Victorian Virtues

Recently, I bought boot polish.

You’d think I would be the sort of person who has boot polish. I mean, I have silver polish. I have dusting cloths. I have an entire sewing box, with a button collection. Remember button collections? Our mothers and grandmothers used to have them, and we used to take them out, look at the buttons, wonder where that one button shaped like a ladybug had come from. We used to let the buttons pour through our hands. I even have a tool box, with a hammer and different types of screwdrivers, so this isn’t about having the domestic tools associated with one gender rather than the other. I just, for some reason, didn’t happen to have boot polish. I don’t know why.

But my boots were looking positively disreputable. In Boston, when it snows the city maintenance workers spread a great deal of salt around. This winter, we’ve had very little snow. At this point it’s all melted, but the other day, while I was walking to the library, I kept seeing white piles. I thought, perhaps it hasn’t all melted yet? And then I realized they were piles of salt. That salt gets on your boots and leaves a white crust, as though the tide had come in and then gone out again — you have a tidal mark on your boots. And that’s how my boots looked: as though I had walked, or rather treked, through a frozen sea. So I went to the drug store, where there is a shoe care section, and bought black boot polish, several different kinds of brushes, and a buffing cloth. Now I have a boot and shoe care kit. As I sat there, on the kitchen floor (with some paper towels down to protect the floor from polish), polishing and buffing my boots, I felt a sense of virtue, and I thought, yes . . . this is what I always read about in Victorian novels. It’s the virtue of careful maintenance.

I don’t remember where I read this story, but it’s about a Victorian man who chose his wife by the neatness of her boot heels. What in the world? you may ask. But, as the storyteller explained, boot heels are constantly wearing down, and if you let them, worn, uneven boot heels will eventually ruin the boot itself. If you maintain the heels, the boots will be wearable for . . . well, a lifetime, but in the case of many Victorian boots it’s really several generations, since they’re so well-made. In a day when boots were much more expensive, relative to the average income, than they are now, boot maintenance, including boot-heel maintenance, was essential. It was the sort of thing that distinguished the thrifty, careful housewife from the other kind.

Nowadays, I often look at the boots left at Goodwill, some of them boots that originally cost several hundred dollars, and what I notice is that there’s nothing at all wrong with the boots. They simply have worn-out heels. Getting heels replaced isn’t cheap. It’s even more expensive if you need to have soles replaced as well, as I did recently: about $45. But that’s still less expensive than buying a good pair of boots. Polishing isn’t as important as getting heels replaced, but it’s part of maintenance. The maintenance of a household and wardrobe also includes polishing silver, dusting bookshelves, sewing on buttons. But these are all Victorian virtues. They seem so old-fashioned now that it’s almost as though they’ve been forgotten. When buttons fall off, people get rid of the garment.

The criticism of these virtues is that they seem so small, so petty. They take time, and often that time is gendered, because it’s usually women who do the dusting, who sew on the buttons or sew up the hems. Women are usually the ones responsible for maintenance and small repairs, although I think it’s still more common for men to polish shoes, partly because men’s shoes are so much more expensive. And yet I want to argue for these sorts of virtues, first because they are part of a culture of care that we seem almost to have forgotten — once, you cared for your things, rather than discarding them when they broke or tore or fell out of fashion. That led to a lot less waste. So these small virtues have larger implications for how we use our stuff, how we related to the larger world around us. Second, I think they’re good for us personally. Caring for your things changes you — polishing boots changes you, polishing silver changes you, sewing on buttons changes you. It makes you a different kind of person, a slower person in some ways, a person who takes time. It makes you feel differently inside, both about the stuff you’re caring for (because maintenance is a mark of love) and about yourself. Third and finally, they lead to beauty and elegance. My boots were a whole lot more beautiful once they were polished. I was proud of how they shone. I wore them proudly, rather than cringing with embarrassment whenever I put them on. I felt that particular satisfaction you feel when everything is in the right place. Now, there’s no reason everyone should eat with silverware, rather than stainless steel. But I love it, and the truth is that it’s cheap if you buy good, old silver plate, and it’s easier to take care of than you would think. I love the sheen of it, less hard than steel, sort of like moonlight.

I’m very proud, now, of having all the right tools to polish my boots. And to sew on buttons. And to do the sort of small maintenance work we all need to do in our lives, which makes our lives better, easier, more beautiful. So, you know, if you haven’t polished your boots and shoes in a while, this is just something to think about. There is, still, some value in those old, and seemingly old-fashioned, Victorian virtues . . .

Sunlight and Shadow by William Kay Blacklock

(The painting is Sunlight and Shadow by William Kay Blacklock. Yes, I know, it’s a romanticized image of a woman sewing! No, I did not look like this while I was sitting on the kitchen floor, polishing my boots. But it still captures perfectly the beauty I associate with small Victorian virtues.)

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5 Responses to Victorian Virtues

  1. That’s a great post. It IS the small virtues that I miss. And I have jars of old buttons. The other night I mended a pair of pajama pants that I think most would have thrown away. But I’m attached to my things. When I am gone, they will be like ashes in the wind. I’ve been thinking about that too. It’s been difficult.

  2. Phyllis Holliday says:

    Since I’m wearing my boots (found new at Goodwill) a lot now that we have rain, I wonder if some very old shoe polish is still good. I was never a good seamstress, except I mend well. I made theatre costumes (also from thrift shops) by taking several dresses or whatnot, and end up with a vintage take. Some garbs at thrift shops are lovely and can be mended easily. And yes, buttons.
    I just can’t toss them out. So waiting silently. I do need to give a lot of clothing away. My fat clothes!
    I slimmed down. So my closet needs to thin down. too.

  3. Philip Brewer says:

    I have the same feelings with regard to sharpening knives. It’s a simple activity that makes something better—and if done mindfully, makes me better as well.

  4. cath says:

    New to comment, not being new to reading your – interesting, inspiring – blogposts. You invited me out of silence today.
    Your ‘Small Victorian Virtues’ require what I have come to recognise as ‘inner slowing’. (‘innerlijk vertragen’ in my native tongue Dutch). I wonder does it help you with The Overwhelm?

  5. Ramona Gault says:

    I forwarded this post to my sweetie, because he sews buttons back on his shirts.

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