William Morris Designs and Britain in 1882

6th July 2019

We’ve spoken often about our William Morris designs, when they were produced and the stories behind them; we therefore wanted to put them into context by looking at William Morris, Britain and the Victorian period. Since we see Morris’s designs all over still even now – on the catwalk, in stores, in art and so on. We thought we therefore needed to put into context the time that these designs were produced, giving you some social history to the time. The fact his designs were produced in such a different era but remain to be relevant, beautiful and still so well esteemed today is remarkable and speaks to how incredible his designs are and were!

Personally, we love social history, learning what was going on around that time, the people that would have been Morris’s audience, what they were doing and what was going on within their worlds.

We can only assume Morris would never have expected for his work to stand the test of time to this extent!

So – let’s take it back to 1882. That was the year the William Morris design Brother Rabbit was produced. It was one of nineteen designs registered at the Patent Office between 1881-1882 by Morris- seventeen of these were designed for the indigo- discharge method of printing. The Brother Rabbit design, also referred to as ‘Brer Rabbit,’ alludes to the Uncle Remus Stories by J.C. Harris, of which Morris and his children Jenny and May were fond of reading at their home, Kelmscott Manor. The birds within the designs were drawn by Morris’ close friend Philip Webb.

Britain in 1882.

The Victorian era ran from the 20th June 1837- 22nd January 1901. This was the age of Queen Victoria sitting on the throne. Queen Victoria was just 18 when she took the throne and is the second longest reigning monarch in our history – after our current Queen Elizabeth who broke Victoria’s record in 2015.

As she took the throne, the public approval for the monarch was low and she’s often accredited for bringing respect back for the Royal family. The Victorians adored their Queen for the majority of her reign. The Church had a huge place within society, as did a high standard of morals and ethics which were linked to the Church.

Victorian era Britain was built largely on a rigid class system. Girls were brought up with the aim to marry and have a family – the homemaker of a family. They sat through etiquette lessons and homemaking lessons – this was the period before ‘My Fair Lady‘ was set – so just think; “the rain in Spain…”

When we think of Victorian Britain, it’s impossible to not think about the fashions. The clothing was a physical representation of a women’s place within society. Corsets were worn by upper class women who didn’t need to work and therefore could wear the tightly laced garment. They wore layers of petticoats and skirts. Middle class women wore much of the same, just without as extravagant of decorations. You could have told how affluent a woman was by the fabric and the amount of embroidery and embellishment, the clothes might not have been comfortable but they’re a symbol of wealth and social standing; also showing that their appearance was of utmost value as women at that time.

It’s worth mentioning that though the roles of women at that time dictated they wore these bodices and corsets, the wealthy Jane Morris and her daughters wore loser flowing more artistic dresses typical of the more artistic Pre-Raphaelite set at the time.



Fun facts:

  • January 18th. A.A. Milne is born, well known and loved British author.
  • January 25th. Virginia Woolf is born, well regarded and esteemed English writer.
  • January 30th. Franklin D. Roosevelt is born, 32nd President of the United States.
  • February 3rd. American showman P.T.Barnum (you might know him represented within recent film, The Greatest Showman acquired the elephant Jumbo from the London Zoo. There was public protest surrounding this. He took Jumbo back to New York and exhibited him at Madison Square Garden. Within 3 weeks, he earned the money back that he’d paid London Zoo. That season – within 31 weeks – the circus earned a reported $1.75M, a staggering amount especially from that time and that was mainly due to Jumbo.
  • August 18th. The Married Women’s Property Act 1882. An important act that marked a huge step forwards for women’s rights. It received royal assent in Britain. It allowed women to buy, own and sell property – and keep their own earnings. Hurrah!
  • September 4th. Thomas Edison lit one sq mile of lower Manhattan by flipping a switch in the first commercial electrical power plant in the US. This is well regarded as the day that began the electrical age. Where would we be without it!

Let us know why you think Morris designs have still remained as relevant as they were within Victorian England!