Consuming Passions: Leisure and pleasure in Victorian Britain, by Judith Flanders

Who needs a self-lighting fairy?
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The traditional Christmas with its roast turkey, its swag-bearing Father Christmas, decorated tree, crackers, illustrated cards, presents and stockings, is of course an entirely Victorian invention. Wreaths of holly and ivy are all that remains of medieval celebrations of the Nativity, But the British took to the newly minted, old-style Germanic Yuletide festivities with gusto. By the end of the 19th century, the festival of Twelfth Night had been eclipsed by the shopping opportunities of a consuming Christmas - as more recently the ancient celebration of Halloween has been replaced by trick or treating.

In her splendid book on Victorian "leisure and pleasure", Judith Flanders devotes a whole chapter to Christmas; this is hardly surprising, for it is and was then a retailers' paradise. The key components of the "traditional" Christmas were available for purchase in all good stores and the canny entrepreneurs of 19th-century Britain seized their opportunities. Confectioner Thomas Smith, who in 1847 invented the Christmas cracker (he devised it as a novelty sweet wrapper), was, by the 1890s, selling 13 million crackers a year.

Shopping in all its forms was the central and unifying activity that underlay all other 19th-century middle-class leisure pursuits. Flanders dates the British passion for home improvement to the early 17th century, but it was the Great Exhibition of 1851, under the shining glass vaults of Paxton's Crystal Palace, that was its defining moment. With a central aisle that was known as "the nave", the Exhibition was a secular cathedral to the new era of purchase, accumulation and retail choice. Flanders begins and ends by quoting Prince Albert as he surveyed the wares displayed: "The products of all quarters of the globe are placed at our disposal and we only have to choose the best and cheapest for our purposes."

Imagine a mid-Victorian parlour, with its gas lamps, stuffed Chesterfield sofas, potted ferns, and wax fruit under glass domes and you will have some idea of the weight of sheer stuff covered by this voluminous study. The range and ingenuity of Victorian invention is staggering and Flanders particularly relishes the more eccentric examples. There is the self-expanding corset, for example, or the "patent-ventilation hat", or a doctor's suit with jacket, trousers and waistcoat sewn together to save time in the event of being called in the night.

Flanders' last book was a detailed room-by-room exploration of the Victorian house; now she has expanded her themes beyond the home: Consuming Passions covers travel, entertainment, art (or rather the beginnings of what we might call now the art market), sport, seaside holidays and, of course, the activity that underlies and facilitates all those other pursuits - shopping.

At the turn of the 19th century, shops were functional places and most people's needs were basic. Even if shops had glass windows (rare) they seldom even displayed their wares. But as the century rolled on, the average home acquired more equipment. Henry Mayhew, in his 1851 study of the London poor, observed door-to-door sellers struggling under the weight of their products: "door-mats, baskets and 'duffers' packs', wood pails, brushes, brooms, clothes-props, clothes-lines and string, and grid-irons, Dutch-ovens, skewers and fore-shovels". Fifty years later, the face of the market place had changed out of all recognition. Thomas Lipton's multiple stores were the forerunners of today's cheap supermarket chains, aimed at selling cheap and in bulk to the working class - though the middle-class soon took advantage of them too. By 1889, Lipton had 30 shops and a turnover of £1.5 million. Nash's Regent Street, the first to be designed solely as a shopping thoroughfare, was completed in 1837. The displays behind its plate-glass windows fed the aspirations which kept the wheels of retail moving at such frenetic speed. Bon Marché, opened in 1871 in Brixton, was the first custom-built department store. The retail moguls - Selfridge, Barker, Whiteley and Liberty - followed with bigger, more glittering emporia, designed to cater to every possible need, realised or unrealised.

Chemical dyes and new textile technologies speeded up the manufacture of clothes, and fashions were made available to those unable to afford dressmakers; clerks could dress like "swells" in garish tweeds bought off-the-peg. Charles Macintosh put a sheet of rubber between two layers of cloth and invented the waterproof. Foot sizes were standardised for the first time by the Quaker shoemakers C and J Clark).

The 19th-century British, as Flanders shows in exhaustive detail (her footnotes provide some of the best stories in the book), were in thrall to new technology and its wonders. New printing techniques created a market for circulating libraries and cheap fiction. Flanders suggests that among the middle-classes, consumption was often justified by the claim that taste was "moral duty"; but popular taste wasn't much interested in duty and "penny bloods", which related gory, true-life crime stories, were bestsellers. In 1828, The Last Dying Speech and Confession of William Corder (the infamous Red Barn murderer) sold 1,166,000 copies.

The pace of change was astonishing. Only two generations before the invention of the railways, the Lake District was considered bleak and inhospitable. By the mid-19th century it was on a crowded tourist trail, made lovely by the Romantics and accessible by steam technology. Only two years after the introduction of the bicycle, there were nearly 3,000 bicycles in Hyde Park at weekends.

Man-made magic could be marvelled at in diversions such as waxworks, automata and dioramas. Astley's Amphitheatre put on a lifelike display of St George and the Dragon: "The dragon's mechanism and automatous serpentine movement [were] so ably calculated and put into play, as to stamp the Action-scene with the character of TRUTH." W S Gilbert instructed that the fairies in Iolanthe, be "Self-lighting", with "electricity stored somewhere about the small of their backs". It was machine-made enchantment that made possible many of the trappings of the Victorian Christmas.

Consuming Passions covers such a vast amount of ground that reading it can sometimes feel rather like watching a fast moving conveyor belt of consumer durables which have flashed by before you have time to examine them fully. And I could have done with a little more about the humans behind the goods: the ambitious, ingenious, ruthless visionaries who caught and exploited the spirit of their age. But it is nonetheless a magnificent achievement: fascinating and prodigiously well-researched.