‘The Very Latest Craze’ Slumming Parties in the Late-Nineteenth Century

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Gale is committed to helping students discover research insights to advance learning and research. Gale Ambassadors are students who work within their own university to increase awareness of the Gale primary source collections available to their fellow students. Our Ambassadors study a variety of different disciplines, and all are open to receiving thoughts or questions from other students at their university about Gale Primary Sources.

By Megan Murphy, Gale Ambassador at the University of Liverpool
I’m a third year History student at the University of Liverpool, a Gale Student Ambassador, and a self-proclaimed Jane Austen fanatic. As a modern historian, my main research interests revolve around the development of Victorian cities – particularly the crime and deviance that took place within them. Outside of my studies, in the rare time I spend without my head in a nineteenth-century newspaper, I specialise in binge-watching Louis Theroux documentaries.

During the mid-nineteenth century, slums in the world’s largest metropolises (namely London and New York) became a site of continuous fascination. From Henry Mayhew’s famous ‘Labour and the Poor’ series in The Morning Chronicle, to Jacob Riis’ book length study ‘How the Other Half Live’, social commentators in both Britain and the US were captivating the minds of middle class society with their investigations into the living conditions of the urban poor. Yet what is perhaps most interesting about this fascination is the social phenomenon of ‘slumming parties’ which resulted. This phenomenon was readily reported on within the pages of both the British and US press, which I have been able to investigate through the British Library Newspapers and Nineteenth Century US Newspapers archives inside of Gale Primary Sources.

Extract from “LABOUR AND THE POOR.” Morning Chronicle [1801], 12 Nov. 1849. British Library Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6LUu62. Accessed 10 Apr. 2018.

Firstly, an article in the Milwaukee Journal from 1884 provides us with a helpful, if not slightly sanitised, explanation of what ‘slumming’ entailed:

‘Oh, the latest London sensation, you know. A party of ladies and gentlemen get together and, under the guidance of a couple of policemen, they go out at night and make a tour through the tough side of town.’

A more damning description of the practice of ‘slumming’ is further outlined in the North American:

‘… they wander through the quarters of the poor, the outcast, and the lost ones of the great town, pushing their way into rooms where drunken louts, repulsive women and scraggy and unkempt children lie sleeping like so many worms in a bait box… The high-born men and women gaze upon their dirty fellow creatures.’

“Degeneracy of Dramatic Morals.” Daily Picayune, 3 Dec. 1899, p. 4. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5cfki9. Accessed 10 Apr. 2018

It did not take long for the practice of ‘slumming’ to essentially become a commercial enterprise. An article in the Daily Mail in 1894 reveals that not only was the International Information Agency providing ‘personally conducted’ slumming tours for the sum of one guinea, but tours were also following carefully calculated routes that included dramatic and theatrical locations – with one tour even visiting the bedroom where one of Jack the Ripper’s victims was found. Similarly, in the US, an article in the Milwaukee Journal reports of a man who devised a business conducting slumming tours around Chinatown, New York, at the price of two dollars; the price even includes a Chinese supper with ‘chop sticks and all the usual Celestial paraphernalia and delicacies’.

“Slumming in Chicago.” Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 23 Oct. 1893. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6LSdMX. Accessed 10 Apr. 2018

In addition to this commercial manifestation, many also saw the practice of ‘slumming’ as a philanthropic or charitable endeavour. From the Women’s Christian Union to the Salvation Army, many humanitarian groups saw slumming as an opportunity to ‘enlighten’ the urban poor, hoping to save them from the temptations of vice (yet to what extent their methods were effective is highly questionable).

“THE VERY LATEST CRAZE; OR, OVERDOING IT.” Punch, or the London Charivari, 22 Dec. 1883, p. 294. 19th Century UK Periodicals, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6Jy9G5. Accessed 10 Apr. 2018.

Furthermore, the satirical magazine Punch provides a humorous interjection to the contemporary reporting of slumming. The image above seemingly mocks middle class society when a lady embarking upon a slumming expedition proclaims that her mackintosh is worn to keep out infection.

“DISCOURAGING.” Punch, or the London Charivari, 14 Aug. 1897, p. 66. 19th Century UK Periodicals, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5ekQF3. Accessed 10 Apr. 2018.

Similarly, “DISCOURAGING” above, mocks a philanthropist seeking a to find a particularly rough street in London; after finding himself unknowingly in an exchange with the most dangerous man on the street, he quickly hurries away.
Overall, despite the many different forms of reporting the slumming sensation – whether that be representing slumming as an entertainment business, a philanthropic enterprise or as the target of satire – the wealth of material on the nineteenth century urban slum shows us it was a continuous site of public fixation and fascination.

Overall, despite the many different forms of reporting the slumming sensation – whether that be representing slumming as an entertainment business, a philanthropic enterprise or as the target of satire – the wealth of material on the nineteenth century urban slum shows us it was a continuous site of public fixation and fascination.

Blog post cover image citation: “IN SLUMMIBUS.” Punch, or the London Charivari, 3 May 1884, p. 210. 19th Century UK Periodicals, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5eeeT0. Accessed 10 Apr. 2018