Discussions about, toward,
around, and alongside the
New England American Studies
Association's Fall 2011 Conference.
See the schedule at the bottom of
the page, and please add your voice
and perspective to the mix!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dream Homes: Domestic Consumerism and Etiquette

My post yesterday on Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House left me thinking about the plethora of ways that the fantasy and consumerism of home infiltrates our lives…

Think: Home Depot, Martha Stewart, HGTV, Extreme Makeover Home Edition… 

Each of these examples engages us in a home-oriented consumer-culture: a homeowner is responsible for a varied set of commodities and services to maintain the home, from general repairs and snow shoveling to garbage cans and washing machines… but in addition to that we are enticed by a (constructed) cultural ideal of home.  

This fantasy of the ideal home has been shaped in many ways by the domestic advice manual: hundreds of which have been written over the course of the past 150 years.

These are some of my personal favorites:

·         The American Frugal Housewife 
by Lydia Maria Francis Child (1834)
Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy this manual is available on Google Books. 
·         The American Woman's Home: or, Principles of Domestis Science
 by Catharine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869)
A guide to the formation and maintenance of economical, healthful, beautiful, and Christian homes written by the Beecher sisters is also available on Google Books.
·         Guide to Easier Living
by Mary and Russell Wright (1950)
Republished in 2003, this a handbook for the modern home intended to liberate women from old-fashioned formal entertaining, and families from old-fashioned and high-maintenance furniture. Though not available on Google Books, there is a great New York Times article about the Wrights.
·         Martha Stewart
·         Domino Book of Decorating
by Editors of Domino Magazine (2008)
The amazing Domino magazine is no longer in publication, nevertheless this indispensable style manual takes readers room by room, demystifying the decorating process and providing the tools for creating spaces that are personal, functional and fabulous.
·         DesignSponge
edited by Grace Bonney (2004-present)
A daily website dedicated to home and product design with over 20,000 readers daily. 

For a thoughtful study of these manuals (and more), turn to historian Sarah A. Leavitt’s book From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice.  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.

Have a favorite domestic advice manual? Please share below. 

Written by Marieke Van Der Steenhoven
University of Southern Maine, American and New England Studies 


  1. Indeed, I would have mentioned the Lydia Maria Childs books. From what I have learned about this topic in mothering books, apparently sometime between 1869 and 1950, there was a huge rise in germ consciousness. As germs and their contagion became more well known with science, women became responsible for the cleanliness and health of their homes. There would have been manuals telling women how to disinfect, and there would have been a huge rise in advertisements for germ management. The home became the safe haven against a world of dirt, and thus, the cleaning expectations of modern households.

    I also love this project for its ideological significance. The home was a critical space for identity until the Industrial Revolution, and then it reemerged with the 1950s. My students today assume the American dream as a home with a white picket fence has always been ubiquitous, but of course, it has much more to do with the time period and its context that you are examining here.

    Looking forward to it!

    All best,
    Laura D'Amore
    Roger Williams University

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  3. Laura, thanks for your comment!

    The rise of the germ consciousness is absolutely fascinating, and something I've addressed in the context of an essay about the origins of the paper cup (http://www.aa-ee.org/index.php?/project/vol-1--no-1/) which emerges at this specific moment you've cited. I love the connection between the then new awareness of bacteria, cleanliness, and home... something that is still prolific in today's consumer rhetoric!