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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Today's domestic-advice writers--women such as Martha Stewart, Cheryl Mendelson, and B. Smith--are part of a long tradition, notes Sarah Leavitt. Their success rests on a legacy of literature that has focused on the home as an expression of ideals. Here, Leavitt crafts a fascinating genealogy of domestic advice, based on her readings of hundreds of manuals spanning 150 years of history.

Over the years, domestic advisors have educated women about everything from modernism and morality to sanitation and design. Their writings helped create the idealized vision of home held by so many Americans, Leavitt says. Investigating cultural themes in domestic advice written since the mid-nineteenth century, she demonstrates that these works, which found meaning in kitchen counters, parlor rugs, and bric-a-brac, have held the interest of readers despite vast changes in women's roles and opportunities.

Domestic-advice manuals have always been the stuff of fantasy, argues Leavitt, demonstrating cultural ideals rather than cultural realities. But these rich sources reveal how women understood the connection between their homes and the larger world. At its most fundamental level, the true domestic fantasy was that women held the power to reform their society through first reforming their homes.

Excerpt

The organizers of the 1996 Rhode Island Flower and Garden Show landed the perfect guest speaker for their annual luncheon. Held on a bright but chilly New England February afternoon, the event took place at the brand-new Westin Hotel and Conference Center in downtown Providence. The lunch itself, at seventy-five dollars a plate, would be gourmet fare, but it was not the reason for the large crowd. The guest speaker provided the appeal. Women from all over the region, along with a few men, gathered in the banquet hall where tables decked with early spring daffodils presented a celebratory scene. In the nearby conference hall, exhibitors presented a mind-boggling array of trees, shrubs, garden landscape projects, and exotic flowers. But for now, the lucky lunch guests turned their eyes to the stage. Enter Martha Stewart.

The topic of her lecture was the garden at her Westport, Connecticut, home. The program was to include a slide show filled with befores-and-afters, meant to excite the members of the audience with her stunning artistic sense and the beautiful projects for which she was beginning to become famous. A few minutes before the slide show was set to begin, the projector broke down, and a voice announced that the speech would be delayed. This was my chance. I approached the head table and introduced myself. I was writing a dissertation on the history of domestic-advice manuals, I explained, and I was interested to know if she thought of her work as having historical precedent. In the course of this brief encounter in the glittering ballroom of the Westin Hotel, Stewart readily conversed about the role of history in her work.

Stewart displayed a remarkable knowledge of the history of domestic advice. She cited several names of nineteenth-century advisors and noted that she had some of their works in her office, which she referred to from time to time for her magazine. Her assistant, sitting next to her, affirmed that Stewart loved to read from the old manuals and got many of her story ideas from them. Indeed, over the years Martha Stewart Living had featured then-and-now stories of the changes and continuities in American decorating. Stewart herself thought that the . . .

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