::Historical Context for Christmas Carol::
Understanding the Plight of Victorian England’s Poor
“Stirring the Christmas Pudding” from Harper’s Weekly Supplement, Dec. 1876 Library of Congress,
The Clerk—a Short Job Description
Can you imagine spending your entire school day, plus all of your homework time, copying words from a textbook? Add a freezing room and one candle as your only source of light, and you have Bob Cratchit’s working conditions—and he had a good job by Victorian standards! Since there were no printers or copiers in the 1800s, businesses hired clerks to copy documents all day by hand. Scrooge expected Bob to keep copying documents word by word for the entire workday—that’s 8 to 10 hours per day, six days a week!
And how much did Bob make at this “good” job?
Scrooge paid Bob 15 shillings a week, just 5 shillings short of a pound, or 39 pounds a year. Experts disagree on today’s dollar equivalent of the Victorian pound, but they consistently place the value between $20 and $200. That means that in the best-case scenario, Bob brought home just under $200 a week, while in the worst-case scenario, Bob earned less than $20 a week. Rent on a decent house would have been about 9 shillings a week, leaving just 6 shillings to feed and clothe a family of six. A loaf of bread cost about a shilling. So things were very, very tight for the Cratchits!
What is a workhouse, anyway?
A workhouse was a building where the homeless, jobless and starving could go to live, work and eat. Even though homelessness was a very common problem in Victorian England, many rich people like Scrooge feared that the poor were just too lazy to work and would take advantage of tax-funded shelter and food. To ensure that their tax money did not “go to waste,” the rich insisted that the government make the workhouses as miserable as possible.
Families were separated into large groups of men, women and children. Family members could not even see each other at meals, and certainly could not sleep near each other at night. Each person had to wear a drab gray uniform. The work was mandatory and menial—a common workhouse task was to spend all day breaking larger stones into smaller pieces. The “free” food was no more than one meager portion of gruel per day. On the rare occasion that a person had free time, he or she was forbidden to play cards or any other games, and could rarely visit family in other parts of the workhouse.
Why does Scrooge suggest prison as a resource for the poor?
In Victorian England, if a man could not pay his bills, the government could send him to prison! There, the wardens treated him like a common criminal. The government designed purposefully useless tasks for prisoners to perform so that debtors would realize the pointlessness of their crime. For example, prisoners had to walk the treadmill, a large metal cylinder with evenly spaced steps attached to it. The cylinder spun around and around while the prisoner walked for hours, struggling not to miss a step and to keep pace with the other prisoners suffering the same fate. The task was exhausting, and the government eventually banned the treadmill, but not before thousands of debtors had walked its steps.
Why does Tiny Tim need a crutch?
Many researchers, pediatricians, and literary scholars have attempted to diagnose Tiny Tim. Here are some of their arguments:
a) Tiny Tim had rickets, a Vitamin D deficiency.
The Case for it: Vitamin D is found in milk, which the Cratchits could not afford, and in sunlight, which would have been scarce in the poorer, smog-filled area of London where the Cratchits lived. Without Vitamin D, kids don’t build healthy bones, and their legs can bow under the weight of their own bodies—just like Tiny Tim’s leg!
The Argument against it: Rickets was not usually fatal, and the Ghost of Christmas Present insists that Tiny Tim will die if Scrooge does not help him. And if the Cratchits did have a problem getting enough Vitamin D, the other children in the family would have had rickets too.
b) Tiny Tim had TB, or Tuberculosis, a very common disease of the time.
The Case for it: Though TB was generally a respiratory disease in adults, it could appear in children under 10 as a crippling illness that also caused fatigue (Bob says that Tim is tired.) and weight loss (“Tiny” Tim). Left untreated, TB would have eventually killed Tim. But a little help from Scrooge – good nutrition, rest, and a back-brace – could have saved Tim’s life and put his disease into remission.
The Argument against it: At the end of the story, Tiny Tim is cured. TB never would have been completely cured, and Tim never would have been well enough to run into Scrooge’s arms.
c) Tim had Renal Tubular Acidosis, a type of Kidney Disease.
The Case: Doctors would have thought Tim had TB, and they would have given him a medicine that contained excess acids. In fact, many “tonics” or medicines of the day contained acids and other harmful toxins that would have hurt Tim’s kidneys. The extra acids in Tim’s kidneys would have affected his bone production, and his short stature would have been an early sign of the disease. Then, one side of his body would have become considerably weaker than the other, causing him to walk with one crutch. And RTA is completely curable – Scrooge could have saved Tiny Tim simply by taking him to better doctors who knew what to do!
The Argument: What do you think? Which diagnosis do you think fits Tim the best?
The Food in A Christmas Carol
Let’s Start with the Goose
Where did the Cratchits get the goose for their fine Christmas feast? It is very likely that the Cratchits raised their goose from gosling to Christmas meal! In cold weather, it may have lived right in the house with the Cratchits. Because food was so scarce in the Cratchit household, they could not afford to feed the goose much, which is why it is so small. When Christmas Day rolled around, the Cratchit children said good-bye to their goose, and Peter took it to the grocer. If Mrs. Cratchit or one of the children hadn’t already killed it at home, the grocer killed it, feathered it and put it in the oven. Why take it to the grocer? Fuel was very expensive in Victorian England, and many poor households did not even have an oven. Families had their meat baked at the grocer’s about once a week—or only as often as they could afford meat to bake.
The Christmas Pudding
When you think of pudding, you probably think of sweet chocolate pudding made by JELLO. In fact, Belinda’s Christmas pudding barely resembled the pudding you eat today. Belinda stirred sugar and “plums” together; “Plums” was a word used in Victorian England to describe raisins, not the sweet purple fruit you eat today. Then, Belinda stuffed the mixture into a ball of thin dough and wrapped the ball in “pudding cloth”—a cotton rag tied at the top. Martha helped Belinda drop her pudding into the kettle, the big pot of water boiling on the family’s “hearth” (fireplace.) Because the pudding was wrapped in cloth, it did not mix with the potatoes already cooking in the pot. This was ideal for a poor family like the Cratchits, who could save a lot of fuel and water by cooking multiple parts of a meal at once, and at the same time produce heat to warm their home. When the pudding was done, the Cratchits gathered round the table and “took up the Christmas Pudding”—pulled it out of the boiling water with a long fork. They unwrapped the pudding and enjoyed their tasty—and practical—dessert. It was the perfect snack for a poor family: The pudding contained fat and carbohydrates to keep the family warm and sugar to give the family energy, was relatively inexpensive, and of course, delicious!
What is gruel?
While the Cratchits treated themselves to Christmas pudding, Scrooge greedily dug into his evening gruel. It was a thin, bland mix of oats and water or milk, and an economical meal to prepare and easy to make in bulk, which is why it was a favorite in institutions like prisons and workhouses—and in Scrooge’s lonely, sparse household. Like most Londoners at the time, Scrooge also believed gruel had medicinal qualities that could cure a cold.
The Toy Store Window
Many of the toys in Victorian England were similar to the toys you have today, with one important difference: the material. There was no plastic; there were no electronic parts; and of course, there were no video games! Young boys played with tin soldiers, tin drums and even metal yo-yos. Young girls played with dolls. A very wealthy little girl could have had a beautiful creation with a head and arms made of wax or china and a body made of stuffed calico or carved out of wood. She could have dressed her doll in layers of silk or taffetta. Girls who could not afford extravagant dolls made their dolls at home from rags, gave them button eyes, and loved them just as much as if they were made of silk.