Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Managing Danger in the Home Environment, 1900-1940

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Managing Danger in the Home Environment, 1900-1940

Article excerpt

"Since the dawn of history, woman has been in charge of the home and has been responsible for it. This work of home safety is peculiarly woman's work."

Arvilla Miller, General Federation of Women's Clubs, 1929


Where does environmental risk reside? Obviously danger is found not only in our ambient surroundings but also within the home itself. Anthropologist Mary Douglas has written about how environmental risk perceptions reflect a set of deeper concerns about social dangers, and can provide insights into contemporary social values and structures. Degrees of risk and frequency of accident occurrence are intimately intertwined, but both the perception of danger and its causes, as well as the responsibility for controlling or reducing it, have shifted over time. Increasingly, in the twentieth century, as the home was viewed less as a "haven" and more as a place where danger might reside, society held women most responsible for guaranteeing its safety. The examination of home accidents and of the movement for home safety, therefore, can help enlighten our understanding of social change, including our perception of the redefinition of the home and gender roles within it.(1)

In a recent and challenging article, Maureen Flanagan has showed how Chicago women extrapolated lessons about improving the larger urban environment from their attempts to make their home environments more livable. They utilized an image, she writes, of the city as a "shared home." Their larger goal was to produce the "city livable" - a city that emphasized "cleanliness, health, safety, and protecting and preserving the environment for common use and common good." Achievement of the "city livable," she adds, was a sharply different goal from that of male reformers, who saw the city primarily as a business to be improved by "technology, efficiency, and professional expertise."(2)

In this article we invert Flanagan's thesis and discuss how gender and risk perceptions helped structure considerations of accidents within the home environment rather than without. We explore how the larger safety organizations, as well as women themselves in the home economics movement, adopted what Flanagan calls the male values of "technology, efficiency, and professional expertise in an attempt to control home accidents and create a culture of safety.(3) In the process of exploring these American patterns, we will examine the transition from home-as-haven to home-as-dangerous-place and the attempt to formulate a culture of home safety. In particular, we focus on the development of the home safety movement centering around the notion of women as home safety managers.

The Home as Haven

Since the Victorian period, society has identified the home as a "haven" from a ruthless and chaotic world, and women as the home-makers and keepers of the haven, ruling over the domestic environment.(4) Linked in with the concept of the home as haven was the idea of the home as women's "sphere." Men might go off to labor in office and industry, but women would remain behind to raise families and to provide the emotional and physical support enabling men to operate in the ruthless and materialistic world of work. Women, it was argued, were "best suited, both biologically and emotionally" to provide stability against the shocks of the marketplace and the world of business, remaining in charge of family and of home.(5)

If the home was to furnish an ideal and peaceful environment, however, it had to be made safe - carefully organized, with dangerous materials and tools out of the reach of children and family members protected from hazards such as open fires and hot stoves. In order to prevent accidents, women had, as Catharine Beecher observed, to become "home managers," making housework into a "scientific study" and utilizing the newest technology.(6) Advice books about home sanitation, published in the late nineteenth century, also reflected women's responsibility to keep the home sanctuary free from threats to health. …

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