A lesson in domesticity

Historians of material culture are interested in the history of objects and how they were designed, manufactured, retailed, sold, used, thought about, lost, discarded, kept and treasured. It is a multi-discipline scholarship with many approaches and many types of objects – or things and stuff – which are now, delightfully, technical terms. One of its areas is the domestic environment, the acquisition of stuff to go in it, or ideas about the home bound up in the terms ‘domestic’ and  ‘domesticity.’ I’m interested in this and when teaching or discussing it, I’ve noticed that people’s first thought about domesticity or the domestic environment in the past is that it is female. This is part of the assumption that life was separated into the female private and male public spheres. I really like to get students to challenge these assumptions and thinking about men and the setting of domesticity is one way to do this.

This was the basis of a short lecture and seminar on the culture of domesticity that I gave to MA students studying the materiality of Regency and Victorian domesticity (Victoria & Albert Museum and the Royal College of Art). They are working on domestic life from a very different angle to the one I’m used to, which focuses on textual descriptions and drawings of homes and objects. The History of Design MA students use these too, but are much more hands-on with objects, from those uncovered in archaeological digs in London to the wonderfully designed objects in the V&A. You can see some of their ideas and work on the Unmaking Things Blog. This meeting of two approaches was fascinating and gave me a lot to think about.

For my part of the session I talked about men and domesticity. This is a growing area ranging from John Tosh’s study of middle-class Victorian men to Julie Marie Strange’s very recent publications on working-class fathers.[1] Yet despite some fantastic recent work by historians like Amanda Vickery (who managed to get this point across on TV – hurrah) and Karen Harvey, historical men’s interaction with domestic stuff is still not often widely recognised or given much importance.[2] Yet in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries those men who were lucky enough to have disposable income were involved in purchasing household things, both big and small.More than, this, though, their domestic life had great meaning for them as individuals and as men. As historians like John Tosh have pointed out, Victorian domesticity was not just a place; it was a state of mind.

For this reason, we can’t think of the home as primarily a female space while outside the home was men-only, as the idea of separate spheres suggests. To middle-class men home was a refuge from work, which was increasingly moving out of the house thanks to industrialisation, and a sanctum where wives offered them attention, solace and comfort on their return. Domesticity and men’s role in it also formed an important part of these men’s self-identity and public reputation. Modern society remains interested in men’s domestic lives as male celebrities who invite the public into their family lives and homes in Hello Magazine clearly understand. For them, this is one way to promote themselves and their status.

1840 drawing room

© V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum (Domestic Interiors Database)

Domestic objects were crucial both in constituting a home, but also in developing the concept of domesticity. John Tosh dated domesticity to the high Victorian period because by then there were enough objects available to fill homes and convey the meaning of domesticity. If you look closely at eighteenth-century men, however, you realise that the feeling of domesticity did not depend entirely upon a certain level of ownership of goods. A more limited range of decorative goods could also convey the feeling of home and the domestic. This applies, therefore, to working-class homes I suspect, though the kinds of evidence for this are scarcer until later in the nineteenth century.

One of the reasons for the power and deep-rootedness of this abstract idea of domesticity was due to its emotional links with family members. In 1821 Samuel Courtauld wrote to his younger brother who had gone with his father and several of Sam’s adult siblings to try out settling in America. Sam refused to go, instead building up his successful silk manufactory instead. But he missed his family, as he explained:

here I am in my comfortable quiet parlour sitting by Mo’s Work Table writing by the fire, aye the fire, and glad to get close to it. Mo, Lou, & Miss C sitting by the round table with blue cloth, Miss C looking out some music to give us presently … Now all this is as comfortable as one could wish, and I were well content so to live – were those I love within a walk of me -: as it is, I have no home on this side the Atlantic

Sam had his own home, with his mother as his housekeeper. He described a very domestic scene of a parlour: writing at a sewing table. He could ‘fix’ this in his brother’s mind by describing its cloth and its ownership. He sat in the company of his mother, his older sister, and a friend he had once hoped to marry. Yet he had ‘no home’ because his other family members, including his favourite younger sister were so far away. I’m struck by the resonance of the furniture, the textiles, and significance that the hearthside had for him in constructing home. Sam recognised that all should convey domesticity yet they did not. In his other letters we glimpse the other component which he felt was missing: a wife. Men often felt that the materiality of a home was not enough in itself – a wife was needed to fulfil true domesticity.

The final part of my seminar drew links between the abstract idea and the material culture of the concept of domesticity in the Regency and Victorian periods. I asked the students to identify an object that they thought was not just domestic but evoked domesticity. This led to a really interesting discussion which challenged my tendency to generalise from objects to feelings like love and sorrow. Some students suggested very mundane objects, like a child’s chamber-pot. Was this so domestic that anyone looking at it would think of home; but more crucially was it associated with domesticity because it had been used by an infant who prompted memories of love? Others selected textiles, largely hand-made textiles like blankets. Here the link was that the textile was made by a family member and embraced an individual in warmth, reminding him or her of security and affection, care and attention. Another group offered a decorative ceramic paraffin lamp, designed in 1864. Now this one did not fit a framework of a domestic object evoking feelings. Instead, we thought about its novelty and appearance, factors which might have prompted its purchase to heighten its owners’ status in their peers’ eyes, and considered its function which allowed people to work and play longer into dark evenings.

As material culture students, however, the group were keen to prevent me from speculation about what objects might represent. They sought evidence to demonstrate a link between an object and a concept. It is not sufficient to identify an object as domestic and therefore locate it in a home and link it to a feeling rooted in domesticity. These students are training to think from the object outwards, something that historians like me have to be reminded to do. We have to ask a range of questions of the objects. Does the archaeological record show that this kind of object was present in homes? Was it mass produced? How did it get to the home? Where was it made, sold, advertised, bought? What did owners say about such objects? It is possible to contextualise an object in contemporary attitudes about the home and idealisations or criticisms of it, but all the time the materiality of the object, whether table, hearth, textile, or bed, needs to be kept in view.

I think the seminar ended with some important conclusions that the materiality of domesticity was rooted in the appearance, creation and use of domestic objects.  People bought some objects to decorate and use in their homes because they were novel or fashionable and helped show to others that their home fulfilled idealised notions of domesticity. Other objects, particularly textiles, literally embodied domesticity because they were made by family members, or used by them, smelled like or felt like them.  Here a history of the senses as well as the emotions could be used to advantage. We decided that there are two aspects to domesticity, therefore. One is the ‘collective’ and the other nostalgia. People shared ideas about what a home was and what it represented to its members and society (a cultural collective) and consciously used objects to materially demonstrate this.  Domesticity was also individualised, however, and frequently bound up with memory – especially that form of memory which we define as nostalgia. Objects associated with domesticity could be imbued with positive emotions and kept (those with negative emotions might be discarded), ready to stir those feelings when required.

I want to end this post by returning to men and domesticity, for I am often struck by the way in which 19th and 20th century autobiographers remembered their fathers in a domestic setting and through a domestic object. Late in life Elizabeth Bryson remembered her father returned from work:

I ran to meet him when he came home, clung round his knees and swung on his hands and climbed up until he hoisted me on to his shoulder to enter the house in triumph. I was a great giant who had to stoop to get through the doors.

As Julie Marie Strange observes: ‘the emphasis on men’s provision as the key indicator of their contribution to family life has left fathers knocking at the door of home rather than embedding them in the dynamics within’.[3] The same thing can be said for men in general, and historians of material culture need to open that door and let them in.


[1] John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-class Home in Victorian England, Julie Marie Strange, (2013). Fatherhood, furniture and the interpersonal dynamics of working-class homes, c. 1870–1914. Urban History, 40, pp 271-286.

[2] Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, Karen Harvey, The Little Republic: Men and Domestic Authority in Eighteenth Century Britain.

[3] Strange, Fatherhood and Furniture, pp. 274, 275-6.

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