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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Once your house, steelyard, or business is built, you will need Stuff to put in it. Like…
Some of the Stuff is practical, and some is pretty, and some (like the steelyard scales) is both.
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:
…Kinda makes you want to clean out your basement, doesn’t it?