The “Gaslight Era”

After reading Judith Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight I went in search of a visual to help get a better feel for urban life in late-Victorian London. I found a collection of photographs, on, taken in 1876 that is representative of the “gaslight era”: Among the photos, there exists an obvious juxtaposition between “high” and “low” life.

I was especially drawn to this image because it makes the contrast here so obvious; the two men’s physical placement mirrors their social status–it’s genius! I also found it ironic that one of  “the Great Unwashed” (as Walkowitz calls the lower class Londoners) is actually washing/ shining the dirty shoe of a bourgeois male.
Even though I chose to highlight this particular photo, many of the others in this collection offer a better view of the overall disparity experienced by the poor city dwellers in contrast to their economic and social superiors, and they are definitely worth taking a look at.


Filed under City Cultures

3 responses to “The “Gaslight Era”

  1. cmb0030

    I love this picture! Thank you for sharing. It is definitely a powerful metaphor for what the difference of socioeconomic status in the period looked like. I think your observation about “the Great Unwashed” and this photo is absolutely genius and a bit hilarious. Thank you for posting! As I look through the majority of the other pictures of this time period on the awesome link you posted I see that the distinction between the socio-economic classes is visible in many ways during this time period: clothes, jobs, even facial expressions and looking into the eyes of the people captured in film proves this. Again, great post and thank you for sharing!

  2. jordanorr

    I second this. I really like the picture and how you’ve pointed out the stark contrast between the two men that also mirrors their social status. I think it’s hard for us in society today to really grasp the differences in social classes. Well, for me it is. As I reflect on what we’ve learned in the class so far and add social classes to my thought process as well, I wonder what cities, safety, and prostitution mean to different social classes. Do the upper class and lower class citizens all feel the same way about urbanization and surveillance? Hmmm…possible paper topic?

  3. I’m glad that you searched for these photos. They’re really cool, and the one you posted above does a great job of epitomizing the class differences at work in the nineteenth-century city. The picture reminds me of a Joyce Kilmer essay that talks about how the subway makes New York a more democratic place: “The ragged bootblack does not kneel at the broker’s feet, he sits close beside him, or perhaps, comfortably at rest, watches the broker clutch a strap and struggle to keep his footing.”

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