From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice

Article excerpt

From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice. By Sarah A. Leavitt. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. xiii + 250, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95 cloth, $18.95 paper)

A folklore journal is an perhaps an odd venue for a review of a text studying the cultural history of domestic advice in America, but Sarah A. Leavitt's work provides background in women's culture that is useful for scholars in many disciplines-women's studies, American studies, history, sociology, and folklore among them. Leavitt's book-what she calls "a genealogy of domestic advice" (4)-is a critical and historical overview of the genre from before Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe's The American Woman's Home (1869) to Martha Stewart's Martha Stewart Living (1990). Focusing primarily on the years 1850 to 1950, with a conclusion updating domestic advice to the Stewart-dominated 1990s, Leavitt pursues the premise that these texts and their writers reflected and promoted cultural ideals reflected in home furnishing, ornamentation, home architecture and design, and the general art of housekeeping. Leavitt uses the term "domestic fantasy" to delineate the cultural ideals envisioned by domestic advisors in each era. It is a good illustration of Berger and Luckmann's concept of the "social construction of reality."

Beginning with nineteenth-century texts, Leavitt shows how domestic advice manuals reinforced women's role in the home by suggesting their empowerment as wives and mothers in well-run Christian homes. By the late nineteenth century, writers of domestic advice advocated a revised "domestic fantasy" with new ideas about sanitation and the creation of healthy homes through science. (I wish Leavitt had pushed this point a bit more: equating housewives with science and medicine, almost exclusively male domains, persuades women readers to see housework as a nifty "profession.") Here is the beginning of test kitchens, scientific principles applied to counter height, and the Good Housekeeping Institute. The third chapter focuses on household education as a means of teaching new immigrants ways to live, dress, and decorate as "real" Americans. As a school and Agricultural Extension subject, Home Economics reached rural and African-American women, encouraging conformity and reconfirming home decor as a reflection of American values (mass-produced furniture as democratic). The next chapter presents the twentieth-century "fantasy" of the home not as the dusty and bric-a-brac-crammed Victorian ideal, but as clean, uncluttered, streamlined, and sanitary. This is followed by a chapter on the conjoining of ideas of gender and color. By the 1920s women were being told that colors and furnishings could affect character development in their children, and by the 1940s the associations of pink with feminine and blue with masculine had become firmly established in American culture. …