A History of Domestic Advice

From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice (2002) by Sarah A. Leavitt intrigued me from the moment I first found it on the shelves of my university library. I was working on a research paper about the female inventor of the dishwasher and communication, which I recently presented in Vienna, Austria, and I wanted to look at how the dishwasher was presented in domestic advice manuals. While I checked out this book for that project, I never ended up reading it until now. And I didn’t need to. It isn’t about the dishwasher at all.

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It’s about the domestic advice manuals from the 1850s to the 1950s, and how their values and what the author calls the “domestic fantasy” changed over time, depending on trends in design, health, and architecture. During the Victorian age, the home was more ornate, with formal parlors that sported lace and plush furniture. Later on, decorating moved toward clean lines, plastic furniture, and simple rooms meant to be functional. The author explored in detail the masculine/feminine tension between these two ideals. I was also intrigued by the connection to the Arts and Crafts movement, which was often seen as a more masculine design trend as well. It was a “rejection of excess and sentimentality in American homes” (p. 150). The sanitation movement additionally influenced decoration and home trends, because any surface that couldn’t be wiped or sanitized became suspect. Fluffy pillows and heavy draperies were thought to be unsanitary.

As to the domestic fantasy, Leavitt notes that “domestic advisors demonstrate cultural ideals, not cultural realities” (p. 5). While her study (based on her dissertation) is focused historically, she includes a preface and afterword examining the domestic fantasy we have today, as promoted by Martha Stewart. Linking her claim that domestic advice is often based on ideals rather than realities, and therefore cannot tell us much about how women actually lived then, to Martha Stewart and our current obsession with domesticity helps us as readers to understand just how true that claim is. We know we can’t cook, decorate, craft, and garden like Martha without a team of help and lots of money. We might try to attain that ideal, but we might also find it dissatisfying, impossible, and ridiculous at times.

I loved the connection that Leavitt made to professionalization. Much of my research focuses on the professionalization of women, both in the home and in the workplace. I have a journal article in press right now about how mom bloggers have redefined the workplace and professionalized motherhood. I’m intrigued by professional identities, especially for women, so this book gave me a sense of how women participated in professionalization in earlier times. Leavitt wrote, “The professionalization of home economics provided job opportunities for many women” (p. 45). She goes on to explain that the women formed an association, met yearly, and published an academic journal. They obtained academic authority while acting to be authorities on the home to other women. Food science also played a role in this, and many of the domestic manuals I’ve looked at over the last few years are heavily based on chemistry and cooking. “Because women had a traditional connection to food preparation, the kitchen was a logical place to begin the professionalization of all the home arts” (p. 45).

There is an interesting connection between domestic advice manuals and national identity, which Leavitt explores heavily in her book. I saw a connection to an article in the field of American Studies titled “Manifest Domesticity” by Amy Kaplan, which explains how early domestic advice manuals were attempts to keep American ideals in place by keeping out the foreign. If you think about it, the word “domestic,” as opposed to the word “foreign,” takes on a whole new meaning. Leavitt explained that “women wrote about the home as if it had the power to influence one’s national values” (p. 75). The texts often worked to Americanize immigrants, and often “left out black women . . . [because] [f]or most domestic advisors, black women existed only as servants” (p. 75). We see a microcosm of what it meant to be American during this time period in the book, between 1900 and 1920, and that it often excluded those of other cultures and races. The goal of much domestic advice was to “literally change the social class of their readers” (p. 75). It is a very American project, that of the melting pot, to allow the dream to extend to (almost) everybody and to require that those “others” reach a white, middle-class ideal.

I also found the discussion of the historical emergence of gender roles fascinating. A while ago, I learned on CBS Sunday Morning that pink for girls and blue for boys was a construct of the advertising of the early twentieth century. Leavitt’s work also discusses this, noting that babies usually wore white before these constructs emerged. She wrote, “The association between color and gender was for the most part a twentieth century invention” one that we still struggle to overcome, with the pink aisles for girls in all toy stores (p. 132). Technology made many colors more available to the middle class, and “the strong associations of pink with girls and blue with boys was firmly established in advertising, decoration choices, and domestic advice” (p. 132). This color system sells, but as a parent I try to think more about what exactly these advertisers are trying to sell my children.

In the 1950s, women’s magazines and domestic advice books “urged women to embrace the family to the exclusion of most anything else” (p. 174). Here I think we see the pendulum swing of culture, as the entire book outlines. We see movement back and forth, especially when it comes to where women should spend their time and energy. After World War II, we know that many women worked, and discriminatory policies toward married women working (as my research on IBM policies shows) were changing. Leavitt wrote, “While close to twenty million women did have paying jobs or careers in the 1950s, as some women had in every other decade of American history, the editors of the popular magazines underplayed this aspect of their readers’ lives and livelihoods” (p. 175).

What I saw from this exploration of domestic advice over the years was an earnest effort of the writers to explain the effects of technology on users. This is a big concern in my field of professional communication, and if we consider women to be users of technology, and household implements to be technology, then we see how domestic advice manuals very much function as technical writing. One example of this is the critique of the open floor plan by some domestic advisors. The open floor plan was touted as a way to create family togetherness and to allow a woman, while in the kitchen, to still interact with her family. However, some advice noted how this took away personal retreat, and “produced a real lack of privacy, especially for women” (p. 192). This critique of technology (the open plan) expressed what many women may have been feeling at the time, and Leavitt connects it nicely to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. We learn from this section that “[t]he architecture of family life did not permit any physical space for women to have any existence separate from the family” (p. 193). As a mother myself, I know just how important it is for me to have my own space and time.

Because I’m interested in the “domestic sphere” as a research site, this book intrigued me. It wasn’t necessarily written perfectly, as I had trouble with the flow of the text and getting into it if I took a break. However, I learned why domestic study is important. Leavitt argued, “We should pay attention to the history of domestic advice not because it circumscribes the small, private world of middle-class women, but, quite to the contrary, because it illuminates national priorities, addresses public dilemmas, and reminds us that what we have in our homes connects us to the larger culture” (p. 206).

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20 thoughts on “A History of Domestic Advice

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  1. This is an interesting topic. It makes me think of the film Mona Lisa Smile and the old domestic ads used in the closing credits. It’s also interesting how much power really was in the sphere of women in domestic arts, although we often look back and think how little rights or influence women had back then. Lots of thought provoking things in the post. Thanks Emily.

    1. You’re right that women have always been influential. Your comment reminded me of a feminist argument about whether or not women should “try to be like men” in order to gain equality. I think we can see in these books and this study how women tended to stick to the domestic sphere at this time but worked hard there and did many good things.

  2. What I find fascinating is the huge shift from just being a parent to active parenting. It probably started to come about when technology made it possible for the housewife to have a little extra time to spend with her kids. And now, of course, parenting is our number 1 job, and comes with hundreds of parenting books to choose from. At the same time, there seemed to be a big shift from kids helping with all the chores to no chores at all. Most of the things my own kids do to help out around the house seem so simple, and almost like I’m grasping at straws trying to think of things for them to do. Sometimes I really wish we had chickens. 🙂

    1. Chickens would be fun. My neighbors have some and my kids love going over there. I’m not willing to take it on. And yes, parenting has gotten intensive. I’ve read some academic articles about it and the tension between intensive mothering and feminist mothering. What I like about this shift is the involvement that dads have now.

      1. I totally agree that dads’ involvement is much prominent now. Whenever I go out shopping, I see young dads holding their babies while moms browsed in the lady’s department.

          1. That’s wonderful! I bet it is great to be able the share the joy, responsibilities and decision-making moments with him. How did you achieve that? How did you get him to be involved? Or was he eager since the beginning? Or is it a natural shift in the society nowadays?

            1. He has always been good with kids, which I noticed before we got married. But I think society just expects it now and he’s of that generation where being involved with your kids is normal.

            2. He sounds amazing! You’re so lucky and I’m happy for you and your kids! Wishing you many more years of harmonious and eventful family life! =D

  3. I would be happy if technology would be implemented to clean the whole house or at least the bathrooms – still got to use the old elbow grease and scrub at times. My parents have a very different domestic advice than me and my hubbie in that it is more a partnership in tackling it to get it done. We divide and conquer, so we can enjoy the free time we have on the weekends to do fun things instead 🙂 Great Share – Happy Thursday!

  4. Emily, I wanted to wait until I returned from my trip to comment. Women are under so much pressure with all of the advice literature, be it books, magazines, blogs, TV or You Tube. I would imagine you need a huge filtering system that narrows the focus. I mention to my wife if you did everything that just Dr. Oz suggests, you would have no time left and each suggestion may dilute the benefits from an earlier suggestion. Maybe the desire to be a Martha Stewart causes more angst than it alleviates. Maybe the best advice is “don’t sweat the small stuff” or “have a good closet to toss stuff in when guests are coming.” Just a note from a fixer upper, BTG

    1. You’re right on. There’s no way any of us can follow the “expert advice” from all of these people. The truth is, nowadays, they are in it just to make a buck. I think we should all live in ways that we find peaceful and comfortable. And my “closet” to throw stuff in is behind my couch. 🙂

      1. Emily, behind the couch is OK by me. I thought of your post and comments yesterday. If you have 15 minutes, catch John Oliver’s bit on Dr. Oz’s testimony in front of Congress regarding the diet supplement industry. Oz does not come off well in front of the committee and is raked over the coals by OIlver, who used to be on The Daily Show. Oliver is frustrated as Oz is a real doctor and should know better than to claim “magical” results as it misleads and could hurt people. All the best, BTG

  5. Wow, this sounds like a fascinating read! And the examples you pulled from the book strike me as spot-on. My mouth dropped when I read, “The open floor plan was touted as a way to create family togetherness and to allow a woman, while in the kitchen, to still interact with her family.” That is crazy, and I never would have guessed that, but it makes total sense!
    Your review also makes me feel better about the fact that I never liked Martha Stewart. She is undoubtedly a shrewd businesswoman, though, because she tapped into a lot the ideas that underpin the doling out (and commercialization of) domestic advice.

    1. Absolutely! Stewart is successful and knows what she’s doing, but at what cost to those of us trying to make sense of the information or hopelessly heeding the plethora of domestic advice out there? I wish this book or another study could give us insight into the reactions of the audience to the domestic advisers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Would they feel the way we do about Stewart?

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