by the same family since 1738, and is kept in the style of a mid-19th century Victorian village.

Location of Clovelly Village

Free Source for Victorian Newspapers Online

Victorian Scrapbook of over 500 newspaper articles by Geroge Burgess (1829-1905).

A Faithful Dog

Touching Story Published in a British Victorian Newspaper

This newspaper article was published in the latter half of the 19th century as it’s based on an account apparently made by the late Dr Stephen Pariset (1770-1847). Dr Pariset was President of the Academy of Medicine in Paris, France from about 1826.

The story portrayed is a touching one whereby the dog stays loyal and faithful to his master in times of need; in this case a young Perpignan man who upon being arrested on a charge of conspiracy spent three months in confinement awaiting trial. On the day of the trial the young man was unanimously acquitted, where upon the dog disappeared from sight. His faithful dog, turned up again just over four days later at his master’s home over 600 miles away in Perpignan, having made the long journey of about 600 miles. The dog arrived home in an air of excitement with his master arriving two days later. Perpignan, in southern France is at the opposite end of the country to Paris, and these days, on modern roads, the distance is closer to 530 miles. No one will know for sure what was on the mind of the dog during these trialling times, the words used in the article are fidelity and sagacity, both which fit well to the pursuing events as they unfolded; I also think it shows an element of empathy.

A Faithful Dog

A Faithful Dog

A New Way to Detect a Thief

Published in the 19th Century American Paper

This newspaper article is one of my favourites. The father of Daniel Webster (1782-1852) while travelling in Massachusetts stopped overnight in an Inn in Ware; Daniel Webster being an early leading American statesman and senator from Massachusetts in the days before the Civil War. While in the barroom of the Inn Daniel Webster’s father was asked to identify a thief who had only moments earlier stolen a pocket watch; and along with about 20 other people was still in the room.

Scroll to Continue

As becomes apparent from the above article the trick was to play with the mind of the thief to make him reveal his own guilt by being the only person in a darkened room (with the lamp having been blown out) not to put his hands on the soot-blackened bottom of an upturned kettle with a rooster inside, for fear that the rooster might crow and give away his gilt. Everyone else having nothing to fear in their own mind obligingly put their hand on the sooty bottom of the upturned kettle; as was revealed when the lamp was relit.

A New Way to Detect a Thief

A New Way to Detect a Thief

Household Waste

Waste Not, Want Not

Recycling household waste is something Victorian Britain’s was very good at doing. Little went to waste in a well-managed Victorian home other than ash from the coal fires; which with ash dust being the main household waste in the 19th century to be carted away the large containers outside people’s homes for household waste is still called a dustbin to this day (garbage can in American), and the refuse collector a dustman; albeit within the last 20 years the dustbin has been superseded by the wheelie bin.

This newspaper article, probably published in the latter half of the 19th century, typifies the extent to which Victorians in British homes recycled their kitchen waste. It starts by stressing the importance of watching the cook to ensure that after boiling meats that the water is left to cool so that the fat that forms on top can be salvaged, and the importance of scraping the dripping-pan into the swill-pail. The article then describes a couple of uses of this salvaged fat, namely to mix it with lard for burning in lamps or if just port fat used to fry cakes; and pointing out that any bits of meat salvaged can go on to make hash, a simple recipe where diced meat, potatoes and spices are all mixed together and then cooked.

The article goes onto point out how other food scraps and leftovers can be reused to make tarts or reheated for the following day, and even how leftover vegetables can be reheated to make breakfast the next morning. It even points out the waste of overusing soap or leaving it in water to dissolve and the importance of looking after cleaning utensils such as the scrubbing brush and pails.

Not mentioned in this article, although equally important was the role of the rag and bone men of Victorian Britain who would buy old rags and bones at the doorstep from the home and sell them on; cotton rags going on to make paper and old bones being used to make knife handles, toys and ornaments with the grease extracted from the bones being used in soap making.

Although Victorians were fanatical about recycling, and they had to be because every penny counted, we could learn a lot from them in this day of recycling mania; although I think ‘scrimpers and savers’ are already on the bandwagon.

Household Waste

Household Waste

Christmas Items

Definitions Published in a Victorian Newspaper

The Victorians re-invented Christmas and made it what it is today. The Victorian newspaper article above gives definitions of some of the traditional items in Christmas including:

  • Plum Pudding
  • Mince Pies
  • Mistletoe
  • Christmas Carols
  • Christmas Boxes - The custom of giving a small sum of money to servants and others on the day after Christmas, hence called BOXING DAY.

This newspaper article also looks at other ancient Christmas customs and the origin of Christmas.

Christmas Items - Definitions published in a Victorian Newspaper

Definitions of Christmas items published in a Victorian Newspaper

Definitions of Christmas items published in a Victorian Newspaper

Origins of Christmas

Whether you're religious or not, remembering that although Christmas itself is meant to be a Religious Holiday, many of the traditions re-introduced and revamped by the Victorians are in fact based on Pagan practices, and medieval traditions such as mince pies which have been revived at various times throughout the centuries.

Do you have any views on Christmas; do you celebrate it or is it all humbug to you. If you have any views then leave them in the comments box below.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Arthur Russ

Related Articles