Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Jessica H. Foy and Karal Ann Marling, The Arts and the American Home, 1890-1930

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Jessica H. Foy and Karal Ann Marling, The Arts and the American Home, 1890-1930

Elizabeth C. Cromley
Jessica H. Foy and Karal Ann Marling, eds., The Arts and the American Home, 1890-1930, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994, xxiv + 194 pp., 58 illus. Cloth $32.95, ISBN 0-87049-825-8.

1 In essays on the arts and the American home (from the McFaddin-Ward House Conference in 1990) nine authors have researched diverse aspects: music, the piano, reading, needlework, .paintings, photographs, furniture, and fireplaces. The time period begins with Victorian clutter and sentiment and ends with modernity and "rationalism," giving the authors an opportunity to account for major shifts or continuations. Women's contributions are given a central place. The writing is accessible, although the chronological-development structure leads to repetitiveness; the interesting documentary illustrations are mostly well reproduced.

2 Kenneth L. Ames' "Introduction" provokes the reader with his claim that the home, more than public life, has "the greatest significance in our psychological, social, and cultural lives." Because of male prejudice in the writing of history, Ames asserts, things associated with homemaking and women have been trivialized. Historians of "great male architects" neglect the (usually) women who make the "architectural shell into a nurturing and supportive environment." To ignore these contributions to domestic architecture is "both sexist and socially destructive" (xvi).

3 The shift from homemade entertainments and goods to those publicly-produced is the focus of Karal Ann Marling's essay. What kinds of art are appropriate for the home in an age of mass culture: traditional or modern in style? Comforting and sentimental or challenging and intellectual? She explores the pleasures of the ready-made for consumers of the 1920s, set against the persistent belief, at least among academics, that one-of-a-kind art is the only kind with meaning.

4 Clutter and plenitude, characteristic of Victorian interior decoration, gave way to simplicity and clarity in the early twentieth century. Although both eras liked historic revival styles, Bradley Brooks explains, they composed their interiors according to very different principles. Densely arrayed accumulations of goods, often from far-flung sources, gave a cosmopolitan gloss to 1880s interiors. Yet this "labyrinth of dubious eclecticism" (Wharton and Codman, quoted on p. 22) was rejected by about 1900. New rules for arranging historic revival pieces recommended hierarchy in composition and a single focus of interest. Brooks considers upper middle-class books as well as books advising lower-income home-decorators, and observes (as does Marling) that 1920s interiors combine a modernism of plumbing and lighting with the anti-modernism of period furniture.

5 Needlework, paintings and photographs were three common ways to ornament the Victorian house, and all went through simplifying changes as the new century came in. Needlework was made by women, writes Beverly Gordon, and has often been seen as slight. Yet needlework parallels in its styles the major artistic currents of the turn of the century, from the Aesthetic Movement to rustic Arts and Crafts, and is one of the ways that women created homes out of houses. William Ayres traces the changing ideals in picture hanging in the home. Victorians liked pictures with uplifting messages. Hanging pictures in Victorian profusion, at an angle to the wall, and at many heights gave way to simpler rules. Arts and Crafts interiors have few (or even no) pictures hung on the walls. At the same time, art collectors began to build special galleries which removed painting from domestic space, paving the way for museums and art for its own sake.

6 Victorians were fond of portrait photographs, posed in "artistic" studios, and displayed in albums in the parlour. Shirley Wajda traces their various forms, noting that amateur photographers encroached on the studio portraitist's business by the 1890s; then the twentieth-century taste for simplification cleared away generous parlour-displays of photographs. By the 1920s, the "active, rational" family had outgrown the studio-posed display of relatives and the emotions they were meant to evoke.

7 The strong desire for a focus (Latin for "hearth") in American houses manifests itself in fireplaces, which continue to be installed long after their usefulness as heat sources has ended. Kate Roberts traces, in a too-terse photo essay with captions, the image of the hearth as a point around which the family gathers, one later appropriated by advertisers of radiators and radios.

8 Two chapters locate music and the piano as fixtures of the Victorian home and trace their twentieth-century changes. Jessica Foy finds that home-produced music was a vehicle for the development of moral character and discipline. Victorian era hymns and "parlour songs" promoted moral uplift, while popular songs dating from the later 1890s and the twentieth century were more fun.

9 The phonograph became an important force in the 1890s and in the 1920s, the radio. Mechanically and electronically produced music made some observers fear that mothers would forget how to sing lullabies. "Artistic self-expression was transferred from music-making to creating artistic, harmonious surroundings for music" (p. 81) as music became a pleasurable background for other household activities.

10 The role of women in promoting music in the home is a theme of Craig Roell's chapter. Girls were the majority of piano pupils, learning modest deportment (feet together, straight posture) and how to perform for the pleasure of others. The piano top was used like a mantel-piece upon which were displayed photographs and mementos. A cartoon of the 1890s shows a boy playing the mother's desire for culture and discipline (she makes the boy practice) against the father's desire not to be bothered with his son's banging on the piano (he makes the boy quit). This is one of the few moments in the book that acknowledges conflict.

11 Reading together is another lost art of the Victorian home, reports Anne Scott MacLeod. The adults read aloud to children and to each other in the 1890s, and read a diversity of texts, from Homer to Dickens; but professional child experts defined a separate literature that was good for children and not appealing to adults. Alongside the wholesome approved literature, a trash literature of adventure stories and westerns caught children's attention, while adults turned to more realistic fiction, and "the days of reading in the family circle were...over" (p. 122).

12 This anthology raises the question of whose taste is worth the historian's attention: only cultures with "good taste" or the diversity of tastes found in American houses across classes? While many of these authors espouse an inclusive posture, nonetheless the essays depend a great deal on middle-class prescriptive literature and evidence. The working class gets few mentions. Likewise, the un-idealized aspects of these arts get littie attention: Roell mentions the piano in the speakeasy; what about the racist lithograph or radio show?

13 Kenneth Ames, in his "Conclusion," believes that "the inner world of the home.. .evolves at a quieter and more serene rate" than the outside world (p. 185), and that much of the culture described in these essays is still with us, in spite of modernization and mass culture. The home as benign, made homelike by the feminine nurturing hand, may live still in imagination, but does not match up well with women's realities of the 1990s.