The Victorians and Piano Legs

You may have heard, as I did, that the Victorians were so strait-laced and repressed, that they put frilly covers around the legs of their pianos so as not to stir up improper thoughts about limbs in the minds of people around those items of furniture.

Not true, and the story of how it came to be believed is quite interesting, and somewhat amusing:

The truth – and I am indebted to Matthew Sweet’s 2001 book Inventing the Victorians for what follows – is that the Victorians did not cover the legs of their pianos at all, unless it was to keep off the dust or children’s boot.

The idea that anyone would worry about the eroticism of furniture first surfaced in Captain Marryat’s A Diary in America, published in 1839. He reported that the word ‘leg’ was not used in polite society across the Atlantic, and that when he visited a ladies’ seminary his guide informed him that the mistress of the establishment, in order to demonstrate her ‘care to preserve in their utmost purity the ideas of the young ladies under her charge had dressed all these four limbs in modest little trousers, with frills at the bottom of them!’

No doubt the guide was making fun of Marryat’s credulity, but the story soon caught on in nineteenth century Britain. How those Victorians enjoyed poking fun at the strait-laced Americans! Nothing so absurd would ever be seen over here.

Somehow the story remained in circulation, and when the publication of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians made it fashionable to scoff it was recycled to make fun of the people who had originally found it so funny. In my experience the Victorians had more go that [sic, should be than] the Bloomsbury types who came after – Virginia Woolf was particularly hard work – but the mud has stuck to this day.

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