Harriet Beecher Stowe once suggested that a special place in heaven be reserved for certain women she called "domestic saints." Her own aunt Esther was a good example-"and her name shall be recorded as Saint Esther"-a spinster who cheerfully gave her life to caring for children, nursing the sick, and silently helping out wherever she saw need. Here was a calling worthy of canonization, wrote Mrs. Stowe: "to be truly noble and heroic in the insipid details of every-day life."
This tribute first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1864, a time when home life was considered to be our point of closest contact with heaven. Indeed, the boundary between those two pleasant realms was sometimes indistinct-one best-selling novelist of the day explicitly furnished her heaven with pianos, and provided the angels with gingerbread. Motherhood, of course, best personified the mingling of home and heaven, for a mother was a saint by definition. But while maternity never lost its eminence, during the next few decades an increasing amount of public attention was turned to the actual work involved in home life. Mrs. Stowe's admiration for the righteous doing of "insipid" tasks was one of the earliest signs of what became a national sentiment and finally a mission. "A servant by this clause/Makes drudgery divine/Who sweeps a floor as for thy laws/Makes that and the action fine," ran a familiar hymn; it was quoted often, in domestic-science classrooms, as a reminder of the divine justification for cooking and cleaning.
The notion of women as emblems of divinity, like the notion of women asemblems of sin, had existed for centuries as a source of comfortable reassurance at least to men. But with the dawn of the industrial age, a volatile economic order gave the old perspective new relevance. Ever since the early 1880s, when industrialization was beginning to transform the country, the question of woman's place in the changing economic and moral scheme of things had been energetically pursued by churchmen, novelists, educators, and popular theoreticians. Women had always been housekeepers and that calling remained their first duty, but housekeeping in the eighteenth century was still an occupation located close to the heart of the economy. Before the effects of technology reached them, women produced nearly everything their families consumed; and these were sizable families that might include visiting relatives and hired help as well as parents and children. The wife, with her daughters and the other women of the house, took charge of spinning, weaving and sewing, making the family's clothing, linens, and quilts. She gardened and perhaps did some back-yard butchering, made soap and candles, preserved the fruits and vegetables, salted and pickled the meat, churned butter, and baked enormous quantities of bread, pie, and cake. She was responsible for daily housecleaning, weekly laundering and ironing, and major spring and fall cleaning; she was teacher, nurse, doctor, and midwife.
Beginning with the rapid development of textile mills in the early nineteenth century, however, much of the producing and manufacturing work of the household gradually moved outside it. Although technology had little effect on the lives of rural and frontier women until late in the century, by the Civil War period women in the expanding cities and towns were able to buy not only cloth but butter, milk, meat, flour, and myriad household necessities. Schools and hospitals took on the responsibility for teaching children and caring for the seriously sick; and families shrank as the older children and hired help left the household to find work in shops and industries. Even with the resources of a city at hand, however, there was still a great deal of work to do at home. The wife continued to sew and mend, to put three meals a day on the table, and to clean house; while laundry and ironing dominated two or three days of every week. But with the exception of child-rearing, most of the work a woman did consisted of day-to-day maintenance: feeding and cleaning and mending and feeding and cleaning. Her tasks were fewer but they were distinctly monotonous and in a tangible sense unproductive.
The very concept of "work," always a defining feature of man's world, slipped away from woman's, for in the industrial world the value of "work" was measured in cash, while women toiled outside that system. The tasks that women did, moreover, were accomplished very differently from the way industrial work was carried out. The principles of organization and precise scheduling that characterized business and manufacturing were missing from household affairs, which bumped along according to such unpredictable factors as children's tempers and the quality of a batch of yeast. Domestic life was more easily understood as an extension of woman's existence, one of her natural adornments. The best housekeeping, after all, was invisible, offering a smooth surface of cleanliness and harmony that covered up any trace of flurry, mishap, or sweat.
As woman's traditional responsibilities became less and less relevant to a burgeoning industrial economy, the sentimental value of home expanded proportionately. Moralists, theologians, and popular writers produced reams of literature aimed at investing domesticity with the spiritual sweetness of heaven itself. According to these authorities, a woman's most impressive duty was to make her home a heaven in miniature, herself the angel ready at the end of each day to receive and revive the weary worker. This interpretation of her role, while it may not have substituted perfectly for household productivity, did offer a well-defined spiritual challenge to the housekeeper. It was especially pertinent in middle- and upper-class families, where husbands left home each day to dwell in the frankly godless world of commerce and industry-even to profit from it. When they returned home each evening, the most horrifying conditions of factory life and wage-slavery could be gently washed away, all greed absolved, and Christian values brought to the forefront once more, thanks to the domestic angel who spent her day polishing those values into brilliance.
The woman at home came to personify salvation on a daily basis, for the benefit of a society that was still trying to fashion a link between the biblical virtues and worldly success, despite unpleasant evidence to the contrary. Splendid or humble, the domestic hearth became the most grandiose, the most important, the most influential place on earth during this era, because only an image of that immensity could effectively counterbalance the real power of industrialism. Toward the end of the century, this counterbalance would be expressed geographically with the development of suburbs, in which women would pass their days in a world that never met man's world except via public transportation. Around that time, too, the household would come to be recognized as a center of consumption, and the wife as an angel with purchasing power. But the commercialization of home life set into motion at these turning points owed its overwhelming efficiency to the vast amount of moral groundwork performed back in the years before the Civil War. The imagery of Christian sentimentality that blanketed American domestic life in the first decades of the century lent extraordinary new dimensions to the domestic sphere. Popular literature put heaven so close at hand that there were frequent exchanges between the two realms; and in the widely read poetry of that era, dead children would peep down through the clouds to smile at their parents, or God would stop to talk with the woman sweeping the floor of the church. Such easy contact between here and the hereafter, at least at the imaginative level, injected the metaphors of domestic happiness with a vigor they retain even today, especially in the hands of advertisers and politicians.
Women produced copious sentimental literature in these years, not only because they believed the rhetoric, but because this was a professional realm in which they could flourish. Some wrote fiction, some wrote tracts, some wrote hymns, and some edited florid periodicals for ladies-all of which contributed to the establishment of a fairly rigid female culture for nineteenth-century women. By the turn of the century their opulent writing style and dogged moralism were becoming out of date, but the concerns that drove these women to write and sermonize had been taken up by the domestic scientists. As moralists in strictly modern guise, these successors found the link between home and heaven to have been forged by a perfect distribution of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats-they marveled at a divine beneficence that could make the obscure lentil such a resplendent protein source. By maintaining the religious fervor of an earlier generation they were able to put their scientific interests on a pedestal, thus achieving a vantage point that made science more manageable and their pursuit of it more respectable. The charmed partnership between home and heaven that had the early sentimentalists in thrall became an equally charged partnership between home and science. While the domestic scientists never looked back at their literary predecessors with any gratitude-on the contrary, scientific housekeepers learned to despise most evidences of sentimentality in domestic life-it was the moralists, diligently at work through the better part of the nineteenth century, who made it possible for science-minded women to define a sphere for themselves.