Piano Legs And The Captain

Portrait of Queen Victoria, painted by Alexander Bassano in 1887.
Portrait of Queen Victoria, 1887. 1

There is a folk story that Victorian England in the early part of the 19th century exhibited its modesty to such an extreme proportion that they covered their piano legs to prevent any salacious thoughts. This long-held myth has its roots in the fertile imagination of a sea captain and erroneous conclusions (and perhaps a little broken telephone).

A British novelist named Captain Frederick Marryat (1792 – 1848), on a visit to a girls’ seminary in America, noticed that the piano’s legs were wrapped in pantalettes. Upon enquiry at the peculiar sight, he was told it was “to preserve in their utmost purity the ideas of the young ladies under her charge.” [ 2 ] (There are no other written accounts of anyone else adopting this practice in the United States.)

Illustrated cartoon of the Victorian Dilemma, 'If we lift our skirts, they level their eye-glasses at our ankles'.
Victorian Dilemma Cartoon. 3

The British already thought Americans were obsessively puritanical and had no trouble in perpetuating this idea. The legend was then resurrected in the 20th century but was transposed to Victorian England.

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Page Sources

Bassano, Alexander, and uploaded by Phrood~commonswiki.  Portrait of Queen Victoria.  1887.  Royal Collection Trust, London.  Commons Wikimedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 20 March 2006.  Web.  28 Sept. 2015.  Public Domain.
Perrottet, Tony.  "Quick, Jeeves, Cover the Piano Legs!"  The Smart Set.  The Smart Set from Drexel University, 18 Dec. 2007.  Web.  27 Aug.  2015.
Haabet.  "Cartoon of Victorian Dilemma, 'If We Lift Our Skirts, They LevelTheir Eye-Glasses At Our Ankles.'"  Illustration.  Commons Wikimedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 19 April 2008.  Web.  28 Sept. 2015.  Public Domain.
Additional References:
  • Adams, Nene.  "The Victorians Didn’t Cover Their Table Legs."  KnowledgeNuts.  KnowledgeNuts, 21 July 2013.  Web.  27 Aug. 2015.