Victorian Ceramics: How the Craft was Feminized and Subsequently Devalued

Decoration and domestic crafts have long been looked down upon as a feminine art form, less important than supposedly masculine fine art. The practice of devaluing women’s work is highly evident in the Victorian era, in which female artists were undervalued and overly criticized in comparison to their male peers. By observing the treatment and reception of women in the ceramics industry one can understand that Victorian ideas of separate spheres and gendered economics contributed to the feminization and subsequent devaluation of crafts.

Vase by Hannah Barlow

Vase by Hannah Barlow

The Arts and Crafts movement had potential to be politically radical, an impressive advancement for women’s rights. It was born out of the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and, according to Clarissa Campbell Orr, was viewed by Victorian critics Ruskin and Morris as “part of the cure for the ugliness and dehumanization wrought by industrialisation”.[1] However, while the movement was arguably successful in lessening urban squalor and assisting the rural poor, it was less effective in its claims to help women. While the movement largely depended upon women’s labor it simultaneously clung to the kyriarchal idea that wealthy, white men should dominate the workforce. A strange balance was created, one in which women were able to work in ceramics, yet found their work to be unpaid and deemphasized. Employers’ treatment of women became one of the main contributing factors to the crafts’ lessened status.[2]

The treatment of women in the movement is closely tied to the Victorian practice of separate spheres. While women were confined to the private sphere of domesticity, home and family, men were expected to act in the public sphere of politics and paid work. The separation of private and public spheres along gender lines was a product of the Industrial Revolution, in which it became common for women to remain home and raise children while men spent their days working in factories. The Victorian era embraced these roles, justifying their actions by emphasis of supposed feminine virtues of morality and sympathy as compared to men’s strengths as protector and provider.[3] According to Leonore Davidoff, Victorian, middle-class women “represented the emotions, the Heart, or sometimes the Soul, seat of morality and tenderness” while Victorian, middle-class men “did brain work while the hands did menial work”.[4] Women were associated with emotion while men were associated with intelligence and labor.

Class played a large role in the establishment of public and private spheres. While lower class women often worked outside of the home, middle and upper class women generally did not. Women who were poor needed to work while women who were well off could stay home and care for husband and children. As a result, working women were viewed as having attributes associated with a lower class and therefore being of a lower class. These negative associations are one of many factors discouraging women from entering the work force.

Women’s exclusion from public space undoubtedly limited their roles in the Arts and Crafts movement. Yet, women were still present within the field. This is possible due to men and women’s manipulation of the idea of public and private spheres to create what some historians refer to as a social borderland, in which, according to Clarissa Campbell Orr, “women acted outside the immediately private sphere without drawing adverse attention to themselves, provided their demeanour was tactful and avoided direct confrontation”.[5] In other words, women were able to participate in the public sphere so long as they were willing to deemphasize their work within that sphere and conform to other aspects of the public/private divide.

Although the social borderland allowed women to initially enter the Arts and Crafts movement, the idea of a public and private sphere began to flourish within the movement itself. This is especially evident in schools and organizations’ selection of areas in which women were allowed to practice. Barred from physical aspects of the work, women’s adeptness within areas such as coloring and flower painting was emphasized. For example, Herbert Minton, head of the Stoke-on-Trent Art School said of his women workers, “Their instruction is generally in flower painting; scarcely anything else”.[6] Flowers were considered feminine, and thus an appropriate subject for women. The act of coloring ceramics was also considered appropriately feminine with its inoffensive, delicate nature. It was considered a passive action; filling in the works of other—presumably male—artists allowed women little room for leadership or innovation. By emphasizing certain areas of ceramics as being more feminine than others—and restricting women to those areas—employers were placating critics who viewed working women as invading the public sphere. They did so not by rejecting the idea of separate spheres, but by constructing a private sphere within the public one.

As women were directed into certain areas of the ceramics field, those were the areas in which women were seen to excel. Women’s success in these few areas was inevitable as they were restricted from entering others; yet this success was used to justify shuttling women into those areas alone. These areas began to be seen as being solely for women. One can see the evolution of societal opinion of craft as a whole in the smaller field of ceramics flower painting. As more women joined the Arts and Crafts movement it was perceived to be more feminine. Because it was more feminine, more women were directed towards the movement. This cycle led to the feminization of craft.

Wedgwood paintresses at the old Etruria factory in Staffordshire, c.1910.Courtesy Wedgwood Museum Trust, Barlaston, Staffordshire, England.

Wedgwood paintresses at the old Etruria factory in Staffordshire, c.1910.
Courtesy Wedgwood Museum Trust, Barlaston, Staffordshire, England.

Philanthropy is one of the ways in which women’s work was undervalued (and continues to be undervalued even today). Women artists were pushed to donate their time as opposed to working for a wage. This was a particular concern for upper class women in the movement, as their fathers, husbands, and brothers frequently felt threatened by their work. These men wanted to provide for their female relatives. If the women they were meant to care for entered the public sphere it was often assumed that financial need prompted them to leave the private one, casting doubt upon their male relatives’ abilities to provide and protect.[7]

A recurring theme in the stories of Victorian women workers is the displeasure of male relatives fearing for their own public image. For example, pioneer medical student Sophia Jex-Blake received a letter from her father stating, “Dearest, I have only this moment heard that you contemplate being paid for the tutorship. It would be quite beneath you darling, and I cannot consent to it. Take the post as one of honour and usefulness, and I shall be glad… But to be paid for the work would be to alter the thing completely, and would lower you sadly in the eyes of everybody”.[8] Men were not the only ones to think this way; women were raised to share these beliefs, even at their own expense. We see this attitude in the words of Hanna Barlow, one of the women to gain success in the ceramics industry, in that she said, “In all the many years I have worked at Lambeth, I have never felt that I was working for money”.[9]

Women were encouraged to work for the honor of it, to be helpful to others. But it was quite another thing to be paid in the same way as their male counterparts. Philanthropy balanced these problems, allowing women to work in the public sphere without losing face for themselves or their male relatives. As a result, the areas in which women commonly completed philanthropic works were considered less worthwhile than areas in which the workers were paid. This attitude has been long lasting, affecting those working in previously female-dominated, philanthropic fields even today, such as craft, nonprofit work, and even nursing.[10]

Women who were able to overcome barriers to entering the craft world had a long road ahead. While many employers respected their female employees, a combination of social conditioning and pressure from male workers prompted poor treatment of women. The women who were paid for their work were belittled in a number of ways. The pay for lower, middle, and upper class workers was dismissed as “pin money”, money that had a separate purpose from men’s money and was unnecessary to support the family. While upper class women often did not need the money, the income was helpful to middle class families and often pivotal to the survival of lower class rural families. Although the money women earned was no different from the men’s, it was viewed as being somehow less valuable.[11]

Aside from the belittling of their work, women were restricted in what work they could perform and in what tools they could use. These restrictions were generally used to protect and preserve the status of their male peers. For example, the workers in The Stoke-on-Trent Art School often used arm rests while painting china. However, this privilege was only extended to the male workers; women were forbidden from using these tools. When questioned about the practice, the head of the factory explained that it was an “arbitrary rule; just the same as another rule, that women are not allowed to use gold to gild” and that while he considered this to be “tyrannical” it was enforced “by the workmen entirely; by the gilders”.[12] Minton’s statement displays how men felt threatened by women in the craft movement and acted to protect themselves. There was no reason to restrict women from using certain tools except for the purpose of making their work more difficult, deterring all but the most determined of women. While the employers officially made the rules, the limitations of women in the craft were carefully policed by their male peers.

The subjectivity of the rules regarding what women could and could not do in the ceramics industry is evident in gilding. Early on in the movement women were restricted from using this technique, specifically from gilding with gold. By the year 1872, however, women were the ones associated with gilding. The shifting gender associations of certain areas of ceramics reveals how restrictions were used to limit women’s worth in the work force, as opposed to being based on women’s abilities.[13]

The few women who made a name for themselves in the ceramics industry were often dependent upon men to further their careers. Men were the ones running the ceramics schools, hiring women to work in their factories, and funding the construction and upkeep of workshops. Women who succeeded were generally either from wealthy families or related to someone in the industry. For example, ceramicist Maria Nichols was unable to expand her ceramic’s color range using the accessible kiln. In order to solve this problem she would require a kiln tailored to her needs. It was at this point that Nichols’ wealthy father stepped in and provided the funds necessary to start Rookwood Pottery, a workshop and eventual school that served largely as Nichols’ personal studio. Rookwood was friendly towards women, offering lessons and facilities to amateurs and professionals alike. However, Rookwood was not long-lived, as after only three years Nichols hired a male friend to oversee the organization’s administration at which point he revamped the entire structure, making it largely inaccessible to women.[14]

Maria Nichols

Maria Nichols

Nichols’ situation was not typical for women of the time. Without the benefits of her high social status, her father’s understanding and his financial support, Rookwood Pottery would have never been possible. As it stood, these things allowed Nichols to run a ceramics organization without the condemnation of her peers. Without this privileged background, women were unable to access the funds to begin their own organizations. At the same time they lacked the ability to climb the ladder at organizations dominated by men.

The field of Victorian ceramics was simultaneously run by men and associated with women. While women were allowed to join the Arts and Crafts movement, their mobility within the movement was highly restricted. Even so, it was one of the few fields in which women were able to work. As a result, ceramics became associated with women, and therefore “feminized”. The influx of women led to a struggle between female and male workers, in which women were paid less, pushed to work philanthropically, and limited to specific areas of ceramics; all of which contributed to the field’s devaluation. Although certain aspects of the Arts and Crafts movement were an attempt to move away from the dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution the movement clung to gendered ideas of separate spheres and acted accordingly.

The Arts and Crafts movement was feminized and accordingly devalued due to the Victorian practice of separate spheres for men and women. By observing the ways in which women were treated by their employers, coworkers, and society as a whole one can conclude that the gendering of craft contributed to its lessened status.

[1] Orr, Clarissa Campbell. Women in the Victorian Art World. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995. 5.

[2] Callen, Anthea. “Class Structure and the Arts & Crafts Elite.” In Angel in the Studio: Women in the Arts and Crafts Movement 1870-1914. London: Astragal Books, 1979. 2-8.

[3] Park, Jihang. “Women of Their Time: The Growing Recognition of the Second Sex in Victorian and Edwardian England.” Journal of Social History 21, no. 1 (1987): 49-54. (accessed April 20, 2012).

[4] Davidoff, Leonore. “Class and Gender in Victorian England: The Diaries of Arthur J. Munby and Hannah Cullwick.” Feminist Studies 5, no. 1 (1979): 89-90. (accessed May 1, 2012).

[5] Orr, Clarissa Campbell. Women in the Victorian Art World. 4-5.

[6] Callen, Anthea. Angel in the Studio. 52.

[7] Harrison, Brian. “Philanthropy and the Victorians.” Victorian Studies 9, no. 4 (1966): 353-360. (accessed May 1, 2012).

[8] Callen, Anthea. Angel in the Studio. 8.

[9] Callen, Anthea. Angel in the Studio. 64.

[10] McCarthy, Kathleen. Women’s Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991. 67-79.

[11] Perkin, Joan. Victorian women. New York: New York University Press, 1995. 171-180.

[12] Callen, Anthea. Angel in the Studio. 53-54.

[13] Callen, Anthea. Angel in the Studio. 54.

[14] Callen, Anthea. Angel in the Studio. 80-83.

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3 thoughts on “Victorian Ceramics: How the Craft was Feminized and Subsequently Devalued

  1. Steph says:

    Excellent post, as always.

  2. KA Shields says:

    Fascinating topic! And very well written!

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