Class and Taste in Edwardian England

The class system in England during the first decade of the 20th century was divided into the upper, middle, and working classes. The lives of the landed gentry and the grinding poverty of working-class life were much the same as before. It was the growing middle class, of which the Colemans and Waterhouses were a part, that changed the most.

The Colemans belonged to the upper middle class, for whom the average household income was £750-1500/year. (By comparison, a working-class cook in one of these households made £30/year, a maid £16-22.) The man of the house was likely to be a merchant, banker, solicitor, physician, surgeon or manufacturer. The household would include 3-7 servants – Kitty Coleman employed a cook, a live-in maid, a gardener and, when her daughter was young, a nanny.

Members of the upper middle class were usually Church of England, Tory, and conservative in outlook. For the most part they were happy to be what they were.

The Waterhouses belonged to the lower middle class, with an income of £150-500/year. Professions included shopkeepers, office workers, factory foremen, teachers, travelling salesmen, and small businessmen. They did not have the money for live-in help, but often employed a maid-of-all-work called a char.

The writer J.B. Priestley characterized the lower middle class as "narrow, suspicious, carping, mean-souled…[It] lived in the fear of sliding back into the jungles and bogs of the workers. It had achieved respectability and was terrified of losing it." As a result the lower middle class was often quite reactionary.

Class differences were reflected in domestic taste in the early 1900s. Lower middle class families often clung to Victoriana long after the upper middle class had embraced new fashions. Changes in taste affected everything from paint color to curtain fabrics to flowers planted – even to whether windows were left open or not. (Edwardians were great believers in fresh air; Victorians feared drafts.)

In general, differences in domestic taste can be categorized as follows:

.Victorian:

dark
burgundy
velvet
mahogany
curtains
knick-knacks
wall-to-wall carpet

cozy
architectural ornamentation
greybrick
flower beds
annuals

.Edwardian:

light
yellow
chintz
oak
venetian blinds
clear surfaces
parquet floors & Persian rugs
airy
clean lines

red brick
borders
perennials

 

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