Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Forgotten Victorian Craze for Collecting Seaweed, and other biblical thoughts on women's roles

I subscribe to a funky and interesting magazine called Atlas Obscura. The daily digest presents articles about little known places and events from today or the past and brings new life to them. For example, did you know that all the NY City Public Libraries were built with apartments in them, so the caretaker could live on premises? This was to keep the coal stoves burning, which had to be stoked constantly. Photos of the now-defunct spaces intrigued me. The empty, roomy apartments in the most contested real estate locations fire up my imagination.

I read yesterday of a fad in Victorian times (that's the period Queen Victoria reigned from 1837-1901). It was seaweed collecting. Natural history was a huge endeavor back then. As travel became easier (trains, steam ships) and missionaries went abroad, so did flora and fauna collectors. Carl Linnaeus' work as a zoologist and botanist led to the creation of modern-day biological nomenclature for classifying organisms. This work has led to Linnaeus' distinction as the father of taxonomy, says the Carl Linnaeus page. Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution also fueled interest in classifying and organizing the world around us.

As the Atlas Obscura reports,
Nineteenth century Britain was a hotbed of biological enthusiasm. "Natural history was absolutely huge," says Dr. Stephen Hunt, a researcher in environmental humanities who works at the University of the West of England. Households filled up with painstakingly stuffed mammals and birds. So-called "gentlemen scientists" traveled the world drawing, describing, and collecting plants and animals. As railway networks grew, and labor advances led to more leisure time, ordinary citizens got in on the trend. Microscopes became more affordable, and collecting clubs popped up across Britain.
Ease of travel and new theories sparked an interest in the natural world and the Britons ambled over hill and dale, mountain and sea to collect, classify, draw, press, save, and discuss what they had collected.

One can easily imagine the draw toward the seashore, in Victorian times as now. When I was traveling on a sailboat, I collected shells. I organized them in a fishing tackle box according to the taxonomy outlined by Linnaeus. It was fun to try and organize the world. It was interesting to connect to the sea creatures around me. Shells are fascinating and beautiful, and for the budding botanist, I suppose their fascination with the plant world equaled mine of the sea.


In Victorian times, the beach-going women wore their multiple layers of wool skirts to the ankle, parasols overhead, mincing delicately along the wavelets lest a female should fall and expose something, like a shinbone or that most enticing of cartilage, the kneecap.

The reason that there was not a Victorian-era craze of women collecting seashells or plants and only of seaweed collecting, is because of sex. Atlas Obscura continues,
Women, though, were still largely left out. The biggest natural history clubs of all, the Royal Society and the Linnaean Society, refused female members, and barred women even from their "public" meetings. Hunting animals was too dangerous, and digging up plants was, well, too sexy. "There was a taboo on botany, because Linnaean botany was based on the sexual parts," says Hunt. "That was seen as controversial."
The excessive prudishness and rigid, Pharisee-like adherence to gender roles (especially for women) of the Victorian era was a pendulum swinging response to the loose morals and licentiousness of the Regency period immediately prior to Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne. Cultural prohibitions against women collecting flowers because they might be unduly stirred by a stamen ... seems excessive.

That is precisely why we don't look to the culture for guidance as to male and female roles. The old chestnut that 'back in Bible days women were regarded as chattel' and 'we have made advances in culture and societal understanding' does not hold true. Liberals say, 'Women can and should teach in church and even be pastors, not like in those dim old days.

We have a mere 70 or 80 yer life span on average. Sometimes it's much shorter. We have no long-term cultural memory. We are too deeply involved in society to be able to have any sort of objective perspective on changing times, shifting morals, or what is considered a normal cultural standard.

After the Victorian era came the short Edwardian period, then the flappers, higher hemlines, women entering the workforce as secretaries, telephone operators, and nurses. The pendulum had swung again. Cultural changes happen more often and more rapidly than we think. In the United States, it only took 15 short years for all 50 states to change the high and narrow standard for allowing divorce to a no-fault, EZ, anytime divorce. That's lighting fast.

God is called the Ancient of Days. He alone has the high perspective of us humans. He alone has the invention of time itself in His hand. He knows what we believers need. He instituted roles for men and women, youths and elders. He set the qualifications of deacons and pastors. He inspired scripture urging fathers and mothers to perform their respective roles. There are no cultural reasons for allowing women to teach in the structure of church and no cultural reasons for men to abdicate leading in the structure of the church. There are only biblical reasons and Godly standards. God's standards are always best.

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (1 Timothy 2:12).

Now go collect some plants and shells, you never know when the pendulum will swing the other way and those activities will be seen as too salacious. ;)

1 comment :

  1. Very interesting! I knew about the shell collecting from collecting shells myself; but I didn't realize women could not. The wealthier women must have bought them because there is some wonderful Victorian shell art.
    I remember in Junior High school collecting seaweed and baking cookies for science class. We lived on the ocean. I love connecting to our food sources whether from gardening or collecting berries and seaweed!
    Very interesting perspective about the shifting mores of different times!
    Thanks - Sue

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