Making the American Home: Middle-Class Women & Domestic Material Culture, 1840-1940

Making the American Home: Middle-Class Women & Domestic Material Culture, 1840-1940

Making the American Home: Middle-Class Women & Domestic Material Culture, 1840-1940

Making the American Home: Middle-Class Women & Domestic Material Culture, 1840-1940

Synopsis

The transformation of a house into a home has been in our culture a traditional task of women. The articles examine this process as they reflected the role of American middle-class women as homemakers in the years 1840-1940.

Excerpt

Marilyn Ferris Motz

The transformation of a house, a physical structure, into a home, with its resonant emotional meanings, has been in our culture a traditional task of women. The importance of this work has frequently been overlooked, in part because the work process is hidden from public view, often even from the view of other family members. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even many working-class women were able to achieve some degree of decoration of the home. Anzia Yezierska records in her 1912 novel, Bread Givers, the pride with which the mother of a poor Jewish family in New York City would lay out a white tablecloth every Friday night, a symbol not only of the importance of the Sabbath dinner as a religious ritual but also of the mother's ability to own and keep clean a piece of white linen—to create, even in the midst of poverty, a sense of control of the environment, an illusion of beauty and security. It was, however, the middle-class and upper-class married woman of the period who was the primary focus of what has come to be known as the "cult of domesticity," the belief that women should devote themselves to home and family since such attention would satisfy women's natural desires as well as fulfill their duty to society (Welter; Cott).

Both popular fiction and didactic literature glorified the role of women in altering the household environment, raising the task to the status of an almost holy endeavor. The articles collected here examine this process of the making of a home, the adaptation and decoration of the house itself and the creation, selection, and arrangement of the objects within it as they reflected the role of American middle-class women as homemakers in the years from 1840 to 1940.

Throughout the nineteenth century, and to a lesser extent during the first half of the twentieth century, women were expected to devote themselves to home and family. Indeed the atmosphere of the home was seen as having an almost mystical effect on its inhabitants, determining their moral standards, happiness, and success in the outside world. It was the responsibility of the homemaker to create this aura of well-

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