Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Mansions, Men, Women, and the Creation of Multiple Publics in Eighteenth-Century British North America

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Mansions, Men, Women, and the Creation of Multiple Publics in Eighteenth-Century British North America

Article excerpt


Beginning in the first quarter of the eighteenth century many colonial elites built homes modeled on England's lower gentry. These dwellings were different in both size and function from earlier houses. Not only were they larger, but they divided up hitherto undifferentiated space into separate rooms where specialized social interactions took place and where the public part of the house could be segregated from the private.

Scholarly discussion about the new spatial arrangements in the great house has focused upon an aspiring, nouveau-riche elite's quest for gentility. [1] Ornate rooms signaled wealth and taste, and therefore social superiority, as the wealthy invested their objects and their homes with meanings, expressed through an encoded polite behavior, which, it has been argued, sharpened class distinctions. Such a process is probably true, but this essay moves beyond gentility to argue that the spatial resources made available by the building of eighteenth-century mansions permitted the formation of multiple gendered publics. It assumes that colonial mansions were both mirrors of and metaphors for colonial society and asks what publics were created through differential access to and use of space, how these publics bound people together into both more local and more widespread communities of interest and ultimately power, and how these publics became more gendered over time. To explore this more subtle use of space this e ssay utilizes the theoretical insights of Jurgen Habermas, Karen Hansen, and Hannah Arendt on the construction of public spheres to show the process through which real as opposed to theoretical publics evolved. [2]

The evolution of the colonial mansion from a two room hall-parlor house to a many-roomed great house provided space that was hierarchically organized with men having access to the more formal, expensive, and psychologically satisfying parts of the house for all-male activities. These rooms, the political and intellectual centers of the house, allowed men to interact with male peers on a variety of levels, while the library permitted them to temporarily cultivate a life of leisure, perhaps even partake in what Hannah Arendt calls the vita contemplativa, "the only truly free way of life," excluding, as it did, the "necessities of earthly life." [3]

Mansions also provided space for mixed-gender and female publics to emerge. Heterosocial interaction utilized almost the same spaces as did all male socializing with the important exception of the library but, given eighteenth-century notions of women's intellectual capacities, men and women tended to confine their conversation and opinion making to the superficial. All-female space in the big house was never available unconditionally unless it was the bedroom of a single woman. Married women also used bedrooms as personal parlors but of course shared these rooms with spouses. Functionally, however, the eighteenth-century big house allowed the elite to separate men and women within the domestic sphere long before the American Revolution, a pattern which by the 1820s had filtered down to the middle classes and has been variously called "female culture," or "separate spheres," by those studying the nineteenth century. [4]

The eighteenth-century mansion allowed for the formation of multiple publics, but the term itself requires definition to be useful. In this essay, public will refer to a body of private individuals who form a public opinion; or who exercise reason and judge the humanistic, natural, social, and political world about them; or who share assumptions, values, or conclusions about that world; or those who connect emotionally or indulge communally in personally rewarding behavior; or who judge the taste, virtue, value, or education of other people. [5]

Publics had other characteristics besides their personnel. Colonial publics were contingent, evanescent, and arguably essential. …

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