Homesickness: emotions, families, and nations

In a brief visit to Manchester Art Gallery – snatched during a gap in the conference my husband was attending – I was stopped in my tracks by Benoit Aubard’s Homesick (2018). Aubard’s spray-painted graffiti style duvet cover is one of the critically-engaged works by young artists intended to respond to historical masterpieces in the gallery. So Homesick is situated near William Etty’s The Sirens and Ulysses (1837). While Etty’s painting focuses upon the abundant flesh of the sirens and the nude muscularity of Ulysses and his sailors, Aubard responds instead to the more abstract theme of Homer’s Odyssey – Ulysses longing for home over the ten years it took him to return to Ithaca from the Trojan War.

Benoit Aubard, Homesick (2018) My photograph taken in the gallery………………….

As the accompanying exhibition sign says:

Preoccupying thoughts of home and attachment objects can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety. Aubard has used a bedsheet, referencing the domestic, and added graffiti-like text, reminiscent of a protest banner. The text is not a question, asking whether we feel homesick, but a statement of fact. The artist often uses slogans on ready-made objects to explore the theme of home and refuge at a time when there is significant migration in the world. Homesick doesn’t necessarily refer to home as a building. It stems from an instinctive need for love, protection and security which are intrinsic to the human condition. These feelings and qualities are usually associated with home and are common to all of us.


As readers of my blog know, I’m very interested in people’s memories of home and its meaning for them and their sense of self. Aubard’s artwork captures the way in which homesickness is about place, security, and love in a changing world. Susan Matt put the emotion of homesickness at the centre of the making of the American nation in her brilliant book Homesickness: An American History (2011). She argues that it was a medical condition before the twentieth century, recognised as a trauma caused by migration, which could lead to death. In the twentieth century, however, homesickness was downgraded to an inconvenience and sign of failure as migration came to be associated with modern individualism. As she observes, people had to learn to repress the emotion in order to appear modern, mature, and successful.[1] Longing for home is a phenomenon that shapes national as well as personal and familial identities.

In Britain in the long eighteenth century, homesickness had two co-existing forms. One was a medicalised condition, nostalgia, which was experienced by people who were prevented from getting home – like soldiers sent to serve in a different country. It was thus primarily about space. The other was driven by notions of time, where the yearning was for their home when they were children, now lost in the past. After all, the memoirists I studied, who were writing in the later Georgian period, could, in fact, revisit their natal homes when they wished, for they not separated by long distances. This was especially challenging for writers born in the mid eighteenth century, since, in the post-revolutionary period, as Peter Fritzsche argues, people came to apprehend time ‘as non-repeatable’ and ‘irretrievable’.[2] I’m interested in the ways in which this more intangible, temporal form of homesickness was also influenced by broader social and cultural contexts, and I’ve written about this in more detail in an article, ‘Selfhood and ‘Nostalgia’: Sensory and Material Memories of the Childhood Home in Late Georgian Britain’ (2019).

This ‘backward looking aesthetic’[3] and emotion was also a response to instability and change. The Georgian life-writers I’ve talked about in previous posts recalled their childhood homes during a period of profound social, economic, cultural, and political change. They were formulating their deep attachment to the natal home just as the centrifugal forces of modernity were beginning to spin people out into the world in the imagined form of what Matt describes as ‘cosmopolitan, unfettered, happy individuals.’[4] In these new conditions, the home was reinvented as a ‘sanctuary of nostalgia.’ This development, which Fritzsche has traced in America and Jason Tebbe in Germany in the later nineteenth century, had a restorative, compensatory function at a time of change.[5]

Yet, the life-writers’ memories of parental homes were not simply consolatory and benign, a desire to return to an idyllic, safer, past home. Their homesickness was more a reflective than restorative act.[6]  For Thomas Bewick, Catherine Cappe, Mary Robinson and the like, the ‘longing, lingering look behind’ (an oft-used phrase from Thomas Gray’s poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, 1751) at the childhood home, recalled through sounds and smells, was a personalised meditative act frequently associated with hard-edged negative emotions as well as pleasant consoling ones. The same homes could conjure resentment, sadness, grief, and despair, as well as love and affection, when recalled in relation to different family members and other points in their life-course. Here again, we see the importance of emotions to the forming of a personal identity bounded by historical circumstances: the domestic caught up with broader forces. The life-writers analysed were thus articulating national and personal identities in the face of modernity’s profound temporal disruption and spatial dislocation. Yet, as Fritzsche suggests, these broader historical forces were not simply disruptive, they also offered ‘imaginative possibilities for building subjecthood.’ [7]

This temporal homesickness also helped locate people in their specific regional and national culture. John Brewer shows how the generations born at the mid-eighteenth-century shaped a national culture from their aestheticized attachment to the local.[8] He traces the ways in which eighteenth-century sensibility had a provincial perspective, which celebrated the locality, particularly the sensual pleasures of its landscape, in contrast with the worldly metropolitan environment.  Nonetheless, this contributed to nation building since Britain was perceived to be formed from such provincial cities and defined by the landscape of the British Isles.[9] Indeed scholars have shown how a type of collective nostalgia is often seen in pastoral fiction, evident from antiquity to modern times, where the countryside is the imagined location of a better past; a feeling most resurgent in times of political, social, and economic change.[10]

We can see how this affected people’s practices. Susan Stabile shows how literary women in America between around 1760 and 1840 deployed genealogies of family and home in their national memory building. Their material and textual acts of preservation focused on the local, particular, and domestic.[11]  English life-writers’ nostalgia for the places and spaces of childhood homes likewise forged overlapping personal, familial, local, and national identities. With extensive emigration, the self-conscious rituals of curating familial and homely objects, heirlooms, and family souvenirs into ‘memory-palaces’ and ‘mini-museums’ were increasingly harnessed to new narratives of public, explicitly nationalist, memory in the later nineteenth century.[12]  Today, nostalgia is commercialised and politicised, less an act of personal memory or benign form of self-soothing than a collective desire to make-over the present into a mythologised national past. Its toxic potential when harnessed to notions of racial and gender superiority are all too clear.

These acts of memory through memories, objects, spaces, genealogies, and stories associated with families and their interaction with national cultures are something I will get a chance to explore further. With Katie Barclay, I have been awarded funding from the AHRC for an international, multi-disciplinary Research Network titled Inheriting the Family: Emotions, History, and Heritage.[13] Katie and I will work with Ashley Barnwell, Tanya Evans, and Laura King, all innovative leaders in these areas of research. Using emotions and material culture methodologies, we’ll explore the ways in which objects and ideas are transmitted across generations to help explain how, when, and why they become significant to familial, collective, and national heritages. I will be fascinated to see how much these family inheritances are bound up with the emotions of nostalgia, homesickness, and the imperatives of migration, alienation, and nation building, which often has exclusion rather than inclusivity at the centre of its hard-heart.  


[1] Susan Matt, Homesickness: An American History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), introduction.

[2] Peter Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), 3.

[3] Jennifer Green Lewis, Victorian Photography, Literature, and the Invention of Modern Memory: Already the Past (London: Bloomsbury,2017). xix.

[4] Matt, Homesickness, 28.

[5] Fritzsche, Stranded, chap. 5; and Tebbe, Landscapes Of Remembrance: Home And Memory In The Nineteenth-Century Bürgertum,’Journal of Family History 33, no. 2 (April 2008).

[6] [3] Svetlana Boym, ‘Nostalgia and its discontents,’ The Hedgehog Review 9 no. 2 (2007): 14-15.

[7] Fritzsche, Stranded, 7.

[8] Brewer, Pleasures of the imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (1997), p. 493, 618-660.

[9] Brewer, Pleasures of the imagination, 493-8; 618, 659.

[10] Raymond Williams,  , The Country and the City (London: Vintage Classics, Penguin, 2016), chap. 2 and 3.

[11] Stabile, Memory’s Daughters: The Material Culture of Remembrance in Eighteenth-Century America (Icatha & London: Cornell University Press, 2004), pp. 3-4.

[12] Fritzsche, Stranded, 164, 188, 192-5, 200. Tebbe, ‘Landscapes of Remembrance,’ passim.

[13] A 24-month project, starting 1 October 2019. We have a Twitter account @InheritingFam and will be working on a series of workshops and ‘History Harvests’. More on our website, which we are developing as soon as the project begins.


Sorrowful spaces: Mary Robinson and the material culture of emotions

This post combines two of my favourite things: cathedrals, spaces that have beguiled me since childhood, and are profoudly emotional, even for athiests like me, and my massive girl-crush, Mary Robinson, the eighteenth-century author and actress. The two come together in my interest in material culture, memory, and emotions, which began when I was working on the emotions of parenting, and wove its way into a blog post on the house as an object and a space that materialises emotions, another on nostalgia for the childhood home and its environs, and finally into a keynote in 2019, which developed into an article and, eventually, my part of an AHRC funded Research Network. Lots of this work is on domestic buildings and spaces, but this post shows how public and communal buildings and spaces can also generate or encapsulate meaningful emotions in individuals, which go beyond the religious or civic and are linked to family and life events.

One such is the cathedral. As a sacred space it has religious meaning, its function to evoke awe, and generate a range of emotions linked with spirituality, such as joy or grief, depending upon the life-cycle service or ceremony conducted there. Yet it seems to me that such a communally-used building and space can also symbolise moods and feelings that do not only originate in faith.

My example is Mary Robinson, born in Bristol around 1756/8, a woman who became a celebrity thanks to her beauty and acting talent, who reinvented herself as a lady of letters before her tragically early death in 1800. Indeed, she is now known as a major literary figure of the Romantic period. She began her memoirs a couple of years before her death; a successful attempt to rebut sexual scandal and reconstruct her public identity. It has to be said that she certainly made me fall in love with her personality and her mind with this memoir.

Perdita, portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782. Wikimedia Commons.
This is my favourite portrait of Mary. I visit Waddesdon Manor annually so I can commune with it. Her side-eye is quite spectacular.

Robinson’s voice reverberates with finely-tuned feeling – the cultural language of her time. Her memoir deploys sensibility to display her capacity to feel deeply, often conveyed through her sadness and melancholy. As such, Robinson uses her birth place and the environs of her early childhood to create a melancholic, Gothic self-identity as persuasive as that of the best graveyard poets.

Her memoir begins with a description of her birth place: the Minster House, its back supported by ‘the antient cloisters of St Augustine’s monastery’, faced by a small garden, the gates of which opened to the Minster-Green [or College-Green], its west side bounded by Bristol Cathedral. As she declares,

A spot more calculated to inspire the soul with mournful medication can scarcely be found amidst the monuments of antiquity.

Robinson thus linked the house and its environs with her personality. Sharon Setzer has explored this in ‘The Gothic Structure of Mary Robinson’s Memoirs’ (Eugene Stelzig (ed) Romantic Autobiography in England), showing how Robinson evoked the Gothic cathedral in order to construct her identity as contemplative (not dissipated).

N.E. portion of the Cloisters of the Cathedral, and back of Minster House” drawn and engraved by J.Skelton. Copper engraved antique print published in Skelton’s Etchings of the Antiquities of Bristol, about 1825.

Robinson conjured St Augustine’s Cathedral three times in her Memoir: at her birth in 1756(?), and two visits in 1773 and 1777. Setzer argues that Robinson specifically used these descriptions to harness the cultural associations of the Gothic with the sublime and shape her identity. For example, Robinson says that her infancy was spent in a nursery that was ‘so near the great aisle of the minster’ that she could hear the deep tones of the organ and the singing of the choristers, which made a ‘sublime impression’ upon her feelings.

In her childhood, Robinson’s family moved away from Minster House to a large convenient one stocked with the luxuries of silk furniture, plate, and foreign wines. However, when she was nine years old her father left home to establish a whale fishery on the coast of Labrador. The result was his family’s downfall, since he separated from his wife and then failed in business. Robinson’s memoir located this as the cause of the chain of events which resulted in her agreeing as a [very young!] teenager in 1773 to marry a duplicitous lawyer.

Once wed, the couple travelled to Wales to meet his father. They visited Bristol and Robinson revisited ‘The house in which I first opened my eyes to this world of sorrow’ and the cathedral with a ‘sweet melancholy interest’.  She uses the nostalgic visit to weave together her melancholic personality:

I hastened to the cloisters. The nursery windows were dim, and shattered; the house sinking to decay. The mouldering walk was gloomy, and my spirits were depressed beyond description: – I stood alone, rapt in meditation: “Here,” said I, “did my infant feet pace to and fro’; here did I climb the long stone bench, and swiftly measure it, at the peril of my safety. On those dark and winding steps, did I sit and listen to the full-toned organ, the loud anthem, and the bell, which called the parishioners to prayer.”  … Ah! How little has the misjudging world known of what passed in my mind, even in the apparently gayest moments of my existence!

Setzer observes that Robinson’s final return to the cathedral in 1777 followed her becoming an actress that year. For Setzer, ‘The sequence as a whole demonstrates Robinson’s artistic endeavour to identify a meaningful pattern in her life and to define an essential, coherent self, dating back to “earliest infancy.” (34)

There is no doubt that literary self-identification was a crucial aspect of Robinson’s memories of Bristol Cathedral and Minster House. Yet I think that these buildings were not solely a vehicle for a literary reputation. These physically connected buildings (of home and early childhood) were also vessels for Robinson’s emotions. In the first place, both nostalgia and melancholy are historically-specific moods and feelings. Both can be historicised, so it is likely that over time emotional objects differ in which feelings they trigger.

Sorrow was the emotion that Robinson most notably associated with these buildings and their spaces. For instance, as soon as she describes her gloomy birth place and time, she quotes her mother:

I have often heard my mother say that a more stormy hour she never remembered… Through life the tempest has followed my footsteps; and I have in vain looked for a short interval of repose from the perseverance of sorrow.

I don’t for a moment suggest that her sorrow was simply a motif of her melancholic persona. It was also a response to events which marred her life. Thus the accounts of Bristol Cathedral were placed alongside or following descriptions of powerful relationships and crisis moments in Robinson’s life.

The cathedral space was linked to her mother whom she adored and often lived with during her adult life. Thus the first account establishes the hugely significant role of her mother in her life-choices and their resulting sorrows. Her birthplace and the cathedral also seem to have been places she visited in response to sorrow and which thus were imbued with this feeling.

The 1773 visit occurred at the time of her disastrous marriage. Robinson recounted the events of her life in her attempt to rebut scandal, and she made this unsuitable union the cause of the sexual scandals that followed. In some ways she blamed her decision on her mother persuading her to wed Mr Robinson in order to safeguard her reputation, which was threatened by her extreme beauty and lack of paternal protection. She was, after all, only sixteen (perhaps even fourteen) years old and as she says, laid aside her dolls to marry. Thus when she recalled the mouldering decay of the house in which she was born, and sat in the cathedral to listen again to the organ, she seems to materialise the loss of her childhood through form and space.

Robinson had an adored child, Maria, from this marriage, who aided her in her final illness and published her memoir. She also had a second infant: Sophia, in 1777, who died all too soon.

At the end of six weeks I lost my infant. She expired in my arms in convulsions, and my distress was undescribable.

Thus Robinson’s return to Bristol in 1777 followed the death of her second child. As she observed, Sophia’s death affected her spirits so much that she couldn’t appear again on stage that season. Thus she went to Bath to recover; from Bath:

I went to Bristol – to Bristol! Why does my pen seem suddenly arrested while I write the word? I know not way, but an undefinable melancholy always follows the idea of my native birth-place. I instantly beheld the Gothic structure, the lonely cloisters, the lofty aisles, of the antique minster: – for, within a few short paces of its walls, this breast, which has never known one year of happiness, first palpitated on inhaling the air of this bad world!

By this time, perhaps, and with hindsight in 1798 when she told her life story, the buildings of her childhood did not only generate fashionable eighteenth-century feelings of nostalgia and melancholy, or offer a means to adopt a romantic literary persona, they were literally symbolic of sorrow in a life that never knew ‘one year of happiness’.

In the end, what fascinates me about the intersection of material culture, memory, and emotions is how amorphous it can be. Not only is it necessary to historicise the feelings attached to material culture, scholars must try to individualise them – particularly when they encompass public, collective objects, buildings or spaces. For Mary Bristol’s Minster House and Cathedral were vessels of pain and sorrow, due to her life-story. Of course, for other people these buildings might materialise entirely different emotions. All, nonetheless, share historically- and culturally-specific understandings of space, buildings, material culture, and the emotions associated with them.

Memoirs of the late Mrs Robinson, written by herself, with some posthumous pieces, in four volumes, London, 1801.

This post was originally written in 2015 and updated in 2019.

The role of nostalgia in forging family life

I’ve just had something of a light-bulb moment after reading this report in The Observer ‘Look back in joy: the power of nostalgia’ exploring ongoing research into the role of nostalgia. When researching late Georgian parenting, one of the things that I kept on encountering were people’s memories of their parents and childhood. These recollections were powerful and seemed to fit into the mode of nostalgia and longing. I wrote an article on this (‘The “Afterlife” of Parenting’ here) which began life as a paper at a conference on nostalgia, but eventually moved away from the concept of nostalgia to the role of memory about parents in creating personal identity.

Similarly, I noticed that parents understood their role as one of transmitting values to the next generation. I wrote a chapter in my book Parenting in England on this, titled ’Transferring Family Values’. I identified several values including piety, virtuousness, industriousness, filial duty, and the rather more nebulous one of domesticity. The latter caused me some concern as it was clearly valuable for parents and children, but I was not entirely sure that I was labelling it correctly.

parenting book cover

I describe domesticity in this sense as : ‘a mind-set that was nurtured as a family identity’. I noted that:

it was separation from spouse, children or parents, or its threat through removal, emigration or death that brought the vocabulary of domesticity into use’.

I argue that ‘the purpose of this language of ‘domesticity’ at the turn of the century seems to have functioned in similar ways to sensibility in the second half of the eighteenth century, as a concept that sustained a notion of family, representing safety and security in changing world’.

Having read the Observer’s overview of the nostalgia research by Tim Wildschut and Constantine Sedikides at the University of Southampton, I now see that my initial impression was correct: nostalgia was the glue in family life. Why did I lose confidence and not pursue this as the key framework for thinking about this aspect of parenting?

I moved away from the concept primarily because it seemed to be discussed in modern accounts as a negative feeling and perhaps even divisive one.

As the Observer states, for too long nostalgia has been seen as a ‘psychological disorder’. Yet I felt that the nostalgic reminiscence in my sources was benign.

For instance I comment in my book:

The use of place and memory to fix the child in the emotional nexus of the family was striking. Ruth Courtauld did just this in 1813 when she told George junior, away at school,
“I sat a long time in your Summer house today and thought of you – not uncomfortably tho’ it will be a long time until I see you, but with pleasure, for I hope you are improving more than if you were here, and I know not any gratification I would not give up for your good – Anna Taylor, Catherine and Eliza often sit there and work and read, they have got a nice bench there, they all desire their Love [meaning they all sent their love to him]” .

I was struck, therefore, by Wildschut and Sedikides’ more positive image of nostalgia. Their research shows that it is a benign force and activity that soothes people who are encountering transitions in life. Wildschut says:

“Nostalgia compensates for uncomfortable states, for example, people with feelings of meaninglessness or a discontinuity between past and present. What we find in these cases is that nostalgia spontaneously rushes in and counteracts those things. It elevates meaningfulness, connectedness and continuity in the past. It is like a vitamin and an antidote to those states. It serves to promote emotional equilibrium, homeostasis.”

The report goes on to discuss whether parents have a role in forging positive nostalgic memories for their children, as a resource for them to use in difficult times. This is exactly what I see in the accounts of parenting in the Georgian period. When parents and children exchanged letters remembering events and feelings – such a frequent activity – they were forging restorative links that would help individuals through life’s changes.

This was also about binding families together. I see that my attempt to use domesticity as a value transmitted across generations might actually be something more akin to nostalgia, though using a contemporary term. So Sedikides says:

The ability and encouragement to access nostalgia also builds gratitude and connectedness towards others,”… “It tends to make children less selfish.

And I think this is just what elite parents were trying to inculcate in their offspring in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

I conclude my chapter on transmitting values across generations:

Prized traits were circulated between parents and children as ways to achieve familial and individual benefits. They encompassed formal religious and pedagogical modes and moral didacticism. Yet they also worked at the level of the imaginary, drawing upon emotional languages to define the collective family, aspire to its cohesion, and to aid its members to draw strength from that illusory security to branch out into independence.

The emotional language, it seems to me, often included nostalgia. So, thanks to my Facebook friends (Elaine Chalus and Helen Rogers) who shared this report on new ways of thinking about nostalgia, I can return to my instinct that nostalgia was critical in family life. Perhaps I should trust my instincts a bit more in future – even if it requires digging deeper into those research areas that are unfamiliar.

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.