DESIGNING DOMESTICITY: DECORATING THE AMERICAN HOME SINCE 1876
December 5, 2001 - November 17, 2002
Broadbent Gallery | Dr. Shirley Teresa Wajda and Dr. Terrence L. Uber, Guest Curators
What makes a house a home? For nearly two centuries, American critics and reformers have wrestled with that question. Although Americans at the beginning of the nineteenth century lived in a variety of dwellings, by the eve of the Civil War architects, social reformers and fiction writers were using their pens to forge an ideal of the suburban, single-family dwelling as the right way of living. The family was the basic social unit of the State, these authors argued; the home was the place in which society and nation could be perfected. Since that time, the nation's printing presses have never stopped in their production of plan books, architectural treatises, decorating and interior design guides, household advice manuals, house trade advertising, and domestic fiction. And Americans have never stopped reading this advice literature. Or building, buying, renovating, or dreaming of, home.
Especially in eras of increased opportunity and prosperity, home ownership and stylish decoration have come to define what it is to be "middle class." Designing Domesticity: Decorating the American Home Since 1876 explores the relationship between interior design and family reform in four decades of relative growth the 1870s, the 1920s, the 1950s, and today. In these decades, room arrangement changed and new rooms were created, reflecting changes in the nature of family. How the family created the hospitable home - for their guests and for themselves - figures prominently in advice literature and in the types of goods American families purchased. Style bespoke the family's knowledge of the canons of taste, and may be analyzed through the selection of wall treatments, furniture, ceramics, and dress. As consumers, middle-class Americans balanced their quest for betterment by choosing affordable interpretations of high style, but they also remained true to the tenets of frugality, applying their own hands to create household furniture and other embellishments. Balanced between the prescriptions of reformers and individual creativity, middle-class Americans made houses into homes by dint of hard work, helping to create - and renovate - a distinctly American ideal.