Homes and Home Life

views updated

Homes and Home Life


Housing. The houses that dotted the American landscape became increasingly important symbols of American progress. Large houses that reflected current architectural trends were signs of individual and national prosperity. Small houses reflected the simple tastes of average Americans who worked hard and were the kings of their own humble cottages. And log cabins on the frontier represented the growth of civilization as it overtook the wilderness and made way for more permanent towns. In Northern cities and manufacturing towns housing ranged from mansions to multiple-family houses to row houses, while in rural areas and small towns singlefamily dwellings were the norm. The elaborate mansions of the North or the plantation homes of the South contained as many as twenty rooms, many of them quite large. The dining room, for instance, could often seat twenty or more. As the wealth of individuals increased at midcentury, these houses became ostentatious symbols of power and excess.

Specialization of Rooms. In the Northern countryside the average house was usually one-storied and consisted of two rooms: one for cooking, eating, and work ing and one where the parents slept and entertained guests. This bedroom/guestroom was considered the best room in the house, and people saw no incompatibility between the private sleeping and public visiting they did in this room. Children often slept in an unfinished attic space or loft. Over time, though, Americans began to design houses with rooms for more-specialized purposes. Bedrooms became separate, private places, and a parlor was created for entertaining and displaying the familys best furnishings. Kitchens and dining rooms were also created to separate the cooking and eating of food from the familys other work activities. Two-story houses were a symbol of prosperity, and they more clearly separated the private rooms from the areas where guests could be received by placing bedrooms upstairs. Most housing in the rural South was smaller than that in the North. Two-room houses, with a breezeway, or dogtrot, separating the rooms, were common, as were the log cabins usually associated with the Western frontier, Slave quarters varied, some being single-family houses, others having two or three families to a house. But most slaves houses were crude log cabins that consisted of only one room and no windows.

Parlor and Sitting Room. Borrowed from the mansions of the elite, the parlor became an important addition to middle-class homes as Americans attempted to adopt more-genteel lifestyles. The parlor was the best room in the house, where the familys finest furnishings were displayed. If the family were very well-to-do, a pianoforte (precursor to the piano) might be prominently placed in the room. Since a pianoforte could cost from two to six hundred dollars (more than a years income for most workers), its presence was a sure sign of social elevation. Bookcases might line the wall, attesting to the familys education. The parlor was a formal room intended to put the familys best possible face forward and was used primarily to entertain guests, or perhaps to host meetings of local social or literary clubs. When the family was home alone, they rarely set foot within the decorous walls of the parlor. Instead they retired to a library or a sitting room where family members sewed or knitted, wrote letters, discussed the days events, read the newspaper, or listened while someone told stories or read a favorite book aloud. So were spent many of the leisure hours of middle-class families, especially in rural areas where there existed few entertainments outside the home.


France Trollope on the inadequacy of evening entertainments in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1828:

Whatever may be the talents of the persons who meet together in society, the very shape, form, and arrangement of the meeting is sufficient to paralyze conversation. The women invariably herd together at one part of the room, and the men at the other. Sometimes a small attempt at music produces a partial reunion; a few of the most daring youths, animated by the consciousness of curled hair and smart waistcoats, approach the piano-forte, and begin to mutter a little to the half-grown pretty things, who are comparing with one another how many quarters music they have had. Where the mansion is of sufficient dignity to have two drawing-rooms, the piano, the little ladies, and the slender gentlemen are left to themselves, and on such occasions the sound of laughter is often heard to issue from among them. But the fate of the more dignified personages, who are left in the other room, is extremely dismal.

The gentlemen spit, talk of elections and the price of produce, and spit again. The ladies look at each others dresses till they know every pin by heart; talk of Parson Somebodys last sermon on the day of judgment, on Dr. Totherbodys new pills for dyspepsia, till the tea is announced, when they all console themselves together for whatever they may have suffered in keeping awake, by taking more tea, coffee, hot cake and custard hoe cake, johnny cake, waffle cake, and dodger, cake, pickled peaches, and preserved cucumbers, ham, turkey, hung beef, apple sauce, and pickled oysters, than ever were prepared in any other country of the known world. After this massive meal is over, they return to the drawingroom, and it always appeared to me that they remained together as long as they could bear it, and then they rise en masse, cloak, bonnet, shawl, and exit.

Source: Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, 2 volumes (London: Whittaker, Treacher, 1832).

Reading. Americans of all classes were encouraged by writers, teachers, and family members to pick up reading materials in their spare moments away from domestic duties or work in the factory or fields. Magazines and novels promoted an idealized image of the family sitting around a small lamp in the evenings reading to each other. Catharine Maria Sedgwick, in the novel Home (1835), depicted the wise decision of an artisan, who lived modestly in the city with his family, to purchase books instead of an expensive Swiss clock. The father read to his family from Mason Locke Weemss The Life of Dr. Benjamin Franklin (1815), making now and then such remarks as would tend to impress its valuable instruction on his children. As this novel reflects, Americans widely believed that reading could not only enlighten the individual but also help improve his or her status in society. The spread of knowledge was deemed to be essential to a democracy, but Americans began to read for pleasure as much as for enrichment. Often the two purposes of reading were united in domestic, religious, and reform literature. Novels about young women who learned to become Christian exemplars to those around them or who learned to shun fashion and pomp in favor of wholesome virtues like nurturing and humility were widely read by 1850.

Parlor Music. Sentimental songs distributed as sheet music for performance in the parlors of middle- and upper-class homes were among the most common forms of popular music. These ballads set themselves apart from the traditional tunes popular among the less well educated by forgoing sexually explicit lyrics in favor of more-genteel expressions of devotion and affection for family members and beaus. These parlor songs gradually pushed aside the older bawdy songs among- the lower classes, who learned them from newspapers and by ear. Songs from minstrel shows were also widely popular, with Stephen Foster being one of the most influential songwriters. These songs were derived from the music of slaves but also incorporated many other musical influences.

Dancing. Dancing was another domestic leisure activity, taking place primarily in private homes rather than public dance halls. Dance music was most often played by fiddlers, who were usually men, for dances that concluded neighborhood barn raisings, huskings, and quiltings in the North and South. Barbecues were popular in the South, and guests, who often included slaves, were entertained by a fiddler and maybe a banjo player playing dance music that reflected both the Celtic origins of much of the planter class and the African origins of their slaves. Many Southern fiddlers were slaves whose musical skills were prized by their owners. In the elite households of the North and South, balls were also held. These were grand events at which professional musicians played, and French dancing teachers watched as their pupils performed newly learned steps. In the early 1800s cotillion dancing, in which four couples danced together, became popular. But despite the widespread popularity of dancing many ministers scorned the practice as sinful because of the proximity in which men and women danced. Their opposition to dancing increased as the waltz, which replaced group dancing with individual couples who clasped hands and danced face-to-face, arrived in America in the 1820s. The clergy were effective in their attacks, as dancing decreased in popularity, especially among middling families in rural areas.


Jan Cohn, The Palace or the Poorhouse: The American House as Cultural Symbol (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1979);

Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 17901840 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988);

Russel B. Nye, Society and Culture in America, 18301860 (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).