Queen Victoria ruled Great Britain from 1837 to 1901. England was arguably the most successful country in the western world during her reign, and Americans adopted many of England’s values for their own. We know these values today as Victorian. They were prominent here during Victoria’s reign and gradually faded as the twentieth century progressed.
Many Americans still admire Victorian fashions today and incorporate them into their house decor. We can learn some of these English fashions from American bookends produced early in the twentieth century. Foundries in the United States produced Victorian subjects on bookends for display in fashionable American homes.
The bookends entitled The Altar of Love are completely devoted to illustrating Victorian values. The title alone illustrates English devotion to the romantic and sentimental ideal of enduring marriage as exemplified by the Royal marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. We see the married couple embracing. Their child, symbolizing reverence for children, is at their feet. A putto, popular in Victorian England, is blowing a trumpet to them. Putti are ambiguous in their usage, but here probably represent peace and prosperity. In keeping with the Victorian penchant for Greek and Roman revival, the sacred flame of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, is shown, and it will support the stability of the marriage. The family dog is not forgotten, reminding us of the Victorian attachment to animals.
Children were idolized in Victorian England and they appear frequently on American bookends from this period. This pair features a charming nude little boy who would appeal to every Victorian. There is a giant snail at his feet, which matches the Victorian fascination with rare, bizarre creatures.
The story of Dante and Beatrice was very popular during the Victorian era. Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy was widely read during Victorian times. Dante loved Beatrice all of his life although he never had a physical relationship with her. This was “pure love” for Victorians and superior to love with physical aspects. At least it was superior for the English Bourgeoisie and this seems allied to their prudish behavior. We do not know if the Aristocrats were concerned with pure love or with prudish behavior. For example, adultery and mistresses were commonplace for them. American Victorians were noted to be prudes. In any event, Dante or Dante and Beatrice bookends were very fashionable here in the United States. They were issued in a variety of poses by several different foundries, and we frequently find them today. We recounted the Dante and Beatrice story in both Bookend Revue and Bookends: Objects of Art and Fashion. Here is a link to an updated version of the story on a blog devoted to Dan Brown’s novel, INFERNO.