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From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice

From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice

by Sarah A. Leavitt
From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice

From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice

by Sarah A. Leavitt


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Today's domestic-advice writers--women such as Martha Stewart, Cheryl Mendelson, and B. Smith--are part of a long tradition, notes Sarah Leavitt. Their success rests on a legacy of literature that has focused on the home as an expression of ideals. Here, Leavitt crafts a fascinating genealogy of domestic advice, based on her readings of hundreds of manuals spanning 150 years of history.

Over the years, domestic advisors have educated women about everything from modernism and morality to sanitation and design. Their writings helped create the idealized vision of home held by so many Americans, Leavitt says. Investigating cultural themes in domestic advice written since the mid-nineteenth century, she demonstrates that these works, which found meaning in kitchen counters, parlor rugs, and bric-a-brac, have held the interest of readers despite vast changes in women's roles and opportunities.

Domestic-advice manuals have always been the stuff of fantasy, argues Leavitt, demonstrating cultural ideals rather than cultural realities. But these rich sources reveal how women understood the connection between their homes and the larger world. At its most fundamental level, the true domestic fantasy was that women held the power to reform their society through first reforming their homes.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807860380
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 04/03/2003
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 272
Lexile: 1430L (what's this?)
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Sarah A. Leavitt is a historian who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Read an Excerpt

From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart
A Cultural History of Domestic Advice

By Sarah A. Leavitt

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807827029


The organizers of the 1996 Rhode Island Flower and Garden Show landed the perfect guest speaker for their annual luncheon. Held on a bright but chilly New England February afternoon, the event took place at the brand-new Westin Hotel and Conference Center in downtown Providence. The lunch itself, at seventy-five dollars a plate, would be gourmet fare, but it was not the reason for the large crowd. The guest speaker provided the appeal. Women from all over the region, along with a few men, gathered in the banquet hall where tables decked with early spring daffodils presented a celebratory scene. In the nearby conference hall, exhibitors presented a mind-boggling array of trees, shrubs, garden landscape projects, and exotic flowers. But for now, the lucky lunch guests turned their eyes to the stage. Enter Martha Stewart.

The topic of her lecture was the garden at her Westport, Connecticut, home. The program was to include a slide show filled with befores-and-afters, meant to excite the members of the audience with her stunning artistic sense and the beautiful projects for which she was beginning to become famous. A few minutes before the slide show was set to begin, the projector broke down, and a voice announced that the speech would be delayed. This was my chance. I approached the head table and introduced myself. I was writing a dissertation on the history of domestic-advice manuals, I explained, and I was interested to know if she thought of her work as having historical precedent. In the course of this brief encounter in the glittering ballroom of the Westin Hotel, Stewart readily conversed about the role of history in her work.

Stewart displayed a remarkable knowledge of the history of domestic advice. She cited several names of nineteenth-century advisors and noted that she had some of their works in her office, which she referred to from time to time for her magazine. Her assistant, sitting next to her, affirmed that Stewart loved to read from the old manuals and got many of her story ideas from them. Indeed, over the years Martha Stewart Living had featured then-and-now stories of the changes and continuities in American decorating. Stewart herself thought that the history of domestic advice and household arrangements was worthy of serious attention. She wished me luck.[1]

As a Martha Stewart aficionado myself, I felt a kinship with the women at the luncheon, even if as a graduate student the exorbitant fee had all but precluded my attendance at this feast. I was a longtime subscriber to Martha Stewart Living, had prepared her special-occasion hors d'oeuvres for a recent Superbowl party, and felt I had good credentials to speak to her. Though I tried to see her from an intellectual perspective, I could not help but be influenced by my (often secret) love of her work.

In fact, I had been featured in a newspaper story that morning about the upcoming visit from the domestic diva. The article, "Mad about Martha: Stewart's Rhode Island Fans Try to Live Her Way," featured several local women who called themselves Martha Stewart's biggest supporters. Linda McGowan "makes dolls, bottles vinegar and dries flowers," claimed the photo caption under an image of a smiling woman holding a teacup and surrounded by crafts of her own creation. Betsy Ose made Christmas ornaments out of old chandeliers. My role had been to comment on the historical continuity of Stewart's work in order to provide some sort of context for the domestic fervor sweeping Rhode Island. Reporter Keren Mahoney Jones noted that, for her subjects "all this domesticity fills the free time that you have when you are not working," even though all the women featured had full-time jobs.[2] "There is a lot of chaos in the world today, chaos that we can do nothing about (or feel like there is nothing we can do about it). But we can do something about our homes."[3]

Jones had put out a call for Rhode Islanders to write to the newspaper explaining their devotion to Martha Stewart. She received dozens of responses, including some in hand-made envelopes stamped with unique designs. "I find the magazine [Martha Stewart Living] both informative and useful," wrote one woman. "Many of the ideas in the magazine are very practical and useful for everyday living, but some are just plain fun to look at—read—and maybe even daydream about a little." Another reader noted that "we usually dine on Corningware rather than Lenox but oh! Fantasies are wonderful."[4] These women astutely identified Stewart's writing as domestic fantasy.

The Rhode Islanders and others who share their devotion to Martha Stewart know that Stewart is a businesswoman. They understand that she has a staff of professional designers and gardeners to help her and that the ideas she brings forth usually need to be adapted according to budget and lifestyle. They harbor no illusions that their homes could conform to her television-set image of the perfect house. But they appreciate her ideas. They want to make their lives, or at least their daydreams, more delicious, more unique, more decadent, more inviting. They want to have homes and families that respect their efforts and that benefit from their supervision. After the talk and the luncheon, Martha held a book signing in another part of the hotel. Participants waited in line for several hours. Many brought homemade projects to share with Stewart, some as gifts, some simply as evidence of their devotion. Admirers from afar, these women now had the chance to share their domestic fantasies with other women and with Stewart. At the end of the twentieth century, middle-class American women recognized domestic fantasy and incorporated it into their lives. Martha Stewart had authorized them to dream.

Martha Stewart and her various projects owe a great deal to history. She and her staff continue to learn from old design books, patterns, colors, recipes, and other guidelines. They use Depression glass and old Pyrex mixing bowls, antique buckets and retro office furniture. Clearly, they have a lot of respect for the domestic advisors who came before them. However, though the staff of Martha Stewart Omnimedia may understand their debt to the past, most of Martha's fans are not familiar with the genealogy of domestic advice. Since the 1830s, many domestic advisors have paved the way for Americans, particularly middle-class American women, to understand the messages and promises of Martha Stewart's work.

Domestic advisors have always remained engaged in their culture and aware of important issues. Over the years, they helped educate women about sanitation and design, about patriotism, religion, and the family. Their domestic fantasies helped create the idealized vision of home held by so many Americans. Looking at the themes of domestic advice over time, it becomes clear that Martha Stewart has joined an ongoing discussion about domesticity that has spanned over a century. Hundreds of women in several generations have written domestic-advice manuals, regardless of the ever-changing boundaries between women and the home. The subjects discussed in domestic-advice manuals have remained remarkably consistent over time, encompassing vast changes in the role of women in American society. Domesticity, in its many different forms, transcends historical periods and continues to be meaningful to generations of American women.

Martha Stewart has achieved almost complete media saturation. She appears daily in her own television shows on both cable and network television, and monthly at the newsstands in her magazine Martha Stewart Living. She also appears regularly on the radio, in the newspaper, and in person at special events around the country. Her Kmart line brings her to one audience, and her lavish wedding ideas to another. Her website provides live chats, bulletin boards where visitors can share ideas, and a direct link to her catalogue, Martha by Mail. It is almost impossible to claim that she has not addressed a need in American culture for domestic advice.

But this need is not new. Indeed, her particular genre of advice has a long history, and our need to listen to her has precedent. Stewart has joined an ongoing discussion about furniture, windows, and decorating. This book, in essence a genealogy of domestic advice, locates Martha Stewart in a historical context of writing about the home that has been important to American culture for more than a century. This book investigates cultural themes in domestic advice for the century between 1850 and 1950, emphasizing the period between 1890 and 1940; it begins with some earlier works and anticipates Martha Stewart's rise to prominence in the 1990s. The themes of morality, science, Americanization, and modernism are seen from the point of view of domesticity. Later chapters explore the interest in exotic, historic cultures as expressed through household decoration and through the rise of "togetherness" in the 1950s. The emphasis on the fifty years between 1890 and 1940 demonstrates the relationships between the home and the rise of formal education and professionalization for women, as well as the dramatic influence of consumer culture in constructing expectations for the household in that period.

Furniture, curtains, and bathroom fixtures do not have inherent qualities of morality or character. Domestic-advice manuals give these items cultural significance and characteristics. Just as a cigar is never really just a cigar, a living room can never be just a living room. The sofa and the pictures on the wall, the items on the mantelpiece, and the rug on the floor, all these things combine to form a picture of the family. But who decides what that picture looks like and what it means? Domestic advisors, from their position as social commentators, have spent the better part of two centuries translating the meaning of furniture and living rooms to the American public. Their manuals and magazines, newspaper columns and trade manuals instruct Americans on how to better understand their furniture, accessories, wall treatments, fireplaces, lighting fixtures, flower boxes, and bric-a-brac.

Just like advertisements, domestic advice works as a kind of funhouse mirror, distorting reality to show a society as some people wish it could be.[5] But most of the advice was never followed. The writings of domestic advisors demonstrate cultural ideals, not cultural realities. Domestic advice cannot provide evidence about actual home decoration or what the majority of women thought about parlor sets. Instead, these rich sources illustrate the ways in which cultural ideals could be embedded in household furnishings and ornamentation. Domestic-advice manuals have always been the stuff of fantasy. Their historical value lies in uncovering the way certain women understood the connections between their homes and the larger world. At its most fundamental level, the true domestic fantasy was that women held the power to reform their society through first reforming their homes.

American domestic-advice manuals emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries from women's writing in cookbooks and etiquette manuals. Americans began by importing their household advice from England, but soon began to produce what they considered specifically American advice. In fact, many early domestic-advice manuals, such as Lydia Maria Child's The American Frugal Housewife (1828) and Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe's The American Woman's Home (1869) included the word "American" in the title to differentiate them from English works on similar subjects. American women began writing domestic advice in the 1830s and 1840s because the rise in literacy among middle-class women provided them with an audience, and because a rise in a white middle-class population provided them with a subject: the home.

The middle-class American home in the mid-nineteenth century was a crowded place. Newly available curtains, rugs, wallpapers, sofas, beds, and kitchen items filled the rooms, often to overflowing, and women turned to domestic advice in order to understand their surroundings. From mid-century on, domestic advice became more readily available. Eastern cities from Boston to Buffalo began to publish magazines such as Home Monthly, Home Almanac, and Housekeeper's Annual just to keep up with the flow of writings about the home. By the turn of the twentieth century, domestic-advice columns appeared in local newspapers, regional magazines, and full-length books. For most of the period between 1850 and 1950, the publishing centers for domestic advice remained in Boston, New York, and, to a lesser extent, in Philadelphia. But cities like Denver, Detroit, and Des Moines also published domestic-advice manuals.[6] The advice books ranged from collections of simple household tips to fictionalized tomes meant to influence and inspire. The books could be passed along from friend to friend, read aloud, or passed on to the next generation. They helped middle-class women navigate the confusing consumer world and make sense of their belongings.

Domestic advice often went hand-in-hand with education for girls and women. Catharine Beecher, a mid-to-late-nineteenth-century domestic advisor, believed in education for girls and opened her own schools where she taught her students about domesticity. As home economics became a recognized field in the early twentieth century, women found unprecedented professional employment in the field of domesticity. And, as the twentieth century progressed and women became more involved in other fields, domesticity remained an important part of American popular culture in the form of advertisements and magazines. Domestic education for women, whether formalized by Beecher or popularized by Martha Stewart, has remained a vital part of American life. Most American students take home-economics classes in public schools, learning how to care for their homes and families. Domestic advisors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries helped shaped the curriculum topics, such as sanitation, nutrition, and interior design, that are often still used today.

Most of the authors of this advice never became famous. However, some domestic advisors became household names in their day, including Emily Post, and others became important in their respective fields, such as Ellen Richards in home economics or Lillian Gilbreth in time-and-motion studies. Late-twentieth-century reprinting of Lydia Maria Child and Catharine Beecher's works have made these books accessible to a whole new generation, often to complement women's history reading lists at colleges and universities. Most domestic advice manuals, however, rest today in the rare book rooms of libraries and archives, their strong opinions muted by time. Some authors, including Mabel Hyde Kittredge, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, and Mary Northend, enjoyed important careers as home economists, teachers, and authors, and their names are recognized today by their home communities but not by the country at large. There is a building named after Sophronisba Breckinridge at her alma mater, the University of Chicago. Marion Harland appears on a women's heritage trail in her home state of Virginia. Harriet Spofford is remembered by many today as an important writer of gothic fiction, and Emily Genauer for her 1974 Pulitzer prize. All of the writers of domestic advice, though they had widely varying careers, contributed to an important national dialogue about the home.

Why is domestic advice so compelling to American women? This book will begin to answer that question, which seems to intrigue so many cultural critics at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Martha Stewart's success is part of a legacy that has taken different forms over the decades, but that has consistently brought the promise of domesticity to thousands of American women. "So much has been written on household and domestic affairs," wrote Eunice Beecher in 1879, "that it may seem to many a worn-out topic, about which nothing more of interest can be written. But 'the household,' as we interpret it, is an inexhaustible theme."[7]

Excerpted from From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart by Sarah A. Leavitt. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Informed by hundreds of domestic advice manuals, popular magazines, and material culture, this book provides a unique look at the ways women, especially middle-class women, shaped and were shaped by an increasingly modern world. . . . Leavitt's strength in this study is her ability to show agency not only for the advisors but for the advised as well . . . it will make a valuable text in any introductory U.S. history or women's study class.—NWSA

An outstanding instance of the seemingly mundane or ephemeral revealing great significance on examination. . . . An important topic, well researched, compellingly argued. Highly recommended, especially for general readers whether intrigued or appalled by Martha Stewart!—Choice

[In] well-paced chapters complemented by fascinating illustrations. . . . Sarah A. Leavitt provides much-needed advice on how to study historical women's conceptualizations of their roles, their houses, and the larger world.—Historian

A wide-ranging intellectual, as well as cultural and professional, history of domestic advice.—Journal of Interdisciplinary History

Leavitt has written an engaging and insightful history of domestic advice, convincingly demonstrating that interior decorating is never a matter of individual fancy alone.—Florida Historical Quarterly

Leavitt's entertaining exploration of domestic advisors and their writings brings together material culture and cultural history to help us understand those dreams and their creators.—Maryland Historical Magazine

What do bric-a-brac and wall treatments have to do with cultural ideologies? Leavitt's thoughtful, imaginative, and entertaining study looks around the living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms envisioned by domestic advisors since Catharine Beecher and finds, among lace curtains and linoleum floors, religious devotion, romantic nationalism, technological zeal, pop psychology, and a host of other preoccupations, interests, and anxieties that have shaped American culture over the past 150 years. This engaging work recovers the many ways women, past and present, have used their homes as vehicles to express their own cultural, social, and political beliefs, altering permanently the way we think about all things 'domestic.'—Marla Miller, University of Massachusetts

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