#MyrtleMondays: So Much Stuff!

In our ongoing series on 19th century consumer culture, I’ve tried to impress upon you the vast amount of sophisticated material goods that were readily available to the average Victorian shopper. Well, I recently had that very point impressed upon me, and today I’m going to share some fun photos that will drop you right back into the world of Victorian… stuff.

Stuff at the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City

One of Kansas City’s most popular attractions, the Steamboat Arabia Museum has collected and preserved the wreckage and cargo of a 19th century steamboat that sank in the Missouri River in the 1850s. Though attempts to recover the cargo were made ever since the vessel sank, it was not until the 1980s that an intrepid salvage crew managed the feat, bringing to light a genuine treasure trove of material culture that had not been seen in nearly 150 years.

A period newspaper illustration captures the Arabia‘s fateful last moments on September 5, 1856

Think of it like a cargo ship bound for Wal-Mart washing up on shore. The Arabia was stocked with goods bound for frontier America—everything needed and desired in the modern American home and the industries that were building the new cities. Tools, foodstuffs, housewares, clothing, jewelry, and more—200 tons of Victorian Stuff. (For reference, a modern shipping container/semi trailer will carry anywhere from 20-60,000 lbs. Arabia was carrying 400,000 lbs.)

London’s Great Exhibition was an unabashed celebration of Stuff.

The 1850s saw an explosion in consumer goods, as new transportation methods like the railways and steamships transformed shipping, and new technologies fueled the Industrial Revolution. America was growing fast, and Britain was enjoying a new status as a commercial powerhouse, rapidly outpacing its European neighbors. In 1851, London’s Great Exhibition showcased Britain’s industrial might, and across the pond, cargo vessels like the Arabia were busy ferrying similar goods to eager consumers.

Watkins home, Excelsior Springs (Watkins Woolen Mill), built in 1850 for the family of a local mill owner

Although the Steamboat Arabia Museum has recreated a modest pioneer homestead of the day, Kansas City was a burgeoning metropolis. The conjunction of major shipping and transportation routes, including river travel and railroads, made it a fast-growing hub of modernity. (You know: Everything’s up to date in Kansas City!). Middle and upper-class households like the home of woolen miller Waltus Watkins in Excelsior Springs or hoteliers John and Henrietta Harris in Westport (Kansas City’s forerunner) would have been well-provisioned according to the highest standards of the time.

Harris-Kearney House interior (Westport Historical Society)

Of course, knowing this is one thing. Seeing it all in one concentrated place is quite another! And until you stand in the hold of the Steamboat Arabia (or its modern-day incarnation, a museum gallery), it’s hard to conceive of just how much stuff the Victorian lifestyle required.

This lovely tableau shows just a sampling of the type of goods on the Arabia at her sinking, including nails, beads, scent bottles, eyeglasses, a pocket watch, thimbles, and wooden doll parts.

More buttons and beads


We’re not done yet. MORE buttons.


And some clasps, rivets, hooks, and buckles.

Clothing and textiles to go with your buttons and clasps

Shoes for the whole family


And your friends. And neighbors.

And everyone else

Stuff to build your house (doorknobs, hinges, keys, and other assorted hardware)

More hardware

And tools

And more tools! This photo shows a “steelyard scale,” which has been painted with decorative flowers! (Do your steelyard scales look like that today?) The Arabia carried dozens of these.

Once your house, steelyard, or business is built, you will need Stuff to put in it. Like…

Barrels and buckets (to hold more Stuff)

Pots (and some candles, frames, slates, and scales [to know how much Stuff you’re getting])

And pans and kettles and bottles and…

Miscellaneous Stuff for your Stuff

Some of the Stuff is practical, and some is pretty, and some (like the steelyard scales) is both.

These decorative flasks are just two of the many recovered from the Arabia (I liked the stag and the hound designs)

This collection of identical decorative lacquer trays suggests how many of these goods were bound for stores, not directly to consumers… as well as a peek into mass-produced products of the time

Not all of the Stuff fared so well. These china vessels had a hard journey, but still reflect the high standards Victorian consumers demanded.

Of course, the production and transportation of all this Stuff came at a price. Kansas City sits on lands formerly occupied by the Osage people, who were forcibly removed to make room for white settlers… and sometimes their Black slaves. The only casualty of the Arabia sinking was a mule that the escaping crew left tied to the deck (and then lied about in official accounts). Click on the links to learn more about this side of Kansas City history.

Collections like that of the Steamboat Arabia Museum preserve an important part of everyday history, letting us experience it in tangible, visceral ways simply reading about it can’t always do.

For more on Victorian consumer culture, check out these posts:

Shop Like a Victorian

Everything You Could Want

Holiday Commercialism in the 1800s

Victorian Advertising Hoopla

…Kinda makes you want to clean out your basement, doesn’t it?


3 Responses to “#MyrtleMondays: So Much Stuff!”

  1. Judith Ann

    Wow, what a great report, I want to go see this exhibit next time I’m down there.
    It’s very interesting to see the pictures.

  2. Debby Chase Putman

    What a fun dip into a different time! I am always amazed by how ‘posh’ some houses of that time were. And the thought “you can walk the privy in the rain and never wet your feet.” even as a kid was astounding! What? outhouses were a real thing and only modern places had a bathroom? Nice crossreference to Kansas City from the movie ‘Oklahoma’. The pictures of the museum are perfect for me who lives in the state of Washington. Thanks again for a great post!