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«AT HOME IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY INSTRUCTOR'S GUIDE At Home in Nineteenth-Century America uses the home as a synthetic ...»





At Home in Nineteenth-Century America

uses the home as a synthetic tool to pull

together stories of nineteenth-century

America. The collected documents revisit the

variety of places Americans called home – middle-class suburban houses, slave cabins, working-class tenements, frontier dugouts, urban settlement houses – and explore the shifting interpretations and experience of these spaces from within and without. The result is an opportunity to eavesdrop on a wide-ranging conversation that includes a diverse group of historical actors: a domestic servant and Herman Melville, a newlywed housewife and W.E.B. Du Bois, an interior designer and Theodore Roosevelt, all of whom contemplated the power and boundaries of the American home.

When brought together, these voices offer an intimate yet broad view of nineteenth-century American history. Recounting the ways in which a variety of women and men created, At Home in conformed to, critiqued, and transformed the ideal of home over the course of the Nineteenth-Century nineteenth century, they sketch a narrative of both inclusion and difference. Nineteenth- America century homes and notions of domesticity seem simultaneously distant and familiar. This sense of surprise and recognition is ideal for A Documentary History the study of hi

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SUMMARY This chapter explores the relationship between home and a new middle-class moral order emerging in the early decades of the nineteenth century. As men’s labor increasingly moved outside the home, domestic spaces came to be associated with women who were expected to maintain them as bulwarks against the morally suspect, public world of business competition. Within this ideal of separate spheres, women’s domestic labor was recast – less and less depicted as productive labor with economic value and instead described as an extension of inherent femininity.

Sources in this chapter include prescriptive literature from Godey’s Lady’s Book and documents by Catharine Beecher, Lydia Maria Child, and Susan Warner considering the relationship between home and femininity. John Angell James and Herman Melville discuss the implications of middle-class domesticity for men and their place in the home, and Andrew Jackson Downing describes the relationship between architecture and morality.


• What types of labor did nineteenth-century women do in their homes and how was this work described? What differences can you find in the portrayals of women’s work in the documents by Mary Lee, Lydia Maria Child, and Catharine Beecher?

• In what ways did home life become associated with women and femininity in the first half of the nineteenth century?

• What do John Angell James, Andrew Jackson Downing, and Herman Melville suggest about men’s relationship to domestic spaces and the values of home?

• How do the sources in this chapter depict the growing separation of private and public?


As discussed in several documents in this chapter, during the nineteenth century many middle-class Americans believed that domestic spaces and goods could shape morals. Ask students to find examples of the relationship between material culture and morality. They might consider Lydia Maria Child’s concerns about brides’ infatuated with “carpets, vases, sofas, white gloves, and pearl earrings,” Andrew Jackson Downing’s faith that home’s moral influence could be amplified

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SUMMARY Despite the celebration of home’s isolation from the public world of paid labor and commerce, the two realms remained intertwined. This chapter looks beyond the ideal home to explore the ongoing significance of paid and unpaid domestic labor and reveals the variety of work (economic and cultural) done at home.

The documents in this chapter include accounts of boardinghouse life by a Lowell mill girl and journalist Nellie Bly. Writings by Catharine Beecher, Clarissa Packard, and Lizzie Goodenough explore the relationship between mistresses and domestic servants. An excerpt from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women emphasizes the importance of middle-class women’s unpaid domestic labor, while Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Ward Stafford show the impact of the moral home on depictions of the poor. Finally, an excerpt from Solomon Northrup’s narrative describes domestic arrangements under slavery and offers a contrast to the moral slave cabin envisioned by some slaveholders.


• Based on the documents by Clarissa Packard and Louisa May Alcott, what types of domestic labor did middle-class women continue to do in their own homes?

• How did women’s paid labor inside and outside of the home simultaneously uphold and test the ideal of the middle-class moral home?

• What hardships, challenges, and rewards did domestic life hold out to working-class women in the homes of middle-class employers? Consider the different vantage points of Catharine Beecher, Clarissa Packard, and Lizzie Goodenough.

• How did life in a boarding house challenge the expectations for a respectable Victorian home?

• When were workers, the poor, and even slaves included in the ideal of the moral home? On what terms were they included by employers, reformers, and owners?


As men increasingly worked outside the home for wages, women’s domestic labor came to be viewed as separate from the marketplace. On the one hand, this transformation diminished and even erased the economic significance of wom

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SUMMARY As the domestic ideal increasingly included those beyond the white middle class (albeit in uneven and problematic ways), it inspired unexpected claims for political rights and supported new notions of citizenship. This chapter documents how politically marginalized groups – advocates for abolition, woman’s rights, racial equality, Native American citizenship, and trade unionism – used domestic norms, goods, and labor to lay claim to “civilization” and to articulate their particular demands.

Sources in this chapter include an excerpt from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and writings by W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, and Frances Willard.

Susan La Flesche depicts Native American domesticity, and Caroline Dall, William Sylvis, and the Woman’s Standard consider the relationship between waged labor, domesticity, and gender.


• In what ways did various groups use the home and respectable domesticity to prove their own or others’ status as worthy citizens? For example, how do Harriet Beecher Stowe, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Ida B. Wells use domesticity to make cases for African American freedom and progress?

• How did claims by and about marginalized groups uphold the white middle-class domestic ideal? What aspects of Victorian domesticity remained unquestioned?

• How did claims by and about marginalized groups transform or critique the white middle-class domestic ideal? What aspects of Victorian domesticity did they challenge?

• How do Caroline Dall, William Sylvis, and the article from the Woman’s Standard portray the relationship between home and the family economy?

How do their depictions compare with those by Lydia Maria Child in chapter 1 and by Catharine Maria Sedgwick in chapter 2?

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SUMMARY This chapter focuses on the use of domestic goods and values to create feelings of stability and progress in the face of geographic mobility and the United States’ global expansion. Taking up the two meanings of “domestic,” it considers the give-and-take between home and nation and the use of domesticity in the creation and assertion of American identity at the end of the nineteenth century.

Documents by W.A. Marin, William Dean Howells, and Stephen Crane offer different views on domestic ideals and experiences in the American west. Mary Antin and an article from Ladies’ Home Journal suggest the ways in which domestic spaces and goods helped women negotiate immigration and growing globalization. And finally, the account of Theodore Roosevelt’s denunciation of international marriages, the descriptions of the Columbian Exposition, and Caroline Shunk’s experiences as a military wife in the Philippines draw more explicit connections between domesticity, international competition, and U.S. imperialism.


• What elements of the nineteenth-century American home were carried into the western frontier and what meanings did men and women give to them?

• Why and how did domestic goods and values serve as stabilizing influences in the face of unfamiliar environments, increased social diversity, and new technologies?

• In what ways did domestic goods and behaviors serve as markers of national identity? Consider public depictions like the Columbian Exposition and Theodore Roosevelt’s condemnation of international marriages. Do these differ from the more intimate portrayals offered by Mary Antin and Caroline Shunk?

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century. Ask students to consider the presence of domesticity in contemporary public spaces. Are there public settings in which they expect to feel at home?

They might consider particular stores, malls, transportation spaces, even their own schools or campuses. What role does domesticity play in these spaces? Is it addressing similar concerns as in the past? Have we found new reasons and ways to domesticate public life?

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• Did the Victorian domestic ideal that emerged in the first decades of the nineteenth century prove inclusive or divisive as it developed over the century? Use primary sources to support your interpretation. You might consider the impact of the ideal home on particular social groups. For example, did the domestic ideal create opportunities for women to cooperate across lines of class and race? Or did the conflation of domestic goods and labor with morality sustain class divisions that went beyond income inequalities? How did the Victorian domestic ideal delineate or erase racial distinctions? A thorough answer should consider change over time.

• In the 1960s and 1970s, second-wave feminists argued,“the personal is political.” By this they meant that the seemingly private problems of individual women often had their roots in more public systems of power and meaning making. Many of the documents in At Home in Nineteenth-Century America reveal the ways in which the domestic was political and, in turn, how many public concerns were often addressed or framed in terms of domesticity.

Use documents from the volume to explore the relationship between the domestic and the political. What patterns emerge? Does the relationship between home and politics change over time? What stays the same?

• Find your own primary source on the nineteenth-century home and write a brief (no more than 200-word) introduction to it as though it were going to be included in At Home in Nineteenth-Century America. In addition. explain where your source might belong in the volume and consider how it clarifies, complicates, or challenges other sources already included. What will your source add to the reader’s understanding of the meaning and significance of the nineteenth-century home?



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