American Home Life

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Jessica H. Foy and Thomas J. Schlereth, eds. American Home Life, 1880-1930: A Social History of Spaces and Services. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1992. Pp. x, 284. ISBN 0-87049-759-6.

American Home Life, 1880-1930: A Social History of Spaces and Services edited by Jessica H. Foy and Thomas J. Schlereth is a collection of essays from a conference on domestic life in 1989. In his introductory essay, editor Schlereth discusses the ways that houses can be studies; either through art historical methodology as an object or through a social history perspective as a “complicated environment of social behavior – a complex artifact of artifacts embodying interactions between genders, classes, and generations (p. 5).” The essays seek to do the latter by contextualizing the changes that occurred as home décor and layout moved from the Victorian period to the self-consciously modern home of the 1920s and 1930s. The volume is divided into three thematic groups.

Room Life focuses on specialized room use including bedrooms, parlors, libraries, and spaces created specifically for children. Candace Volz examines the new rooms that developed through changes in the economy. Breakfast nooks came into use as owners had less help in the home and meals became more casual. Sunrooms and sleeping porches were a way to connect to nature as suburban living began to disconnect people from spending as much time out of doors.

Several of the essays discuss changes in use and arrangements of specific rooms and Katherine Grier’s piece on the parlor is one of the most convincing. Victorian homes were designed around the premise that public and private spaces should be kept separate – a holdover from elite houses reaching back to even the colonial era. Grier calls the parlor the “memory palace” and cites the popularity of expositions, including the American Exposition of 1876. Parlors became places to display knowledge through collections of books, scientific artifacts, and family history. As houses became smaller and household help less affordable or available, the modern living room replaced the parlor. Grier points out that another reason for smaller homes was the cost of digging a basement foundation to house plumbing and a furnace added considerably to its expense. Consequently, economics dictated many of the changes as well as philosophic shifts. Another example of this is the loss of the nursery from homes. Formerly a space that was shared by the youngest children of both sexes for many years, it became simply the room that houses the youngest member of the family. Karin Calvert points to smaller families and a growing discomfort with rooming children of the same sex together at any age. The author does not, however, explore why this discomfort became evident at this time.

The section entitled Home Life focuses on American family pastimes of the era such as parlor games, music, gardening and worship in the home. Donna Braden’s essay on family pastimes elucidates the fact that more people had leisure time to spend together. Because of increasing options for outside activities available in urban and suburban areas, home amusements were seen as a way to keep the family together. Books on home and family stressed the importance of building bonds to keep children close to home and out of trouble. Board games, music, and home theatricals among others became ways for families to interact. In some homes, especially Protestant, the parlor became a space to hold bible readings and prayers led by the patriarch of the family. During the Victorian era, Gothic design added to the religious atmosphere of the home. The home was considered “sacred space” and was as appropriate as a church for christenings, weddings, and funerals. Colleen McDonnell explores the reasons for the demise of this practice as the twentieth century dawned. The Social Gospel movement attacked home-based Christianity and instead stressed the importance of righting social ills.

The last section examines how technological innovations brought change under the guise of improvements to the domestic sphere including appliances, utilities and domestic help. In her essay “Coal Stoves and Clean Sinks,” Ruth Schwartz Cowan states that between 1890 and 1930 “the equipment with which housework was done underwent a veritable industrial revolution (211).” Gas ranges eliminated the need for hauling fuel and ashes, electric lighting needed no cleaning, and electric appliances such as fans and irons changed the environment – and temperature – of the home. These were all great improvements but women appeared to be spending more time on housework than ever. Cowan cites the reasons as the decline in household help, the decline in services to the home such as laundresses and deliveries by grocers, bakers, etc. The third reason was because standards of cleanliness rose in part because of the new “germ theory” which mandated that bathrooms and kitchens must be spotless.

The volume is generously illustrated but little contextual narrative is provided to link the images to the text or explanation of why each specific image was selected or how they fit into the larger themes of the piece. All too often these essays are object driven rather than informed by the object. The focus of this collection is on a period of great change in domestic arrangements. New technologies lessened the need for live-in help or any at all. What is often left unsaid are the many other economic and political changes of the era and the impact they had on the individual. One of the greatest changes during this period that affected people’s lives was the switch from horse-drawn vehicles to automobiles. Teddy Roosevelt was an accomplished horseman and he clung to his broughams and landaus throughout his presidency but he was the last president to ride in a carriage as a primary means of transportation. In just a few decades transportation had changed from the way it had been for centuries and a sub-culture was completely lost except as a novelty. Domestic life went through the greatest change that it had for centuries rivaled perhaps only by the recent development of the home computer wherein the home office is no longer a space but a thing – the laptop. The 1890s to 1930s was a time of radical change and it provides ample opportunity for study. This volume is a good introduction to the themes of the period.

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