Title Reviewed:
American Home Life, 1880–1930: A Social History of Spaces and Services

Author Reviewed:
Jessica H. Foy; Thomas J. Schlereth

William Lawrence


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 90, Issue 1, pp 85-86

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Home Life, 1880–1930: A Social History of Spaces and Services. Edited by Jessica H. Foy and Thomas J. Schlereth. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992. Pp. [xi], 284. Illustrations, notes, index. $34.95.)

While "home" as a place is individual, in terms of activities and symbols it seems nigh universal if not changeless. A town or farm family circa 1500 transported into a similar setting in America circa 1800 or even 1850 would likely have felt basically "at home." By 1900, however, such would not have been the case. In less than a century industrial and social revolutions profoundly transformed what "home" meant and was. How and why the transformation occurred are the foci of this introductory book.

The book's origin, a 1989 conference on house history, explains both its essay format and an overall style that deftly blends broad appeal, informality, and scholarship. An introductory essay previews the other eleven by providing an overview of the purposes and methodologies of studying house history. That study and the body of the book itself are divided into three broad areas: "Room Life," "Home Life," and "Keeping House."

The five essays grouped under "Room Life" examine how changes in the meaning of "home" reflect changes in the use, decoration, and even the existence of rooms themselves. Among the better examples are the evolutions of parlors into living rooms, bedrooms from sleeping spaces into personal spaces, and servants' quarters into family quarters. The overlapping social and technological "whys" of these changes are the binding threads.

The social threads become dominant in the "Home Life" section as the focus shifts from architecture to activities. The changes in how families played together, prayed together, and landscaped their homes are the specific topics. Fittingly, these essays, especially the one on the home as sacred space, are among the book's most analytical. It is also here that the sensitive reader will be most aware that "middle-class" should be part of the book's title.

In the last section, "Keeping House," the technological threads dominate. How houses and housework were modernized—the interdependent arrival of modern utilities and modern appliances—and the resultant shift from a producer to a consumer society are the major foci. A minor theme is the way in which that whirlwind modernization impacted the ability to create and control the real and symbolic entity called "home."

American Home Life is an important book mostly because it is a first one. Students of domestic history, architecture, material culture, or any other related field should find it an enjoyable stimulus to their own ideas, research, and perhaps their own books.

WILLIAM LAWRENCE is the conservator at Wylie House, home of Indiana University's first president. Built in 1835, it is now maintained as a house museum.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.