views updated Jun 11 2018


HOME is a universal concept of central importance to religious thought. Like such other general symbols as sun and earth, it recurs from prehistoric times across cultures, in contrast to more culture-specific analogues such as the cross and the Kaʿbah. Besides its symbolic importance, home is also a significant locus of ritual in many traditions.

As with most sacred symbols, home is simultaneously an abstraction and a concrete object (as when it is embodied in a dwelling). The development of home as dwelling place can be traced from animal to human habitats; from the dens, windbreaks, and caves of nature to the tents, huts, and houses of culture. To automatically equate house and home, however, is to oversimplify, for home transcends all physical dwellings. Nonetheless, this distinction must be applied cautiously, for it assumes a secular separation of symbol and referent alien to preliterate thought.

The qualities that make home a sacred symbol include the way it traditionally functions as an ordering symbol. As such, it is a kind of maala, or symbol of wholeness, containing within itself all opposites. Among the Tiv of Nigeria these opposites are primarily social. Spatially, home (the compound of huts and granaries) represents kin and domestic group. Genealogy typically governs both hut and compound location. Consequently, a death in the family necessitates readjustment of hut positions to reflect the resultant social order. When a father dies, his son assumes the father's reception hut and allows the houses of the father's wives to decay. He then builds new huts for the widows among those of the heirs, usually brothers, of the deceased, who now become the women's new husbands through a practice known as levirate. Meanwhile, new huts are built for the son's wives adjacent to his reception hut. With the death of a compound head, fission of a compound often occurs so that sets of brothers and their families leave the compound with a new leader.

Commonly the home symbolizes a cosmic order, as exemplified by the tents of the prerevolutionary Mongol Buriats. The Buriats divided their dwellings into four sections: the south portion from the door to the hearth was the low-status half; that from the hearth back, the high-status half. Each half was then again divided, the west side being male and ritually pure, the east, female and ritually impure. Therefore male visitors would stay in the southwest quadrant, female in the southeast. The seat of honor for the host and high-status guest always rested in the northwest sector. Even objects were categorized in this way; valuables and hunting equipment, for example, were male, household utensils female.

Most Native American cultures saw similar cosmic correlations, leading them to characterize their dwellings as both temple and house. For the Plains Indians, the floor of the tipi represented the earth, the walls the sky, and the poles the paths linking earth and humanity to the sky and Wakantanka ("the great mystery"). A small altar of bare earth behind the fireplace, often with sod and roots removed and the earth pulverized and swept clean, represented Mother Earth. Sweet grass, cedar, or sage were burned here as incense to the spirits.

In Africa, the layout of Dogon villages and houses also correlates cosmos, village, house, and individual in a series of scales. Both village and house approximate the figure of a man, some of whose "body parts" are female. The outer door of the house is a phallus, its kitchen door a vagina, and the entire ground floor a woman on her back, ready for sex. The ceiling is her male partner. Such cosmic correlations of home and universe are common to the folklore of many archaic cultures.


When connections linking self, ancestors, society, and cosmos dissolve, homelessness ensues. Dread of such a state is universally expressed in conceptions of the "unhoused" dead. In ancient Greek and Roman thought, for example, the unburied were doomed to wander forever as phantoms incapable of stopping for the offerings necessary to rescue them. The connection to home is also threatened by enslavement, which severs all bonds to family, tribe, and village, and by banishment, a punishment frequently imposed in preindustrialized cultures.

Consecration and Domestic Rituals

Consecration initiates the process whereby dwelling becomes home. Worldwide, various kinds of foundation rites effect this transformation. Typically they begin by employing divination (such as the elaborate system of feng-shui in China) or astrology (as in India) to select the appropriate site. Exorcism follows, and then the foundation is laid according to the directions of a priest or sorcerer. Archaeological evidence indicates the universality of foundational "charms" from at least as early as the Shang period in China (c. 17511028 bce), when humans were customarily sacrificed at each house post; similar customs were observed into the twentieth century by groups such as the Maori. Thought to underlie such blood-related offerings is the belief that victims of violent death become demons who make powerful house spirits. Animal substitutes have long been used in foundation rites, as among the Arabs of ancient Moab (present-day Jordan), who sacrifice a sheep to pacify the jinn before laying a tent. Other surrogate victims have included statues (Rome), images of the house god (India), and animal parts, pottery, and vegetable remains (Europe).

In the Korean shamanistic tradition known as mudang, this essential process of consecration (sŏngjo baji ) is repeatedly reenacted even today to symbolize cosmic renewal. Typically, pine branches are hung on the gate and white papers on the roof beams of the central hall room to protect and renew the home. Additional rituals of renewal, the Ttŏkkosa and Sulkosa, are held at every full moon to correlate cosmic change to the building ground of the new home: as the moon appears the ground is renewed. In this tradition the house replaces the more common archaic symbols of mountains or cosmic trees as symbols of the axis mundi.

In Judaism, anukat-habayit, "dedication of the home," is based on Deuteronomy 20:5 ("What man is there that has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it"). No established form exists for this ceremony beyond the uttering of appropriate blessings and the affixing of a mezuzah, a parchment believed to protect the occupants from committing sin, inscribed: "And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Dt. 6:9, 11:20).

In some traditions, domestic rituals augment or replace practices otherwise performed in sacred places specifically set aside for religious purposes. Daily prayers are common to many religions, but more elaborate home-based rituals occur in the post-Vedic Hindu pūja rites, in which images of deities must be attended daily. In the morning the deity is awakened, bathed, dressed, perfumed, garlanded, and fed. Food is again proffered at noon and at night, with an evening song closing the day. Domestic rituals also significantly characterize Orthodox Judaism, Korean mudang, Haitian Voodoo, and the resurgent practice of witchcraft, or Wicca.


In contrast to consecration, which is designed to vitalize and protect a dwelling by installing a strong protective spirit, prophylactic processes are enacted to exorcise malevolent spirits or evil substances, the most malevolent of which involve blood as in giving birth, fatally wounding an occupant, or natural death. Death especially pollutes a dwelling, so that its occupants must be ritually purified before freely resuming their lives. Among the Yoruba, for example, if purification rites fail and a dwelling is believed to be ghost-infested, it will be abandoned.

Pollution almost universally attends the onset of menstruation as well, and a young woman is frequently required to leave her home until ritual purification renders her fit again for home life. This ritual is enacted by various tribal cultures, such as that of the Bolivian Yuracare who require her to live in a specially constructed leaf hut for four days. Similarly, an almost universal pattern of purification rites attends childbirth in preindustrial cultures. Houses that fail in these various struggles against pollution are often considered demonic, as Leviticus 14:4344 describes: "If the disease has spread in the house, it is a malignant leprosy in the house; it is unclean." The motifs in folklore of people-eating and haunted houses are additional manifestations of this phenomenon.

On a daily basis, too, pollution of the home must be guarded against, as Judaism well illustrates. In a traditionally observant Jewish home, all food must be kosher, meaning that it must conform to Jewish dietary laws developed from Leviticus 11:143 and must be prepared properly, using one set of dishes and cooking utensils for meat, another for dairy products. If mixing accidentally occurs, the polluted object becomes impure and must be rendered ritually and legally fit again, or discarded.

Death and Dwelling Places

"Home" means belonging, dwelling in one's proper habitat. In this sense, the term applies equally to the living and the dead, the grave being as much a home for the dead as a house is for the living. The nearly universal custom of bestowing grave goods on the dead underscores this connection, as does the custom of constructing tiny dwellings specifically for the soul, a practice common in the Yang-shao period of China and in ancient Egypt. The present-day Sakai of the Malay Peninsula similarly fill huts with doll-sized furniture and implements for use of the dead, and images of ancestors are kept in miniature "soul houses" in parts of Papua and Melanesia.

Such intimate connection between home and deceased family members is dramatically expressed in the dwellings of the Kwakiutl of the Northwest Coast of North America. For them, the house itself lives as a kind of double of its owner, becoming "empty" or "broken" when he dies. When the family regroups around its new head, a new house is built. Characteristics of the "life" of the house are its "speaker's posts," open-mouthed figures through which ceremonial words of welcome emerge as if from the ancestor himself, and the gigantic mouth of the frontal pole that "swallows" those who enter.

Household Shrines

From Neolithic times, the practice of setting aside a corner or room of a dwelling as a shrine has been common to many traditions. In ancient Egypt this domestic shrine, usually recessed in the wall of the central hall and adorned with religious scenes, contained a figure of a household god made of pottery or precious metal. Among the Banyankole in Africa each hut contains a special grass-covered, hard-beaten mound of earth, about a foot high, to hold sacred objects. Among the Gold Coast tribes, an honored place is set aside in one corner of the home for special offerings to the domestic spirit known as the suhman. The Yoruba place a humanized image of the house god Olarosa at the door and make a recess in the wall for their personal fetish as well. Among the Udmurts, the vorsud or clan god customarily resided on a shelf in the outhouse. Household altars also prominently characterize domestic observances in China, Japan, and Tibet.

House Spirits, Domestic Deities, and Family

Almost universally, home, as opposed to mere dwelling, is vivified by a spirit of some sort, usually an ancestor. Evidence in the form of cave burials, skull cults, and sacrifices to the dead dates from the Paleolithic era, suggesting a sacred connection linking ancestors with dwelling places. In pre-Christian Europe, the house god was commonly represented as a snake, which was believed to be a vehicle for the souls of the dead. Among the Lithuanians, for example, the paterfamilias typically maintained his serpent (givojitos, "the living ones"; givoitos, "immortal ancestor") in a corner of the house where he offered it food and sacrificed to it.

An elaborate system of household deities existed among the ancient Romans: the manes were the benign gods, an undifferentiated collective of ancestors; the penates were gods of the store closet; and the lar familiaris was the primitive concept of home personified, to which offerings were made on all family anniversaries. Among the Teutons, the household spirit often assumed manikin form. The cofgodar ("house gods") of the Anglo-Saxons have their counterparts today in the Kobolde and Butzen of the Germans; Puck of the English; the brownies of the Scots; and the gardsvor, tomte, and nisse of the Scandinavians, all still frequently believed to be spirits of ancestors.

Among the Slavs every house has a domovoi, the spirit of the founder of the family. At festivals commemorating ancestors, this little old grayhaired man in old-fashioned dress is honored, too. Before the family moves, its members pray, offering bread and salt to entice the house spirit to accompany them. Before Lent, the head of the house invites the domovoi to supper by going into the yard and bowing to the four cardinal points. In Russia the spirit is named according to location: in the cattle shed he is the chlevnik; in the yard, dvorovoi; in the drying kiln ovinnik; and in the bathroom, bannik.

Among the shamanistic Samoyed of the Arctic coast of Russia, the domestic spirits (haha ), usually one male and one female, are represented by oddly shaped roots and stones or anthropomorphic figures kept on a special haha sledge. Whenever the family moves, special haha reindeer carry it. No woman, even a shaman, may uncover the haha or care for the domestic gods. The haha sledge ordinarily stands behind the chum ("tent") on the outer side of the si, the place of honor, occupied only by the eldest family male.

In most West African tribes, the family fetish and a class of ancestral spirits known as the "well-disposed ones" protect their particular village and family. Among the Kenyahs, a rude image of the minor deity Bali Atap, who protects the house against sickness and attack, stands beside the gangway connecting house and riverbank. A different god, Bali Utong, brings prosperity.

Among the Ainu of Japan a family spirit, inaw, is invested with life, dwelling in a special corner of the hut behind the heirlooms. In times of trouble he is stuck in the hearth and offered prayers. The incorporeal eingsaung nat of the Burmese scares off burglars; it lives in the southern post of the house, which is devotionally adorned with leaves. The Burmese also pray to images of respected relatives as house guardians.

The Sacred Hearth Fire

The sacred quality of household spirits and deities has frequently been associated with one of the most common attributes of home, the sacred hearth fire. In Brahmanism, the householder rekindled the sacred fire whenever religious rites were performed. For all domestic ceremonies (smārta-karman ) the fire of a clay hearth (grhyāgni ) was sufficient. Every morning the family assembled around the fire in prayer before "feeding" it with bits of consecrated wood (samidh ) from the palāśa tree. If the smoldering embers were inadvertently extinguished, the household would be plunged into chaos; only for an expiatory ceremony (prāyaścitta ) was the fire intentionally rekindled. The fire god, Agni, functioned as both the god of the household and of the clan, protecting both from evil, much as Hestia did in Greece and Vesta in Rome.

Among Native Americans of the Northern Hemisphere the sacred fire burned by day in the hearth at the center of the dwelling. Fire, a gift of the gods, symbolized the sun, much as the surrounding home symbolized the universe. The door or tent flap was positioned facing the east to catch the morning's first rays.

Since ancient times the sacredness of the hearth fire has been symbolized in China by the stove god, Zao-wang, and in Japan by the kitchen gods Okitsuhiko and Okitsuhime and the god of the stove, kama no kami. Bronze Age Chinese dwellings all had a central opening for smoke called "the center of the house." The spot beneath it was sacred to the tutelary god of the ground on which the house stood. Here food was prepared and eaten, family council held, and the god worshiped. Originally, the god represented the mystery of fire, guardianship of the house ground, and the family's ideals and traditions.


In traditional cultures, "home" is a sacred symbol capable of transforming chaos into cosmos and engendering personal wholeness. But for many industrial and postindustrial cultures, home has become a purely secular institution, particularly in those societies that accept Plato's denigration of the private sphere associated with home in favor of the public one associated with politics. Accordingly, two strongly opposed orders are thought to govern existence. One, to which all humans belong, is the natural order of things determined by biology, in which woman bears children and man maintains the life of the family. The center of this existence, which is ruled by necessity (anagkē ), is the hierarchically arranged household (oikia ) dominated by the eldest male. Contrasting with and transcending this order, however, is the city-state, the polis, in which every member is equal. In this "higher" realm of the polis, members are most truly alive, as they engage in the two "highest" forms of human activity, action (praxis ) and speech (lexis ). But only citizens can be memberswomen, children, slaves, and foreigners are automatically excluded.

Both implicitly and explicitly, this praise of the public and denigration of the private elevates males to a place of existence from which women, by virtue of their anatomy, are barred. Historically, the public sphere of men is extolled while the domestic sphere of women, the home, is both trivialized and despised (except briefly in Victorian times in the West when it was sentimentalized). Thus, much as Freud in Totem and Taboo openly derides the concept of God as a believer's internalized image of his or her father, many contemporary Western feminists, Marxists, and utopian thinkers now ignore or dispise the institution of home. For them home has become an ugly image of privatism instead of a symbol of cosmic order and personal wholeness.

See Also

Demons; Domestic Observances; Exile; Fire; Foundation Rites; Geomancy.


A contemporary work that deals with the religious significance of home and related aspects is my book The Sacred and the Feminine: Toward a Theology of Housework (New York, 1982). Within the context of the nineteenth-century American doctrine of "the cult of true womanhood," Catherine E. Beecher's A Treatise on Domestic Economy (New York, 1855) proselytizes about many aspects of home from a popular perspective. One of the best treatments of the psychological significance of houses is Gaston Bachelard's La poétique de l'espace (Paris, 1957), translated by Maria Jolas as The Poetics of Space (New York, 1964); esp. chaps. 13. For a comparative visual study of aboriginal domestic architecture from around the world, Colin Duly's The House of Mankind (London, 1979) presents an outstanding collection of photographs with accompanying analysis. A useful discussion of the religious significance of homecoming is Charles E. Winquist's Homecoming: Interpretation, Transformation and Individuation (Missoula, Mont., 1978). For an easily readable account of home-centered ritual within Judaism, The Jewish Catalog, edited by Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld, and Sharon Strassfeld (Philadelphia, 1973), is unsurpassed. Two excellent sources on domestic rituals in the classical world are Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges's La cité antique (Paris, 1864), translated by Willard Small as The Ancient City: A Study of the Religion, Laws and Institutions of Greece and Rome, 11th ed. (Gloucester, Mass., 1956); and Georges Dumézil's La religion romaine archaïque, 2d ed., rev. (Paris, 1974), the first edition of which was translated by Philip Krapp as Archaic Roman Religion, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1970). The classic analysis of the persistent split between the public and private spheres is Hannah Arendt's chapter "The Polis and the Household," in The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958). Helpful short discussions on various symbolic and ritual aspects of home in specific cultures appear in Irving Goldman's The Mouth of Heaven: An Introduction to Kwakiutl Religious Thought (New York, 1981); Paul Bohannan and Laura Bohannan's Tiv Economy (Evanston, Ill., 1968); Sechin Jagchid and Paul Hyer's Mongolian Culture and Society (Boulder, Colo. 1979); and Jung Young Lee's Korean Shamanistic Rituals (New York, 1981). An excellent general discussion of the theme of home as cosmic image occurs in Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane (New York, 1968).

Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi (1987)


views updated May 14 2018


As much a mental as a physical construct, "home" is a place we dwell on as well as dwell in. The emergence of home as we understand it in the early twenty-first century began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The modern notion of home ultimately replaced the older idea of household, a slow, almost imperceptible process but one of huge significance for the future of American society, for the shift from household to home was paralleled by the rise of the idea of "homeland," a key concept in the founding of the new American nation.

At the mid-eighteenth century, the subjects of European monarchies living on the North American continent, both free and enslaved, dwelled in places universally described as households. The household was not only the basic residential unit, but also the fundamental political, economic, and social organization. In many of the New England colonies, everyone was obligated to live in a household. These were organized in a hierarchical manner, with the royal household at the pinnacle. The household of each royal subject was ruled by a patriarchal master, who exercised authority over all the inhabitants: family members, kin, servants, slaves, even guests. No distinction was made between family and household. Indeed, the term "family" applied equally to all living under the one roof. In the big houses of slave plantations, masters talked of their families as including both black and white members.

The household was a functional unit to which few of the sentiments that we now associate with home were attached. Membership of the household changed frequently, and people felt at home in a particular region rather than in a particular house. There was little interest in roots or the history of particular residences, and no sense of sacredness attached to domestic space as such. When people talked of going home, they were referring to a place of destination rather than of return. In the journey, the prevailing metaphor of Christian life, the ultimate home was in heaven rather than on earth. Households were mere way stations, and too great a fondness for worldly places was considered an obstacle to salvation among both Protestants and Catholics. Neither faith spiritualized the household in the ways that later generations would do.

The time and space of the household was not significantly different from the times and spaces of the world at large. Its rhythms were dictated by the work and leisure patterns of its inhabitants. It was more communal than private and was heterogeneous with respect to age, race, and gender. As long as each resident adhered to her or his assigned place in the household hierarchy, they mingled quite freely, sharing rooms, even beds. There was little concern for personal privacy; and the household was as much men's space as it was women's. Indeed, in this patriarchal society it was more his than hers.

invention of the home

There is no precise date by which to mark the transition from the eighteenth-century notion of household to the nineteenth-century idea of home. The shift was the product of changes in social and economic conditions, of religious transformations, but also of the American Revolution, which replaced the ancient notion of royal sovereignty with the idea of the sovereign nation defined as a people sharing a certain bounded territory. The Revolution displaced not only the figure of the royal father but the royal house, replacing them with republican fathers and republican homes. The old hierarchy of households was replaced with an imagined landscape of single-family homes, congruent with the Jeffersonian vision of a nation of small farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers, each with a wife and children. The result was a radically new sense of both domestic space and domestic time that gradually established itself as the middle-class norm by the mid-nineteenth century.

By the early nineteenth century, the household had begun to lose its place at the core of American life. It shed its economic functions when paid work was relocated to the shop or the factory. Apprenticeship was replaced by wage work, and it became less common for employees to live in the houses of their masters. Servants remained, but they were now quartered apart from family members. In time, the household would also lose its educational role to the school, and in the new republican nation-state, powers once vested in the head of the household were relocated to the courts and governmental agencies. By the middle of the century, there was a clear separation of the private and public spheres. To the former belonged women and children; to the latter belonged the free, property-owning males who were now employed in offices and factories and who, as citizens, exercised power in the new nation. This process proceeded fastest in the industrializing Northeast, in cities rather than on farms. A clear distinction between family and household emerged first among the urban middle classes there. In the plantation South, older forms of household persisted, and among the working classes, heterogeneous households were still common.

Among the middle classes of the Northeast, a new kind of feminized domesticity was emerging, reflected in the gendered concept of the "homemaker." It came to be assumed that only a woman, preferably a mother, could create a proper home. Previously honored for their domestic skills, fathers were now defined by their prowess as breadwinners. The patri-centered house gave way to the matri-centered home. Thus, while the residence remained for women a place of work, it became something very different for middle-class men. For them, it became a retreat, a place of rest and relaxation. It was said that "with fond longings does he turn toward that bright paradise, his home…. With what refreshing gladness does he retire from the noise, and strife … into this sanctum sanctorum of the world's vast temple" (Boydston, Home and Work, p. 146).

no place like home

Home had begun to take on a meaning once associated only with heaven. This transition was slow and uneven, but in the course of the early nineteenth century a shift in religious sensibilities initiated by the evangelical Protestant middle classes spiritualized domesticity, giving it a sacramental quality that it had not had earlier. Catholics were slower to sacralize the home, but they too would eventually sanctify it. The first step in this process was to erect new boundaries between home and world. The house, previously a semipublic space, was gradually becoming an entirely private sphere. Entry into the sanctum sanctorum took on a ritualized formality it had not previously had. But because most middle-class households had servants, internal space was differentiated in such a way as to segregate those rooms (the parlor, dining room, and bedrooms) that belonged to the family and those (kitchen, stables, and "below stairs") reserved for strangers. The single-family house, located at the edges of eastern cities, was becoming the norm of middle-class family life. This private way of life was mirrored in a private way of death, with new cemeteries laid out in family plots with tombs that looked like suburban houses. Heaven itself came to be imagined as a pleasant suburb filled with nuclear families.

Time was also used to set home apart from house. A series of daily, weekly, and annual family-centered rituals came into existence, separating the newly invented notion of "family time" from work and public time more generally. Christmas, previously a public event, came to be the archetypal family occasion, a moment of homecoming that had no precedent in earlier centuries. The idea of home, usually the maternal home, as a place of return reinforced its temporal as well as spatial mystique. Home came to be associated with personal or familial past, an object of intense nostalgia. In an era of rapid change and frequent movement, when Americans—both native and immigrant—were beginning to move westward in massive numbers and would never go back to their place of birth again, the symbol of home took on enormous meaning. Home became for many, and especially for middle-class men, both a dream of future success and a memory of lost paradise. Home was to become an ideal, often at odds with the places people actually lived in.

myth of the american home

The ideal of the American home emerging in the early nineteenth century should not be confused with the residential life even of the Protestant middle classes who invented it. It is wrong to think of housewives as ladies of leisure. Their toil, vastly increased by the elevated standards of Victorian homemaking, was portrayed as a labor of love. Yet married women were in many ways worse off than single women, who at least had access to their own earnings. Motherhood, also idealized, was no paradise either. High infant and maternal death rates made it a cause of intense anxiety and real distress. No wonder many women put off marriage and considered alternative living arrangements. Children were perhaps the chief beneficiaries of the newly established home life. Among the middle classes they were coming to be regarded as innocent creatures, in need of protection from the world. Withdrawn from work and increasingly confined to school, they were, however, still subject to whims of adults and were much less independent than their age-mates among the working classes.

For the vast majority of Americans, home was nothing more than a dream. A freestanding house was beyond the reach of most wage workers. Slaves, who were a part of their masters' household property, were not allowed to own their own houses. Immigrants might aspire to homeownership, but most were too poor to attain their goal. And even among the rising middle classes, the ever-increasing standards of a middle-class home—fashionable furniture, fine art, good food and drink—always seemed just beyond reach, a spur to constant striving, a source of anxiety, and in the case of those who failed to earn enough, a cause of shame. Home had become a generator of gender and generational differences. It was also to become a marker of class division.

The Protestant middle-class concept of home did not go unchallenged, however. Most Americans lived the best they could, ignoring and even defying its standards. In the early nineteenth century, inner city slum dwellers as well as people on the expanding frontiers put together their own heterogeneous residential arrangements. The various utopian communities that proliferated in this same period offered a variety of alternative living arrangements which were explicitly aimed at coping with the well-known shortcomings of the private home and nuclear family. Experiments ranging from polygamy to celibacy attracted many adherents; at places like Oneida community in New York State, communal dining rooms and shared child care proved very popular. In the South, slaves, forbidden to marry, performed their own nuptials, which allowed them to have some measure of family and domestic life.

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was particularly uneasy about the new homes and private cemeteries he saw being built all around Walden Pond. He worried that the sanctification of domestic life reflected in their architecture produced a poorer rather than richer spiritual life. Invoking an earlier tradition in which the house was a mere way station on a grander journey, he wrote: "We no longer camp as if for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven…. We have built for this world a family mansion, and for the next a family tomb" (Chandler, Dwelling in the Text, p. 40). In this respect, Thoreau was a prophet, anticipating developments that continue to shape the American landscape into the twenty-first century.

See alsoArchitecture: Vernacular; Gender: Overview; Gender: Ideas of Womanhood; Parenthood; Work: Domestic Labor; Work: Women's Work .


Boydston, Jeanne. Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Chandler, Marilyn R. Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Clark, Clifford Edward, Jr. The American Family Home, 1800–1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Hayden, Dolores. Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth. New York: Pantheon, 2003.

McDannell, Colleen. The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840–1900. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Sobel, Mechal. The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Van de Wetering, Maxine. "The Popular Concept of 'Home' in Nineteenth-Century America." Journal of American Studies 18 (1984): 5–28.

John R. Gillis


views updated May 23 2018


Home refers to the geographic region, place, or dwelling that family members identify as a familiar residence to which they can return. Home is not a physical structure, but a complex symbolic concept. The symbols of home are constructed from references to physical, temporal, and affective, or emotional, dimensions of everyday acts of dwelling.

Physical Dimension

The physical dimension of home helps to locate what is home. It is inappropriate to use the terms house and home interchangeably. Families may identify housing as home, but home is not necessarily a domicile (permanent legal residence). Designation of what is home depends on specification and extent of the concept. John Hollander (1993) suggests that home is conceptual concentric circles radiating outward, with the surface of the world as the outermost circle. The smallest central point of the concentricities might be the place of greatest hominess. Moving outward are the broader, public places, such as cities or regions, which are considered home. The notion that home is a community of people in a region comes from the German heimat or homeland. This is a collective sense of home rather than the personal and private sense of home of individuals and families.

A place is a home if it is familiar. A place becomes familiar and eventually considered a home through successive interactions with the place. Repeated interactions through organized patterns of routines yield recognition of actions and place. Frequent and regular family interactions associated with daily acts of living (e.g., food preparation, sleeping, childcare) or repetitive family and community rituals held in a specific place can contribute to familiarity with a residence or a territory.

The place that is home must have a regular physical appearance so that it is recognizable. Too much variation in the place will not elicit enough recognition over time to generate a sense of familiarity. Some stability in the environment may exist, but stability can also be controlled by the family. For example, furnishings in a house are often arranged in patterns and allowed to remain for a period. This regularity permits recognition of the place as familiar rather than strange. Thus, people act as agents in the construction and arrangement of the physical dimension of home (Douglas 1993).

Time Dimension

The idea that a residence becomes familiar through repeated interactions between individuals and a place inherently incorporates the concept of time, the second dimension of home. Time is required to accommodate replicable interactions between individuals in a place (for example, between family members residing in a house) and between individuals and a place (for example, between an individual and a living room). Too much time between interactions will reduce the opportunity to construct a cognitive representation of a familiar and predictable place.

When individuals are absent from home for a long period, the place may be perceived as strange and unfamiliar because the place and/or the individual may have changed during the interim. Alfred Schutz (1945) describes how the homecomer may feel like a stranger in a home territory because the formerly familiar place does not conform to expectations constructed from past experiences.

Affective Dimension

Home is more than a sense of recognition and familiarity with a place. The definition of home also includes the idea that it is a place to which family members intend to return. This symbolic orientation toward a place involves affect, or emotion, the third dimension of home. The feelings associated with the cognitive representation of a place assist in activating the inclination or desire to return and generating a sense of home.

People experience a sense of being at home in the inner concentric circles of home. A journey toward the outer circles can elicit feelings of strangeness. At the center of home, the strangeness dissipates and is replaced by ease because the surroundings are familiar. Actions within the place are known or easily remembered (such as knowing the rules for moving about a place) so that less effort is required to understand and interact with the immediate environment. The intimate knowledge about how to act and the behavioral habits or rituals associated with home elicit a sense of control over the home territory (Lyman and Scott 1967). Control does not necessarily mean legal ownership or possession of a physical space; the possession of the territory through habits of daily living is a part of a sense of home.

A sense of control over a territory can include the notion that the place is private or not under surveillance. The idea of privacy has emerged in association with home over the past few centuries (Stone 1991). Some social activities are viewed as public and therefore can be available to be observed by larger groups of people. Surveillance of other activities by the public is less desirable, eliciting a desire for privacy. Peter Wilson (1988) suggests that symbolic boundaries of the home provide indicators of what is private for the household. Territory inside the home that restricts access to nonmembers is considered to have greater privacy than areas that outsiders may more easily enter.

Restricting access to the home is associated with maintaining a sense of safety from the outside world. Home is a retreat from the strange, dangerous, or polluted external world (Rybczynski 1986). Inside the home, the physical setting is treated as private, familiar, and protective of occupants. Interestingly, efforts to create and maintain privacy introduce a lack of freedom. Walling out the outside to gain privacy involves being walled in, with an associated loss of freedom (Schama 1987).

Privacy within the home also emerged from the creation of the need for quiet to accommodate contemplation and concentration; activities such as reading and writing became associated with the need for a private space that is protected from the noise and chaos of the outside world (Stone 1991). Witold Rybczynski (1986) suggests that the physical and emotional comfort associated with home has emerged in coordination with the development of technology (e.g., sources of heat in colder climates and designs of chairs). Home is a place that is familiar, the physical attributes of the place are coordinated to help the human body feel at ease, and the acts of daily living are fairly convenient. At home, families feel at ease both physically and emotionally.

A place can be designed and decorated to create home as a comfortable place; however, the décor does not make it a home. Some places do not facilitate the ability to feel a sense of privacy or physical comfort, or a sense of emotional ease through esthetics. Joseph Rykwert (1993) notes that the decoration and design of buildings can alienate people by bringing about a feeling of discomfort. Discomfort is also experienced in the strange territories away from home.

Moving far away from the home territory to an unfamiliar place can elicit a longing for home. Sojourns to distant places can be experienced as yearning for the familiar, or nostalgia. Interestingly, nostalgia is derived from the Greek word nostos, which means a homeward journey (Hollander 1993). Longing for home may motivate families or family members to enact the familiar rituals of home in an effort to secure a degree of comfort. For example, Arctic explorers recreated family rituals as a way of coping with being in adverse conditions and away from their homes for long periods of time (Johnson and Suedfeld 1996). Additionally, families may use possessions associated with home, such as furniture or decorations, to replicate home in a new place. The possessions help to recreate the familiar place associated with home.

Removal from, or dispossession of, a home may be experienced as a sense of loss. For example, families living in exile may feel deprived of a sense of belonging to a place. The loss, however, may be diminished by efforts to continue of the familiar patterns of family activity in another less familiar place. The study of families who migrate away from their homes reveals the types of efforts to create a place that replicates the former home. For example, Anne-Marie Fortier (2000) describes how Italian migrants to England replicate some aspects of their original home and homeland through rituals, celebrations, and decoration of buildings. Replication of home reduces the distress associated with the loss of home and contributes to a sense of belonging rather than alienation.

Orientation to a place that is considered home may contribute to the social identity of family members. Indeed, Geoffrey Hayward (1975) views home as the manifestation of family identity, which is one type of social identity. Social identity refers to the knowledge of membership in a group and the emotional significance attached to that group (Tajfel 1981). Individuals who recognize a common home are part of a group attached to a place. The emotional significance of the group is associated with the affective dimension of home. Thus, home contributes to a social identity that is defined, to a certain extent, by the physical dimension of the home as well as the affective response to the place.

Social identity associated with home is important for the study of families in an increasingly mobile world. An important related notion is diaspora, which is a group of people who have been dispersed from their home for economic, social, or political reasons. Families who are displaced from a home region do not lose their sense of home or homeland, but often are waiting for an opportunity to go home. If they cannot go home, displaced families re-create home in a strange place generating a distinct social identity that is a combination of the new strange land of refuge and the homeland. For these families, daily living is oriented to the homeland but in a place that is not considered home. While some families are dispersed from their homes, other families choose to move because of the increasingly global market economy. What is not clear is how very mobile families manage their social identity and a sense of belonging associated with the familiarity and comfort of home while pursuing an income by moving repeatedly.

See also:Commuter Marriages; Computers and Families; Family Rituals; Food; Homeless Families; Housework; Housing; Migration; Television and Families


douglas, m. (1993). "the idea of a home: a kind ofspace." in home: a place in the world, ed. a. mack. new york: new york university press.

fortier, a. (2000). migrant belongings: memory, space,identity. new york: berg.

hayward, g. d. (1975). "home as an environmental andpsychological concept." landscape 20:2–9.

hollander, j. (1993). "it all depends." in home: a place in the world, ed. a. mack. new york: new york university press.

johnson, p. j., and suedfeld, p. (1996). "coping with stressthrough creating microcosms of home and family among arctic whalers and explorers." the history of the family: an international quarterly 1:41–62.

lyman, s. m., and scott, m. b. (1967). "territoriality: a neglected sociological dimension." social problems 15:236–249.

rybczynski, w. (1986). home: a short history of an idea.new york: penguin books.

rykwert, j. (1993). "house and home." in home: a place in the world, ed. a. mack. new york: new york university press.

schama, s. (1987). the embarrassment of riches: an interpretation of dutch culture in the golden age. new york: alfred a. knopf.

schutz, a. (1945). "the homecomer." the american journal of sociology 50:363–376.

stone, l. (1991). "the public and the private in the statelyhomes of england, 1500-1990." social research 58:227–253.

tajfel, h. (1981). human groups and social categories:studies in social psychology. cambridge: cambridge university press.

wilson, p. j. (1988). the domestication of the humanspecies. new haven, ct: yale university press.

sheila k. marshall


views updated May 23 2018

home / hōm/ • n. 1. the place where one lives permanently, esp. as a member of a family or household: I was nineteen when I left home and went to college they have made Provence their home. ∎  the family or social unit occupying such a place: he came from a good home and was well educated. ∎  a house or an apartment considered as a commercial property: low-cost homes for first-time buyers. ∎  a place where something flourishes, is most typically found, or from which it originates: Piedmont is the home of Italy's finest red wines. ∎ inf. a place where an object is kept.2. an institution for people needing professional care or supervision: an old people's home.3. Sports the goal or end point. ∎  the place where a player is free from attack. ∎  (in lacrosse) each of the three players stationed nearest their opponents's goal. ∎  Baseball short for home plate. ∎  a game played or won by a team on their own ground.• adj. 1. of or relating to the place where one lives: I don't have your home address. ∎  made, done, or intended for use in the place where one lives: traditional home cooking. ∎  relating to one's own country and its domestic affairs: Japanese competitors are selling cars for lower prices in the U.S. than in their home market.2. (of a sports team or player) belonging to the country or locality in which a sporting event takes place: the home team. ∎  played on or connected with a team's own ground: their first home game of the season.3. denoting the administrative center of an organization: the company has moved its home office.• adv. to the place where one lives: what time did he get home last night? ∎  in or at the place where one lives: I stayed home with the kids. ∎  to the end or conclusion of a race or something difficult: the favorite romped home six lengths clear. ∎  Baseball to or toward home plate. ∎  to the intended or correct position: he drove the bolt home noisily.• v. [intr.] 1. (of an animal) return by instinct to its territory after leaving it: a dozen geese homing to their summer nesting grounds. ∎  (of a pigeon bred for long-distance racing) fly back to or arrive at its loft after being released at a distant point.2. (home in on) move or be aimed toward (a target or destination) with great accuracy: more than 100 missiles were launched, homing in on radar emissions. ∎  focus attention on: a teaching style that homes in on what is of central importance for each student. PHRASES: at home in one's own house. ∎  in one's own neighborhood, town, or country: he has been consistently successful both at home and abroad. ∎  comfortable and at ease in a place or situation: sit down and make yourself at home. ∎  confident or relaxed about doing or using something: he was quite at home talking about Eisenstein or Brecht. ∎  ready to receive and welcome visitors: she took to her room and was not at home to friends. ∎  (with reference to sports fixtures) at a team's own ground: Houston lost at home to Phoenix.bring something home to someone make someone realize the full significance of something: her first-hand account brought home to me the pain of the experience.close (or near) to home (of a remark or topic of discussion) relevant or accurate to the point that one feels uncomfortable or embarrassed.come home Golf play the second nine holes in a round of eighteen holes. Compare with go out (see go1 ).come home to someone (of the significance of something) become fully realized by someone: the full enormity of what was happening came home to Sara.drive (or hammer or press or ram) something home make something clearly and fully understood by the use of repeated or forcefully direct arguments.hit (or strike) home (of a blow or a missile) reach an intended target. ∎  (of words) have the intended, esp. unsettling or painful, effect on their audience: she could see that her remark had hit home. ∎  (of the significance or true nature of a situation) become fully realized by someone: the full impact of life as a celebrity began to hit home.home free having successfully achieved or being within sight of achieving one's objective: at 7–0 they should have been home free.a home away from home a place where one is as happy, relaxed, or comfortable as in one's own home.home sweet home used as an expression of one's pleasure or relief at being in or returning to one's own home.DERIVATIVES: home·like / ˈhōmˌlīk/ adj.


views updated Jun 11 2018

home Home Counties the English counties surrounding London, into which London has extended. They comprise chiefly Essex, Kent, Surrey, and Hertfordshire.Home Guard the British citizen army organized in 1940 to defend the UK against invasion, finally disbanded in 1957.
home is home, as the Devil said when he found himself in the Court of Session Scottish proverbial saying, mid 19th century; the Court of Session is the supreme civil tribunal of Scotland, established in 1532.
home is home though it's never so homely no place can compare with one's own home (the archaic phrase never so means ‘ever so’ or ‘very’). The saying is recorded from the mid 16th century.
home is where the heart is one's true home is wherever the person one loves most is; proverbial saying, late 19th century.
home of lost causes a name for Oxford; originally a quotation from Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism (1865).
home rule the government of a colony, dependent country, or region by its own citizens, in particular as advocated for Ireland 1870–1914. The campaign for Irish home rule was one of the dominant forces in British politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

See also charity begins at home, east, west, home's best, go abroad and you'll hear news of home, there's no place like home, when one's ship comes home.


views updated May 29 2018

Home ★½ 2005

Roommates Susan and Rose throw a party in their Brooklyn brownstone one hot summer night. Bobby shows up in hopes of reconnecting with his ex Harper, who's more interested in making a play for Rose's crush, Tommy. So Bobby gets to know Susan until HER ex shows up. Frankly, this is a pretty dull gathering although the situations and conversations will sound familiar. 91m/C DVD . Nicol Zanzarella, E. Jason Liebrecht, Erin Stacey Visslailli, Minerva Scelza, T. Stephen Neave, Bradley Spinelli; D: Matt Seitz; W: Matt Seitz; C: Jonathan Wolff.


views updated May 18 2018

home house, abode OE.; native place XIV; one's own place or country XVI. OE. hām n. collection of dwellings, village, estate, house, corr. to OS. hēm (Du. heem), (O)HG. heim n., ON. heimr m., Goth. haims fem. village; ult. relations disputed.
Hence vb. go home XVIII; whence (of birds) homer, homing XIX. homely †domestic, familiar; plain, simple XIV; uncomely XVI.