Public Displays and Private Tasks: Nineteenth-Century Landscape Utilization and Social Relationships at the Morris-Butler House, Indianapolis, Indiana

By Rotman, Deborah L. | Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, MCJA, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Public Displays and Private Tasks: Nineteenth-Century Landscape Utilization and Social Relationships at the Morris-Butler House, Indianapolis, Indiana


Rotman, Deborah L., Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, MCJA


ABSTRACT The Morris-Butler House (12MA768) in Indianapolis was constructed during the mid-nineteenth century, by which time the ideals of the cult of domesticity had been firmly codified. Decades before, beginning in the 1820s, domesticity emerged as a powerful ideological force in eastern North America. Largely a phenomenon of the white urban middle class, this ideal sanctioned the separation of public and private spaces within homes and yards, which were also defined as masculine and feminine, respectively. As the urban dwelling of a white middle class family, it was expected that spaces within the house and yard at the Morris-Butler house would express these idealized dichotomies. The architectural, documentary, archaeological, and oral history data from the site, however, illustrate that public and private spaces were not solely masculine and feminine. Rather, the landscape was a dynamic entity shaped not only by gender, but also class and ethnicity; varying according to the type of social interaction occurring within it. Importantly, gender was given primacy in shaping social relations in private interior contexts only, whereas uses of public space and private exterior landscapes were influenced largely by class and ethnicity.

Gender separation was an important dimension of social relations under the cult of domesticity as evident in the differential use of space. Within domestic residences, for example, private spaces like kitchens were defined under this gender ideal as feminine since they were arenas for women's work, including female members of the family and/or domestic servants (e.g., Coontz 1988; Ryan 1994; Spain 2001). Similarly, areas like the formal dining room as a space for entertaining and social reproduction were by virtue of their public purpose, defined as masculine. These dichotomies were often applied to exterior spaces as well, such that kitchen dooryards and barns were often differentially defined as feminine and masculine, respectively. This essay examines uses of public and private as well as interior and exterior space at the Morris Butler House (a property of Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana; Figure 1) to understand social relations at the site.

Architectural, documentary, archaeological, and oral history data were all important sources of evidence in this study. Shovel testing at the Morris-Butler House Museum in June 1996 revealed intact archaeological deposits in the yard (Rotman 1996). Seven units (six 1 × 1-m and one 2 × 2-m unit) were hand-excavated the side yard south of the summer kitchen and the southwestern corner of the north lot in 1997 (Rotman et al. 1998) (Figure 2). Units were excavated in arbitrary 10 cm levels and all soils were screened through 1/4-inch mesh. There was no physical, archaeological or historical evidence of human occupation at the site prior to the Morris family in the mid-nineteenth century.

The evidence from the Morris Buder House illustrated that uses of space were not influenced solely by gender and the ideals of domesticity, but by class and ethnicity as well. Public space (both interior and exterior) and exterior private landscapes were all shaped primarily by class and ethnicity. Gender was given primacy in social relations only for interior private spaces at the Morris Butler House.

The Cult of Domesticity

The cult of domesticity has been the most widely studied of nineteenthcentury gender ideologies among white middle- and upper-class families (e.g., Beetham 1996;Hayden 1995:54-63; Ryan 1985; Sklar 1973). Although domestic ideals were in circulation as early as the 1820s, the publication of The Treatise on Domestic Economy by Catharine Beecher in 1841 defined and embellished the art of domestic virtue (Beecher 1841; Giele 1995:36; Sklar 1973:136; see also Cott 1977; Ryan 1994). The ideals of true womanhood (as domesticity was alternatively known) elaborated women's position within the private sphere and celebrated qualities such as piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity (Giele 1995:36). …

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