Book Reviews / Comptes Rendus de Livre - Jessica H. Foy and Thomas J. Schlereth (eds.), American Home Life, 1880-1930: A Social History of Spaces and Services

Book Reviews / Comptes Rendus de Livre

Jessica H. Foy and Thomas J. Schlereth (eds.), American Home Life, 1880-1930: A Social History of Spaces and Services

Annmarie Adams
McGill University
Jessica H. Foy and Thomas J. Schlereth (eds.). American Home Life, 1880-1930: A Social History of Spaces and Services. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992. 256 pp., ill. Cloth $34.95, ISBN 0-87049-759-6.

1 The study of the American middle-class home has been central to the development of material culture studies. This is evident both by the sheer number of scholarly articles devoted to the history of home life and by the inclusion of middle-class domestic topics in the field's growing list of texts. American Home Life, 1880-1930: A Social History of Spaces and Services, edited by Jessica H. Foy and Thomas J. Schlereth, makes a substantial contribution to this well-established subfield, while at the same time suggesting new avenues for future research.

2 American Home Life is a collection of 11 papers by scholars from a range of fields in the humanities, presented in 1989 at a Texas conference entitled "Life at Home, 1880-1930." Collectively, the authors attempt to explain why and how the late Victorian, middle-class household became a more rationalized, modern site over the course of five tumultuous decades. This question has been addressed by other scholars, such as Gwendolyn Wright in Moralism and the Model Home: Domestic Architecture and Cultural Conflict in Chicago, 1873-1913 (University of Chicago Press, 1980). The novelty of American Home Life, however, is that 11 authors address the same question using different bodies of evidence. This feature, in itself, will make the book a fundamental text for interdisciplinary or cultural approaches to the history of the home.

3 American Home Life augments several increasingly popular fields of inquiry in the history of American, middle-class private life: gender issues, the impact of technology and spatial transformations inside the house. The complex interrelationship of these three research areas is highlighted in the book, giving evidence of the continuing need for interdisciplinary approaches to the home and for a broadened definition of what may have constituted living spaces in the past.

4 American Home Life is organized in three parts, neatly labelled "Room Life," "Home Life" and "Keeping House." In the introduction, Schlereth explains how the essays comprising these three sections are representative of a broader "social history" approach to the American house, developed during the last two decades, in which the home has been understood as "a complicated environment of social behavior" (p. 5). The pioneers of this approach locate the ordinary inhabitants of houses in the "foreground" of their accounts, as compared to the two earlier schools cited by Schlereth, whose authors saw famous owners and later the designers of houses as the principal directors of life within the middle-class home.

5 Many of the contributors to American Home Life are well known in various fields for longer, book-length studies. Rather than simply represent the results of their previous research, however, most of the authors have taken the opportunity to extend their prior studies of the late nineteenth-century home into the present century or to make comparisons with other socio-economic groups to explain the age-old historical question of change over time. Characteristic of this re-examination of previous research are Katherine Grier's investigation of the disappearance of the middle-class parlour — a more common approach is to focus on the "appearance" of a room — and Ruth Schwartz Cowan's comparative essay on attitudes toward housework in middle-class and working-class households. Time-honoured research, in both instances, is presented in the context of fresh ideas.

6 All the authors agree that the home of 1930 was radically different than 50 years earlier. However, the contributors to American Home Life disagree on what constitutes the catalyst for change: aesthetic trends, methods of child-care, ideas about health and cleanliness, religious reform and many others, which reflect the fields in which the scholars work.

7 Issues of gender are central to most of the authors' interpretations, which perhaps is not surprising given that 9 of the 11 contributing scholars are women. American Home Life not only shows how some women played active, reforming roles in the history of the home, as decorators, housewives and servants, but it also illustrates the settings in which other women received visitors, read novels, prayed, cleaned, played board games, survived pregnancy, cared for children, planted flowers and used outhouses, among other activities. In this way, American Home Life is representative of much new, feminist scholarship on the home, which accords women a positive place in the domestic realm rather than emphasizing the home's oppressing features.

8 The impact of technology is dealt with explicitly in the final section of the book, "Keeping House," and somewhat implicitly throughout the earlier essays. In addition to Cowan's paper, "Keeping House" includes Schlereth's contribution to the book on domestic utilities and Daniel Sutherland's on changes in domestic service. Architecture, furniture, automobiles, book bindings, clothing and movies are just a few of the "technologies" that appear in the work of others.

9 Although all of the contributors to American Home Life are keenly aware of the role of domestic architecture in their narratives, surprisingly few discuss the relationship of social life and the arrangements of houses. Elizabeth Cromley's essay on American bedrooms and Grier's on parlours are perhaps the exceptions. Other authors steer clear of a discussion of architecture, assuming, for the most part, that the arrangement of spaces drives social transformation, rather than simply reflecting it. In Sutherland's essay on domestic service, for example, he implies that the lack of servant quarters in twentieth-century houses contributed to the modernization of household labour, rather than suggesting that the smaller, reformed house may have followed a decrease in domestic service. Similarly, Linda Kruger's chapter on home libraries asserts that Frank Lloyd Wright's visit to the Columbian Exposition in 1893, which included extensive book displays, led to the architect's inclusion of libraries in his house designs. Kruger then states that Wright's buildings subsequently influenced generations of architects, implying that architectural ideas spread exponentially without really explaining how.

10 These criticisms of American Home Life are minor, relative to the book's overall significance to the field of "home history." All collections of essays by different authors from different fields run the risk of overlapping or contradictory material and uneven depth. American Home Life will be of great interest to specialists in a variety of fields, as well as general readers interested in how the so-called "modern" house evolved.