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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