Domestic Life And Material Culture Research Paper

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1. Definitions And Nomenclature

Domestic life and material culture are terms used in both the social sciences and the humanities. The first is widely known; the second less so. The first serves as a covering term for a range of societal activities; the second represents a distinctive type of cultural evidence.

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Domestic life includes those familial societal interactions that take place within the context of a residential environment—be it a single family home, an apartment complex, a tribal lodge, or any other form of human dwelling. Hence the study of domestic life involves understanding child-rearing practices, kinship patterns, life-cycle history, food-ways, gender divisions of labor, and use of household goods. It is a field (or subfield) for historians of the family and childhood, folklife researchers, economic historians, cultural anthropologists, as well as those who study architectural interiors and decorative arts.

Material culture study boasts an equally expansive research agenda and diversity of scholarly clientele. But, despite the fact that humans were making things before they were writing about them; that is, creating artifacts before alphabets, it is a relatively new term in scholarly discourse. Only in 1875 did British anthropologist A. Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, in an essay, On the Evolution of Culture, first urge researchers in the emerging social sciences to consider material culture as ‘the outward signs and symbols of particular ideas in the mind.’

Anxious to be able to make more precise distinctions in their examination of human behavior as well as to widen the evidential base for their social research, some anthropologists and a few folklorists heeded Pitt-Rivers’ injunction. They developed a tripartite division of cultural data. The first component was ideological (evidence found usually in the form of oral or written data). The second division was sociological (evidence documented by fieldwork observation of human behavior, such as parent–child or sibling relations). A third resource was material (evidence found in the work of human hands such as furniture, cooking utensils, and houses).

In both past and present scholarship, ‘material culture’ is often considered a synonym for terms such as ‘artifacts,’ ‘objects,’ or ‘things.’ Such interchangeability is frequently evident in both professional and popular writing. However, instead of treating these four terms as co-equals, it is more useful to regard them as nouns of increasing specificity of meaning, with ‘things’ seen as the most general rubric and ‘material culture’ as the most specific label.

For example, only in its tertiary meaning does the word ‘things’ connote a sense of inanimate entities distinguishable from living organisms. The word ‘objects,’ like the term ‘things,’ is another highly abstract collective noun, whereas ‘artifacts’ (artefacts in Britain), coming from the Latin arte, meaning skill, and factum, meaning something done, at least includes an indirect reference to a human being (an artificer) in its meaning. Objects lack this sense of implied human agency and, unlike artifacts, are commonly (and imprecisely) used to describe everything in both the natural and the man-made environment.

By contrast, the general definition of material culture specifically includes the factor of human artifice and also aptly circumscribes the scope of physical data within its research domain. What is useful, therefore, about the term ‘material culture’ is that it suggests, at least among its current students, a strong inter-relation between physical objects and human behavior. Despite its cumbersomeness, the phrase continually presses the researcher to consider the complex interactions that take place between creators and their culture. In other words, the assumption is that there is always a culture behind the material.

In recent scholarship, the terms ‘material’ and ‘culture’ have been extended in academic usage. The concept and content of their meaning now includes the objects of high culture (for instance, Charles Wilson Peale’s painting of The Peale Family, 1773 or William Rinehart’s sculpture of Latona and Her Children, 1874) as well as artifacts of popular and vernacular culture (for instance, a Los Angeles bungalow or a Louisiana shot-gun house). The term ‘material’ has also been expanded. For example, James Deetz (In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life, 1977) sees cuts of meat as material culture, since there are many ways to dress an animal and the scientific breeding of livestock is human manipulation of a species. Kinesics (for instance, the body motions involved in performing Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring ballet or a southern Indiana clog dance) and proxemics (for instance, the spatial uses and interactions of people at a Midwest home quilting bee, a Great Plains threshing crew noon dinner, or a courting couple in a Victorian parlor) are other culture expressions that assume, if but for a limited time, physical form, and could be included within the legitimate boundaries of material culture.

What might be an adequate (but not elaborate) working definition of material culture? Here is a brief one that informs this research paper: material culture is that segment of humankind’s physical environment that has been purposely made or modified, consciously or unconsciously, by people according to culturally dictated plans. Material culture entails those artifacts that humankind creates to cope with the physical world, to regulate its social relations, to perform its work, to delight its fancy, and to create symbols of meaning. Material culture research can be best de- scribed at present as an expanding movement or coalition of individuals (Deetz calls it ‘an emerging research community’) working in museums, historical societies, and cultural agencies, as well as in academic departments in colleges and universities, who are intrigued by the idea of studying the (possibly unique) explanatory potential of material evidence as cultural meaning.

What, if anything, do the diverse practitioners of material culture research have in common? In addition to an obvious evidential concern with physical objects as cultural data, the movement works under at least three assumptions. Most studies of material culture usually involve fieldwork research during which artifacts are collected, identified, compared, and categorized either in situ or in museums, in private and public collections, and in historical agencies. A historical perspective also characterizes most material culture studies. As several of their names indicate—the history of technology, art history, historical geography—they seek to measure and understand change over time. Finally, in their analyses, most researchers use the culture concept in varying ways. While some see culture only with a capital C, the majority view it as an anthropological construct.

2. Interconnections And Common Topics

In what ways have analyses of domestic life intersected with material cultural studies? How has the recent scholarship of the latter contributed to the former? Conversely, how have contemporary trends in domestic life research set certain agendas in material culture inquiry? Finally, what paradigms or interpretive models have been most influential in the interaction of these two approaches to cultural study?

In order to answer, albeit briefly, these questions, three specific areas of common interest—residential spaces, household artifacts, women’s roles—to both investigators are summarized here. The format of the three is deliberately bibliographical in order to provide a sampling of recent work. Examples cited are primarily Anglo-American, while the concluding entry Bibliography: emphasizes broader interpretations.

2.1 Residential Spaces

When John Demos devoted part one (‘The Physical Setting’) of his Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (1970) to the domestic shelter and artifacts of the seventeenth-century Pilgrim community, he was recognizing a fact crucial to much material culture research: as the elementary unit of humankind is the individual, the elementary artifact on the human landscape is the dwelling. Housing represents social and economic identity; it is a microcosm of domestic culture. Demos explored the domestic implications of architectural evidence (for example, its correlation to economic status, privacy, social segregation, repression of familial anger and aggression, and child-rearing practices) in his pioneering application of social and behavioral science concepts to the houses of seventeenth-century Massachusetts.

Although Demos’ analysis of the material culture of a single seventeenth-century New England colony was brief, inferential, and only a case study, it does represent one type of material culture that has employed housing as significant evidence. Others include Gwendolyn Wright’s Building The Dream: A Social History of Housing in America (1981) and Richard Bushman’s, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (1992). Such research eschews the usual approach of the traditional architectural historian in that it avoids mere facadism (interpreting a house primarily through its front elevation and aesthetic style) as well as elitism (researching only structures designed by professional architects).

Housing sites, as well as the housing, has always been an important material culture subfield. Other scholars have investigated the history of urban middle-and working-class neighborhoods through their extant housing stock. Tenement districts, slums, and even alley residences have received attention. Zoning and property controls, residential class segregation, and subsidized public housing have also been topics.

Folklorists studying the construction techniques involved in erecting and furnishing housing often explore changes in a community’s economic and social organization of work through building practices. In two pioneering books—Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States (1968) and Folk Housing in Middle Virginia: A Structural Analysis of Historic Artifacts (1975)—Henry Glassie has researched such historical processes in order to understand the persons who employed them and the products that resulted from them. In Folk Housing, Glassie approached material culture by means of the paradigm of twentieth-century structuralism, particularly as articulated by Noam Chomsky and Claude Levi-Strauss.

Glassie, following Chomsky, argued that ‘culture is pattern in mind, the ability to make things like sentences or houses.’ Rejecting the concept that objects are the simple products of passive minds, Glassie attempted to develop a systematic model that would account for and help analyze the design abilities of an idealized maker of artifacts. As a case study, he investigated the builders of 156 houses constructed between the middle of the eighteenth century and World War I in a 70-square-mile (182-square-kilometer) area of central Virginia. His research objective, using almost exclusively material culture data left behind by anonymous builders, was to discover the unwritten boundaries or ‘artifactural grammar’ of the creative process as it was exercised in a particular region’s domestic architecture.

American material culture structuralism has drawn criticism from various camps. Some historians claim that despite its gestures toward tracing a change in minds, the approach tends only to work in areas of relative cultural stasis. Fellow folklorists have complained that Glassie’s subjective system of binary mental opposites (intellect–emotion, internal–external, complex–simple, and 12 others) merely substitutes one kind of interpretive arbitrariness for another in plotting human behavior patterns. Still others remark that the results from such structural analysis are not adequately comparative.

2.2 Household Artifacts

In keeping with the folk proverb that claims that a house is not a home, historians have researched the material life of Americans as revealed in patterns of home furnishings, food-ways, clothing, and/organization of domestic spaces as ways of gaining insight into the social past of middle-class and working-class culture. For instance, Lizabeth Cohen’s interpretation of the material culture of American working-class homes between 1885 and 1915 (‘Embellishing a Life of Labor: An Interpretation of the Material Culture of American Working-Class Homes’ in Thomas J. Schlereth, ed., Material Culture Studies in America, 1982, 1992) is an example of how the study of the domestic material culture environment can contribute to the historical understanding of the familial and residential experience of Americans.

Some material culture researchers in the decorative arts have sought to expand the standard cultural history surveys of American domestic life by studying a whole range of common household items—parlor furniture, mourning pictures, eating utensils, cleaning devices, family photograph albums, kitchen appliances—that are seen as indices of a society’s values as important as its elite artifacts or its literary remains. The material culture of nineteenth-century hallways (hat and clothing stands, mirrors, hall chairs, and card receivers), parlors (especially its ubiquitous home parlor organ), and dining rooms (table settings, massive sideboards, and eating accoutrements) have been imaginatively analyzed by Kenneth Ames (Death In the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture, 1992), while Edward O. Laumann and James S. House (‘Living Room Styles and Social Attributes: The Patterning of Material Artifacts in a Modern Urban Community,’ Sociology and Social Research 54: 1970) have studied the patterning of material artifacts in the living rooms of twentieth-century working-class families. Still others have attempted to write American social history using wallpaper, silver, ceramics, chairs, and other commonplace domestic artifacts as important evidence in their research. Several of these studies have also employed quantification techniques in their comparative analyses of past material culture. Such data are found in the form of probate inventories, craftsmen’s ledgers, auction lists, wills, deeds, and sales records. Historians of Colonial America were the first to turn to inventories to study social and economic behavior and they have subsequently contributed a substantial corpus of material culture research based on inventories.

Photography, an artifact created in the nineteenth century, has also been of immense use to historians interested in American domestic life. Historical photography, when examined closely and in sufficient quantity to ensure a representative evidential sample, provides valuable inferences as to how occupants organized and used space as well as how they interacted with one another. Using photography, much can be learned about increasing compartmentalization of residential spaces such as kitchens, bedrooms, hall passages, pantries, inglenooks, nurseries, servants’ quarters, as well as in parlors, living rooms, porches (front and back), plus lawns, patios, and garages.

Strangely, few material culture scholars have paid much research attention to eating, assuredly one of humankind’s most common necessities. What research has been done focuses primarily on rural and preindustrial communities. It has also focused largely on artifacts of twentieth-century food preparation, service, and disposal.

In calling for the integration of domestic food-ways (and all other relevant material, statistical, and documentary data) into a cultural, historical, and anthropological approach to material culture, James Deetz has argued for a research paradigm that seeks ‘the detection and explication of apparently unrelated changes in all [Deetz’s emphasis] aspects of a people’s culture, material and otherwise.’ Although not directly influenced by the devotees of a mentalite approach to the past, he shares this school’s interest in the study of popular beliefs, attitudes, customs, sentiments, and modes of behavior as well as its commitment to ‘thick description.’ Deetz, a historical archaeologist long associated with the historical reconstruction of Plimoth Plantation (Massachusetts) developed his theory and method in In Small Things Forgotten and has now continued it in Flowerdew Hundred: The Archaeology of a Virginia Plantation (1993).

Of particular interest is the challenge Deetz’s paradigm presents in In Small Things Forgotten to the traditional interpretive claim of political and diplomatic history that the American independence movement was the major cultural watershed of American colonial history. The domestic material data (house forms, furniture types, ceramics, funerary arts, musical instruments, refuse dumps) that Deetz assembled and integrated suggest that the Revolution actually had little impact on American cultural history; in fact, the general American cultural pattern of involvement with English material culture, both before and after the war, remained remarkably constant.

In some ways, Deetz’s In Small Things Forgotten can be viewed as an American counterpart to Fernand Braudel’s Capitalism and Material Life (1973). For example, although much briefer and lacking Braudel’s extensive documentation, the Deetz interpretation, like Braudel’s, stays close to home for its data. The changing domestic technologies of house building, heating, lighting, plumbing, food preparation, and garbage removal are resources in both histories. Extant artifacts are often the only data by which such past behavior can be reconstructed. For example, utility fixtures have been carefully studied in order to speculate on how innovations in such domestic technology drastically altered the traditional evening orientation (a shared communal space around a single hearth) of the pre-nineteenth-century family, thereby prompting major changes in parent–child and sibling relationships. Others have documented behavior changes in domestic history with the advent of indoor plumbing (especially the appearance of the bathroom) and the installation of central heating.

2.3 Women’s Roles

Understandably, the material culture of domestic life has figured in the work of historians of women. A special interest among some such scholars in the decorative arts and in the history of technology has focused on kitchen tools and appliances and their roles in defining, confining, or undermining a ‘woman’s place.’ While various researchers have contributed to this scholarly enterprise, the work of Ruth Schwatz Cowan, Dolores Hayden, and Susan Strasser aptly represent their general concerns.

Cowan’s research has moved from the study of a single artifact genre (A Case of Technology and Social Change: The Washing Machine and the Working Wife 1974) to kitchen appliances in general (‘The ‘‘Industrial Revolution’’ in the Home,’ Technology and Culture, 1973) to women’s interaction with technological material culture throughout American history (More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology From Open Hearth to Microwave, 1983). In an essay titled ‘Virginia Dare to Virginia Slims: Women and Technology in American Life,’ Technology and Culture (1979), Cowan points out that none of the standard histories or bibliographies of America technology contain adequate reference to such culturally significant artifacts as the baby bottle. Here is a simple implement that, along with its attendant delivery system, revolutionized a basic biological process, transformed a fundamental human experience for vast numbers of infants and mothers, and served as one of the more controversial exports of Western technology to underdeveloped countries.

According to Cowan, there is a host of questions that scholars might reasonably ask about the baby bottle. For how long has it been part of Western culture? When a mother’s milk could not be provided, which classes of people used the bottle and which the wet nurse, and for what reasons. Which was a more crucial determinant for widespread use of the bottle, changes in milk technology or changes in bottle technology? Who marketed the bottles, at what prices, to whom? How did mothers or different social classes and ethnic groups react to them? Can the phenomenon of ‘not enough milk,’ which was widely reported by pediatricians and obstetricians in the 1920s and 1930s be connected with the advent of the ‘safe’ baby bottle? Which was cause and which effect?

Hayden’s interests have been more spatial and environmental than technological. Her Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian

Socialism, 1790–1975 (1976) details the social and cultural history of several countercultural societies through their extant structures and sites, as well as through their furniture and household technology. Hayden’s The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighbor-hoods, and Cities (1981), provides the social historian with a useful review of the interaction of domestic feminism, cooperative housekeeping, the community kitchen movement, and projects for social reform.

Susan Strasser’s Never Done: A History of American Housework (1982) has set the agenda for future research into basic topics such as food preparation, housekeeping and housecleaning, and domestic consumerism. On the last topic, Strausser has followed up on her own work and written books on the material culture of advertising, particularly its orientation toward women consumers and on the history of trash.

How might the nexus of domestic life and material culture appear in the near future? One prediction is that the three subfields outlined above will continue to thrive. In each research area there are scholars experimenting with new methodologies as well as widening the boundaries of traditional evidential data.

For example, a few individuals in organizations such as the Vernacular Architecture Society (Great Britain) and the Vernacular Architecture Forum (United States) now study prefabricated and manufactured housing, condominiums, and assisted-care residences for the elderly. Some decorative arts historians are venturing beyond museum period-room settings as well as the old prescript maintained by dealers, collectors, and the US Customs office that ‘one hundred years doth an antique make,’ and are examining post-World War II kitchen remodelings, family rooms, the changing functions of the garage, plus patios and decks. Within the interdisciplinary gender studies movement, investigators have turned their attention to the social and material culture of Tupperware parties, to the current popularity of replica reproduction nineteenth-century household goods, and the artifacts (computers, fax machines, telemarketing devices) of an increasing number of home offices serving as career centers for a variety of occupations.

Two, relatively recent, scholarly perspectives should influence future work on domestic life research and material culture studies. First, the re-emergence of anthropology, a parent-field for material culture, will strength both areas, particularly in paradigm building and in social science rigor. Material culture sessions at the International Congresses of Ethnological and Anthropological Sciences suggest this trend. It has also been argued that consumerism studies may become the most noticeable cynosure of contemporary material culture research. Perhaps. The twentieth-century data appears omnipresent and continually proliferating. While some basic research has been done over the past several decades, the full impact of door-to-door sales, general specialty merchandising, department, chain, and franchise stores, shopping centers, mail-order cataloging (perhaps reaching more homes now than in the nineteenth century), suburban and megamalls on domestic life awaits at least a generation of researchers.

Whatever the future configurations of those who explore the intersections between domestic life and material culture, they will most probably share common cause in the vernacular, the populist, the typical; and in the desire to make human experience, as the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray once hoped ‘more familiar than heroic.’


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  2. Braudel F 1973 Capitalism and Material Life: 1400–1800. Harper and Row, New York
  3. Bushman R L 1992 The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. Knopf, New York
  4. Cohen L 1982, 1992 Embellishing a life of labor: an interpretation of the Material culture of American working class homes. In: Schlereth T J (ed.) Material Culture Studies in America. American Association for State and Local History, Nashville, TN
  5. Cowan R S 1983 More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from Open Hearth to Microwave. Basic Books, New York
  6. Demos J 1970 Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony. Oxford University Press, New York
  7. Glassie H 1968 Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA
  8. Glassie H 1975 Folk Housing in Middle Virginia: A Structural Analysis of Historic Artifacts. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN
  9. Grier K 1988, 1995 Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors and Upholstery, 1850–1930. Strong Museum, Rochester, NY
  10. Hayden D 1976 Se en American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790–1975. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
  11. Hayden D 1981 The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods and Cities. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
  12. Laumann E O, House J S 1970 Living room styles and social attributes: the patterning of material artifacts in a modern urban community. Sociology and Social Research 54: 22–31
  13. Miller D 1987 Material Culture and Mass Consumption. B. Blackwell, New York
  14. Schlereth T J 1980 Artifacts and the American Past. Altrima Books, Walnut Grove, CA
  15. Schlereth T J (ed.) 1985 Material Culture: A Research Guide. University of Kansas, Lawrence, KA
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  17. Strasser S 1982 Never Done: A History of American Housework. Pantheon Books, New York
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