Domestic Life

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"Domesticity" has a homey feel to it, conjuring scenes of enduring warmth, safety, and comforting predictability. From the mid-eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century, however, Americans' domestic lives and the ideal of domesticity itself underwent dramatic changes. In fact, the ideological power and emotional resonance of the term "domesticity" seem all the more impressive when historians consider the challenges that real-life domesticity posed to the image. The years from 1750 to 1830 were a time of complex and consequential changes in the household setting, the experiences of individuals within that setting, and the way various groups viewed and valued the ideal of domesticity.

hearth and home

A number of households over the course of the period underwent architectural and material changes that reflected newly strengthening values and aspirations within the household. In broad terms, housing arrangements and architectural styles became somewhat more uniform across regions but considerably more divided by class. A trend took shape toward greater elaboration, specialization, and privacy in the layout of houses; this trend developed earliest and continued most strongly among the urban upper and middle classes but also penetrated deeper into rural areas and somewhat lower in the social order. The houses of the gentry led the way, becoming larger, more genteel, and more often built of, or at least faced with, brick.

Such houses, even in cities, increasingly separated themselves from their surroundings. They were set back from the street more, with walkways and gardens marking their boundaries; a visitor might have to pass through a gate or climb steps to knock on the front door. Having entered, visitors would likely find themselves in a large central hall; the hall in turn gave access to formal, public rooms, rooms for entertaining company, and, less and less often, for conducting business. The same hall buffered the private spaces of family members—bedrooms, baths, reading nooks—from visitors. Only intimates penetrated these family areas. And just as the boundaries between public and private spaces—and public and private activities—became more clearly demarcated, so too were the designated purposes of rooms announced: food was cooked in the kitchen (itself safely out of sight in gentry houses) but eaten in the dining room.

As privacy came to be more highly valued within the household, the houses of the upper classes, urban and rural, reflected a growing desire to shield bodily activities—the intimate, the coarse, and the mundane—from public view. Also new was a desire to separate the family and household from the world around them. Altogether, these changes spoke of greater self-consciousness about the emotional and private character of the family, a kind of closing in of the family circle. These new arrangements within the home, and the fine consumer and luxury goods that increasingly graced these households, also reflected growing aspirations to gentility and refinement. From the 1730s on and accelerating throughout the period, a "consumer revolution" brought china, silver, silks, leather-bound books, and expensive furniture to urban gentry houses. It also brought better pottery, more refined eating utensils, a broad range of textiles, and the wares of itinerant portrait painters to middling families in the countryside. Even excavations of slave quarters turn up pieces of Wedgwood and the occasional silver-plated fork, cast-offs from the plantation owners that provide both a metaphorical and a literal demonstration of the trickling down of the consumer revolution. Fine goods contributed to the material comfort of households and their members, reinforcing a growing sense that homes were to be sites of private pleasure and leisure—even as, ironically, they were also sites for displaying wealth, taste, and freedom from work.

family size and class distinctions

Among the upper and middle classes, while the houses were getting bigger the families were getting smaller. Historians have termed this demographic revolution the "fertility transition." Eighteenth-century wives and husbands knew of, and sometimes availed themselves of, various forms of contraception, some more reliable than others: abstinence, coitus interruptus, prolonged breastfeeding, and herbs and potions thought to be abortifacients (agents that induce miscarriage). A far more sustained and systematic movement toward family limitation occurred in the nineteenth century, especially among white, urban women of the middle and upper-middle classes, most characteristically those of the ambitious professional and business classes. The causes of this transition were complicated, but the results were clear enough: over the course of the nineteenth century, the average number of children born to white women fell from just over 7 to 3.56.

The fertility transition demonstrates the complexity of factors affecting domestic life. The material circumstances and aspirations of middle-class families changed as they became no longer dependent on the labor of numerous children and increasingly concerned to accrue, protect, and concentrate their financial assets for the sake of those children. The family became the new focus of life and emotional fulfillment, with children themselves—who were now to be nurtured and cultivated as never before—at the heart of the family circle. Controlling fertility was an intimate decision with public consequences, a set of individual choices that together formed a broad social pattern. As a demographic revolution, the fertility transition can be measured in terms of family size and birth intervals; as a cultural shift, it can be measured in terms of subtle changes in values and aspirations, the assertion of autonomy and control, and a display of mastery and restraint.

Another point that bears on almost every aspect of domestic life in this period is the ways in which domestic life—as a cultural ideal and as a gritty reality—was shaped by and in turn helped define class distinctions. Middle-class families that could forgo the labor of their children could deliberately limit the size of their families; farming families and urban workers engaged in piecework could not. If the cultural ideal of family life emphasized privacy and autonomy, those were luxuries denied working-class families, black and white, who took in boarders to make ends meet, or enslaved families living in plantation quarters. Social position, social aspirations, and social constraints strongly shaped the different ways in which Americans—gentry and working class, free and enslaved, rural and urban—negotiated the shifting terrain of domestic life in this period.

work and relationships within the household

As important as the physical setting is, the core of domestic life resides in the multiple and multilayered relationships and individual experiences of those within the household. Perhaps the single most important determinant of those relationships was work and the requirements it imposed. Work, and control over the fruits of work, structured the lines of authority and dependence within the household and beyond. Three broad changes reshaped the working and domestic lives of most Americans in this period: changes in access to and control over property; a gradual and uneven shift toward commercial and manufacturing work; and the growing separation of work from the household.

In general, hierarchical, patriarchal, and dependent relationships yielded to more egalitarian, contractual, independent, and affectionate ones. Thus landless sons, apprentices, tenants, and wives—the former dependents in such relationships—often gained new freedoms and access to new opportunities; they often encountered new risks and new anxieties, too, or entirely new forms of dependence. Fathers, masters, landlords, husbands—the former superiors—saw their authority eroded in some respects, with ties of obligation and deference weakening somewhat. Although they often found themselves relieved of many traditional, paternalistic responsibilities, many also confronted unfamiliar expectations of them as husbands and fathers. A second impact of changes in domestic life forms a powerful counterpoint to the first: in many circumstances, patriarchal authority reasserted itself, along with a newly crystallized distribution of power along lines of gender and race.

access to property: the north

The largest social group of the Northern colonies was white families of the middling order who farmed or raised livestock. Some combined farming with artisanal or commercial activity. These families worked as families, with all but the youngest or physically incapable members contributing productively to the household economy. The father and older sons, with occasional help from neighbors or hired hands, worked the land, repaired the buildings, and hunted and fished as necessary. The mother and older girls, and younger children of both sexes, cooked, washed, fetched water, stoked fires, tended vegetable gardens, and produced clothing and other textiles for home use and sometimes for exchange. In especially busy seasons or for large tasks, they might rely on the labor of young neighborhood women—some of them relatives, some working as part of a system of reciprocal exchanges of labor and goods, and some with the status of servants.

Although all family members contributed to the productivity and success of the household economy, the overriding fact was that the father owned the land. Sons had to wait to come into their own inherited land, and while waiting they worked for their fathers. The basic fact of life for such families was that fathers owned and ruled, and sons inherited.

But it was not an immutable fact of life. Even before the Revolution, especially in New England, such families felt the effects of a growing population and declining availability of desirable land. Such pressures generated considerable momentum to advance white settlement of the western lands. The period after the Revolution saw an explosive increase in population movement, both from the countryside to the city, and from eastern settlements to newly opened western states and territories. Young white men of the rural northern United States—a very large group indeed—could now acquire land independently of their fathers. They did not have to please their fathers, or work for them through their twenties and thirties, or wait to move, marry, and establish an independent household. Fathers often lost authority, a dependent labor force, and a secure transmission of property. Here was a sea change in the dynamic of the household, and it is not surprising that conflicts between fathers and sons fill the accounts of the period, from letters to autobiographies to novels.

access to property: the south

Changes in access to land in the slaveholding South also recast domestic lives but in dramatically different ways. As the plantation system expanded in the eighteenth century and became entrenched by the early nineteenth, a sharpening stratification took place in access to land and slaves and, with them, wealth and privilege. As the slaveholding gentry increased its wealth and consolidated its social position, its patriarchal authority deepened, even as it cloaked itself in benevolent paternalism—in the common usage, a tender care for their "entire family, white and black." The overwhelming beneficiaries of the South's changing social order were the elite planters; the women of the gentry class shared in the privileges of their wealth, class, and race, even as they generally had to submit to their husbands and fathers. Elite men found that the appearance of domestic tranquility and benevolence made it easier to impose and strengthen their domestic authority, even as it masked the exploitation of slavery that underwrote their power.

As the elite extended its control over land and slaves, yeoman farmers faced significant curbs on their economic power and prospects. Seeking to become "masters of small worlds," these men reasserted their authority as husbands and fathers. The privilege of white skin helped secure their tenuous position and sense of authority, a fact that helps explain why so many men who owned few or no slaves nonetheless supported a social order based on slavery.

the domestic lives of slaves

Of course, most fundamentally and detrimentally, the developing plantation system reshaped the lives, domestic and otherwise, of enslaved persons themselves. To describe this process challenges not only one's understanding but one's very vocabulary; above all it tests one's tolerance for complexity. For the members of this society inhabited simultaneously a stark world of law, coercion, and violence, and a fluid world of negotiation and continual contestation. Many masters wanted to believe in their own benevolence and were indifferent to slaves' domestic lives as long as they got the work done. The shrewdest among them recognized that incentives and a fictional appearance of reciprocity might go a long way toward securing the best efforts, stability, and loyalty of their enslaved workers. Within the confines of this oppressive regime, slaves themselves found ways to win concessions; but the struggle to preserve them was precarious, constantly subject to changes in masters' moods and fortunes. Yet these small victories often made it possible to salvage some privacy, some autonomy, some happiness—however fragile—in daily domestic life.

The most important fact—really, the defining condition—of slaves' domestic lives is that all lived with the knowledge that at any time, they or members of their families could be sold. Of all antebellum interstate slave sales, it has been estimated that onequarter destroyed a first marriage and one-half destroyed a nuclear family. Even in families that remained reasonably intact, slave marriages were not legally recognized. Husbands and wives, especially in the Chesapeake, often lived on different plantations, and women were highly vulnerable to rape and sexual exploitation. Children were put to work as early as age seven.

What slaves achieved, as they struggled to carve out domestic lives for themselves, is astonishing. As the slave system matured, after the tobacco revolution in the Chesapeake and the rice revolution in the Lower South, a number of changes in slaves' domestic routines became possible, even as they varied by region and work regimen. Families typically lived independently in small, rudimentary cabins; slave quarters in the Lower South tended to be located farther from the main house than in the Chesapeake, affording them a greater modicum of privacy. In general, the daily lives of masters and slaves were more intermeshed in the Chesapeake. Slaves there were subject to more direct oversight and personal contact, and owners were more eager to embrace the role of the paternalistic master. Although this made it harder for slaves to protect their domestic lives from their masters' watchfulness, it often made it easier to extract certain concessions from these self-avowed benevolent patriarchs. Thus Chesapeake slaves often secured release from work on certain days, provision of food and drink for holiday celebrations, control over the naming of children, even permission to keep some part of wages earned off the plantation as hired laborers.

Lower South slaves were less likely to have masters committed to the fiction of benevolence and less likely to have their daily routines quite so bound up together. But the task system of work prevalent in rice-growing regions meant that slaves were more likely to have time recognized as their own—time in which, for instance, they could work their own gardens and keep or sell the produce. Such small preserves of autonomy—a garden here, a customary holiday there—seem hardly to offset the discipline of the slave system. Yet slaves fiercely and vigilantly opposed any suspension or infringement in these areas, attesting to the importance of seemingly small matters. Finally, faced with so many off-plantation marriages and the vulnerability of the nuclear family, slaves forged extended family relationships and kin networks, a striking, and vitally important, feature of their domestic lives.

the ideology of domestic life

From one fundamental fact, then—changes in control over property—flowed several transformations in domestic life. As noted, the gradual shift toward manufacturing and commercial work, and the increasing separation of work from the household—changes often joined to growing urbanization—similarly reshaped domestic lives. Young men who moved to larger towns or cities to take up work as clerks or assistants in banks or mercantile houses commonly lived in boardinghouses; while they remained unmarried, their domestic lives were more likely dominated by masculine sociability than familial domesticity. Working-class women, white and black, found work in small manufactories, in piecework, in domestic service, and in prostitution; often freed from paternal constraints, they frequently found themselves subject instead to the demands of employers. Northern slaves, through the alchemy of gradual emancipation, saw their position transform from slave to servant over the long haul of this period; but most continued to live, alone or in small numbers, in the houses or above the workshops of their employers. They, together with Southern urban slaves, found it difficult to secure much privacy and autonomy in domestic life. For all those drawn to cities or to work beyond the household, a defining characteristic of their lives was a new level of mobility, of fluidity—even to the point of restlessness, to use a term commonly invoked in the period. Such fluidity opened up new opportunities and bred new anxieties, dissolved old bonds and boundaries, and transformed the cultural meaning of domestic life.

As domestic life became more variegated and ever more differentiated by class, race, region, and form of work, the ideology of domestic life—its ideals, expectations, and norms—became more uniform. Domesticity was a cultural ideal, no less powerful for being highly problematic. The middle-class household placed a new emphasis on privacy, intimacy, affection, and the primacy of children, with a corresponding exaltation of motherhood. The burgeoning literature on domesticity advised women—respectable, white, middle-class women, that is—on how best to keep the hearth and safeguard their virtue. The same literature promised their husbands a refuge from the rigors and competitiveness of the marketplace, a salve for the psychic injuries of the workaday world. Middle- and upper-class women came to be prized as consumers rather than producers of goods; an increasing need for cash income—income earned by men outside the home—rendered women's contributions to the household economy less visible and less valuable, thus diminishing their economic authority. Women who gained some autonomy through employment outside the home were thereby branded unfit for domesticity.

The ideology of domesticity, even as it glorified women's positions, proved an effective trap. The doctrine of separate spheres undercut and delayed recognition of the equality of women, not least by deploying an economic, ideological, gendered, and value-laden division between home and work, productive labor and increasingly "pastoralized" housework. Women's increasingly exclusive identification with family life and household responsibilities erected a formidable stumbling block to gender and economic equality, one whose consequences linger into our own time. The putative benefits of the doctrine of separate spheres, such as the extension of women's influence into religion, reformism, and benevolence, must be understood within the strict confines of legal, political, and social inequality. Even the ideal of companionate marriage, which promised at last middle-class women a kind of domestic parity, must be seen alongside the crippling legal and economic disabilities of women, disabilities that often made the idea of companionate marriage seem an oxymoron.

The emerging cultural ideal of domesticity may have described some rough approximation of real life for a few Northern, Protestant, middle-class families. But its greatest power may have derived from the people and the behaviors it excluded—those seen as unfit, disreputable, disorderly, immoral. The ideal of female domesticity and virtue was intricately bound up with sexual propriety, male authority, class distinctions, social status, economic freedom, and racial consciousness. None were so completely excluded from this ideal as enslaved women, who were consigned to work in the fields, whose bodies were poked and prodded in the slave market, who could not marry legally, whose children could be sold, and whose sexual lives were constantly violated and viciously caricatured. The ideal of domesticity promoted the private, the normal, and the good, even as it rationalized the deforming influence of race, class, and gender. Sojourner Truth might or might not have asked, "Ain't I a woman?" Butit was a question that many, on both sides of the racial and class divide, had to ponder in the new Republic.

See alsoClass; Divorce and Desertion; Happiness; Home; Marriage; Material Culture; Property; Sensibility; Slavery: Slave Life; Wealth; Work: Domestic Labor; Work: Women's Work .


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Domestic Life

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