Victorian Era: the American West

Victorian Era: the American West

Queen Victoria reigned from age 18 to age 81; June 1837 until her death in 1901. Anything that falls within this time, whether those English-speaking countries were her subjects or not, is referred to as the Victorian Era.

While studying history, I remember the surprise of applying Queen Victoria’s reign to my nation’s democratic republic. Why wouldn’t we (the United States of America), having dispensed with England’s rule, label time frames by Presidents’ administrations or by some other measuring stick?

I was young. I didn’t understand the bigger picture. I still don’t comprehend all the reasons why, but it’s true. The American West had a Victorian Era. That’s why, within Amazon’s book (both print and eBook) categories, you’ll find Romance—a major category of fiction—broken down into (among many other options) Historical Romance and thence to Ancient World, Medieval, Regency, Scottish, and Victorian. If I had any persuasive power, I’d try to get an “American West” category in there, too, but evidently Amazon figures they know what they’re doing. Given these five categories within Historical Romance, the clear fit for your typical Mail Order Bride-themed novel is Victorian.

After all, that’s the era when these books are set.

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Western Expansion happened while Queen Victoria sat on the throne.

The United States forced the Cherokee from Georgia to make room for white settlers and their slaves.

The Mexican-American War brought about the annexation of Texas (which included more than the state borders we know today).

Oregon, with her rich soil and promise of abundance, called to the young and hale. Every late winter, companies congregated in “jumping off” places such as Council Bluffs and St. Joseph, and headed west on The Oregon Trail as soon as forage was available for their animals.

Mormon pioneers forged a trail west, and for the first time, an enormous body of people emigrated beyond the borders of the then United States and into territory owned by Mexico.

Gold changed the course of the history of the world as ships sank anchor and abandoned vessels in the Golden Gate Harbor.

The Yukon became region of significant interest with the Klondike Gold Rush.

The Homestead Act aided a great surge of westward migration.

The issue of slavery wore threadbare the fabric of unity in the United States and the Kansas-Nebraska Act prompted a surge of settlers into those territories.

The American Civil War was fought. 620,000 Americans died; more than in any other war.

The golden spike commemorated the grand accomplishment of a transcontinental railway while Victoria remained Queen of England and all British subjects.

Electric lights came into vogue and large cities followed the great King Kamehameha of Hawaii whose palace had electric lights and telephones before the White House.

Nineteen states joined the Union: Florida, Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, California, Minnesota, Oregon, Kansas, West Virginia, Nevada, Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming.

The Great Chicago Fire destroyed a significant portion of the city—and many lives were lost.

Numerous inventions occurred during the Victorian Era.

This list is far from complete: dental anesthesia, antiseptics, dental chair, safety pin, telegraph, postage stamp, air brakes, traffic lights, metal windmill, mail-order catalog, barbed wire, shoe welt stitcher, telephone, sewing machine, four-stroke internal combustion engine, carpet sweeper, cylinder phonograph or tin foil phonograph, moving pictures, light bulb, toilet paper, seismograph, metal detector, roll film for cameras, automatic player piano, paper-strip photographic film, rayon, fountain pen, mechanical cash register, steam turbine, machine gun, first practical automobile to be powered by an internal-combustion engine, gasoline operated motorcycle, dishwasher, world’s first four-wheeled motor vehicle, Coca-Cola, radar, gramophone, contact lenses, paper drinking straws, pneumatic tire, AC motor and transformer, matchbook, smokeless gunpowder, elevator, escalator, diesel-fueled internal combustion engine, vacuum flask, the zipper, carborundum, motion picture camera, the rubber heel, roller coaster, motor-driven vacuum cleaner… and that’s all pre-1900.

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The Titanic sank approximately 11 years after Victoria’s death.

All in all, Queen Victoria reigned 63 years, 7 months—longer than that of any other British monarch and the longest of any female monarch in history. [Queen Elizabeth II is an exceptionally close second. On 6 February 2015, she had reigned 63 years.]

That’s a lot of living for a young United States, ranging from age 61 years to 125 years of age.

During those many years of a long-lived monarch, Queen Victoria’s influence was greatly felt in the United States. Americans may have severed ties with the throne of England, but one small example of Her Majesty’s influence is the tradition of bridal white; Victoria’s choice of a white wedding dress was later echoed by debutantes and the wealthy (anyone to whom a white dress wasn’t impossible or ridiculously impractical) in the States (or as Victoria would have said, “the Colonies”). For an interesting opinion on the queen’s influence on the United States, see this online response to this very question.

The Victorian Era—spanning nearly 64 years, began at a time when “the west” was considered anywhere west of the original 13 colonies. Missouri was a rough frontier where adventurous souls lived well beyond the border of ‘civilization’. The Ohio river valley was home to a few hardy souls. Consider just how far East the current state of Ohio is, given the map of the United States now. By the end of the Victorian Era (1901), only six of today’s States had not yet joined the Union.

The ‘Wild West’ is a term known as an Americanism (it originated in the United States). It first shows up in documented print between 1850 to 1855. It was also known as the Old West or the Frontier. Wikipedia offers a marvelous timeline of events in the Old West period.

Bottom line: Yes. Despite the fact Victoria did not reign over the “American Colonies”, The United States of America did, indeed, have a Victorian Era. These six decades cover a vast range of circumstances, events, progress, military action, inventions, and more. No wonder so very many historical romances are set in the Victorian Era.

Please respond to this post, answering this question: What occurrence in American history is your favorite setting for a romance novel, and why?

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Copyright © 2015 Kristin Holt LC

3 Comments

  1. I love the American West(whether Amazon has that category or not!) mail order brides, the travel west, whether by wagon train, trains, or smthe stagecoach to get to the final destination. It’s my favorite setting. And thank you! I loved this blog Kristin!

    Reply
  2. What a great, informative blog, Kristin! Thank you for sharing all this wonderful info on the Victorian Era. The last few decades of the era are my favorite to both read and write about!

    Reply
  3. Generous thanks to Cindy and Shanna– I so enjoyed your feedback & comments, and see we have much in common. I’m fascinated by the late 19th Century American West.

    Reply

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