Author: Madison Vlass
The Crying Child Figurine is a piece of material culture that reveals much about social status and everyday life at the Industrial School for Girls. Busts like this one were iconic pieces in Victorian America and represented the ideals and taste of the middle class.It is Parian ware, or a highly vitrified unglazed “bisque” porcelain, that was used frequently for interior design ceramics by ceramic manufacturers during the last half of the 19th century. Intended to look like marble, this small bust presents a young child with a veil over her hair, shedding a tear.
Parian was first developed by Copeland and Garrett in Staffordshire, England in 1842, and marketed in 1846. This new material created creamy ivory ceramics and lent itself to the creation of small hollow busts and statues. The name “Parian” was fashioned by another Staffordshire ceramics firm, Minton, to emphasize the material’s resemblance to marble from the Greek island of Paros. Paros marble was considered the height of opulence and luxury in the mid-19th century and decorated many high-class homes and buildings. Parian, therefore, was revolutionary because it was inexpensive, imitation marble that could be purchased by the middle class.
Parian busts like this one were fashionable during the 1860s and 1870s, their development and popularity made possible through the industrial revolution and mass-production techniques. The decorative aesthetic in Victorian England, and America by extension, was dominated by busy interiors with many decorative novelties that were intended to reflect the residents’ supposed education and worldliness. Classical themes, famous statues, and literary heroes were cast in affordable miniature, along with intricate tableware and decorative ornaments. The art press helped make such pieces fashionable in America, where they were often sold at the shops of urban ceramic and glass dealers. Most Parian ware was made in England, but American ceramicists also took up the practice. Some English immigrants brought original casts with them, while other firms began portraying patriotic themes and famous American figures. In Boston, retailers purchased Parian figures from American sculptors such as Thomas Ball, Martin Milmore, and Daniel Chester French. The rise of Parian ware represented the move toward democratic art that was not restricted to the wealthy; it was affordable art that could be purchased and admired by the general public.
Parian ware, although more attainable than marble statues, was still a luxury item. The poor and the destitute probably would not have owned many pieces whose value was primarily aesthetic. The Crying Child figure’s presence at the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls, therefore, represents the reform commitments of the patrons, matrons, and managers of the institution. It may have sat on a shelf or a mantle in the School in order to inspire conversation, or in hopes of exposing the students to a wider cultural world. The Industrial School also instructed the girls in the creation of a home and so this figurine was probably included in the decor in order to present the proper aesthetics of home furnishing.
The subject of the Crying Child and its symbolic meaning are not obvious without a title or inscription. Within a religious context, it could depict a young Jesus or the Madonna, but it is more likely that it was a representation of piety or secular submissiveness. The women of the Industrial School hoped to impress on the young girls a sense of morality and faith and instruct them in the 19th-century culture of domesticity. Within in this social construct, women were supposed to possess four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. The young repentant, obedient figure may have been an example for the children to aspire to. Although the ISFG was not associated with a particular church or religious order, the girls attended a Christian church to worship on Sundays. The women who ran and funded the school were primarily Protestant, and spiritual guidance would have been an important aspect of the girls’ educations. The Crying Child represents each of the essential virtues and offered an example of middle-class morality and aesthetics.
The Crying Child was discovered in the privy of the ISFG. How had it broken? Could it have been damaged by one of the young girls who threw it into the privy to hide the evidence? Was it cracked by accident or as a malicious act against God or an authority figure? Perhaps the image of a pious, submissive figure did not sit well with one of the girls. It just could have just as easily been broken by a matron or someone cleaning, thrown away intentionally because it was ruined. Or, perhaps it was simply discarded because of changes in taste and style, and subsequently broken after it was thrown in the privy. By the late 19th century, a cultural reaction against the industrial revolution replaced the opulence and excess of Victorian styles with simple aesthetics and honest materials upheld by the emerging Arts and Crafts movement, which sought to reform both art and labor. While there are still many unanswered questions about this ambiguous and intriguing figure, its presence in the school and in the reform-landscape reveals much about class and culture of Victorian America.