Reform

If asked to define in a phrase the nineteenth century in the United States, five people would very likely give five different answers. "Manifest Destiny" might answer one, "Robber Barons" another. Odds are that "Human Perfectibility" would not get a single vote among those five, and yet from one angle American culture in the 1800's looks like a series of reform movements, individually and together striving to make the U.S. into a modern Utopia. The Second Great Awakening could be termed a sort of campaign for religious and moral reform, grouped with Temperance, as well as with the Prison Reform which spurred Alexis de Tocqueville's famous trip across the young republic. Cries for Abolition increased in number and intensity as the century progressed and the controversy surrounding slavery would lead to the Civil War. To this list can be added the mid-century housing reform.

Individual reformers had their own agendas and their own approaches. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catharine Beecher began The American Woman's Home, with the statement, "it is the aim of this volume to elevate both the honor and the remuneration of all employments that sustain the many difficult and varied duties of the family state, and thus to render each department of woman's profession as much desired and respected as are the most honored professions of men." Architect Andrew Jackson Downing, in The Architecture of Country Houses establishes "good houses" - and all that go with them: civilization, social value, and moral influence - as his goals.

Each operates according to his or her own sphere; Beecher and Stowe lead with the empowerment of women, Downing with the importance of the structure. However the common ambition it to create the model American Home.

The ideal is most clearly defined by Downing in his Preface to Country Houses:

...there is a moral influence in a country home - when, among an educated, truthful, and refined people, it is an echo of their character - which is more powerful than any mere oral teachings of virtue and morality."

The home, then, is both a reflection of and an influence on the morality of the family. In The American Family Home, 1800-1960, Clifford Edward Clark, Jr. explains, "like the abolitionists who idealized the slave in order to galvanize public opinion, the housing reformers glorified the virtues of the single-family dwelling." [Clark, 3.]

At mid-century, the housing reform came to the people in many ways. Of these, three are represented here. Architectural plan-books (here confined to A.J. Downing), Domestic Economy manuals (here focused on Beecher's A Treatise On Domestic Economy and the Stowe-Beecher collaboration The American Woman's Home) and periodicals (here restricted to Godey's Lady's Book.) As I understand them, each of these sources can be broken down into ideological and practical elements. Here I call them "The Mission" and "The Plan" and for all but the discussion of Godey's, this site is also divided along these lines. Simply put, there were two main concerns for reformers: the crusade and the implementation of the crusade. For the American Woman there may have been Virtue and Christian Duty to which to aspire, but for the housewife there was laundry to be done and children to be tended. While I have concentrated more on the establishment than the maintenance of a household, I hope to have captured this Mission vs. Plan duality.

Architecture | Manuals | Periodicals