Tocqueville had the opportunity to visit the interior of some American homes and recording his insights into the lifestyle and people of the age. Intrigued by the everyday life of Americans, in his diary deTocqueville described the inside of one home in Tennessee, "The interior of these dwellings attests the indolence of the master even more than his poverty. You find a clean enough bed, some chairs, a good gun, often books, and almost always a newspaper, but the walls are so full of chinks that the outside air enters from all sides with... You are hardly better sheltered than in a cabin of leaves. Nothing would be easier than to protect oneself from bad weather and stop the chinks, but the master of the place is incapable of taking such care. In the North you see reigning an air of cleanliness and intelligence in the humblest dwellings. Here everything seems sketchy, everything a matter of chance; one would say that the inhabitant lives from day to day in the most perfect carelessness of the future...(Pierson, 585).
Another personal encounter of Tocqueville follows, "It was in one of the many forested valleys of the region, he wrote, that we discovered one evening a cabin, made of wood, whose poorly joined walls allowed one to see a great fire flaming in the interior. We knock: two great roguish dogs, big as donkeys, come first to the door. Their master follows close, grips us hard by the hand, and invites us to enter. You push open a door hung on leather hinges and without a lock...Here you find a family of poor people leading the lazy life of he rich...Not event the most miserable planter of Kentucky or Tennessee but represents marvelously the country gentleman of old Europe. A fireplace as wide as half the room and with an entire tree burning in it, a bed, a few chairs, a carbine six feet long, against the walls of the apartment, a few hunter's accouterments which the wind was bowing about as it chose, and the picture is complete. Near the fire is seated the mistress of the lodge, with the tranquil and modest air that distinguishes American women, while four or five husky children rolled on the floor, as lightly clad as in the month of July. Under the mantel of the chimney two or three squatting Negroes still seemed to find that it was less warm there than in Africa. In the midst of this collection of misery, my gentleman did not do the honors of his house with the less ease and courtesy. It's not that he forced himself to move in any way; but the poor blacks, soon perceiving that a stranger had entered the house, one of them by orders of the master presented us with a glass of whisky, another, a corn cake or plate of venison; a third was sent to get wood. The first time I saw this order given I supposed that it was a question of going to the cellar or woodhouse; but the axe strokes that I heard ringing in the wood told me soon that they were cutting down the tree that we needed. It's thus they do everything. While the slaves were thus occupied, the master, seated tranquilly before a fire that would have roasted an ox to the marrow of his bones, enveloped himself majestically in a cloud of smoke, and between each puff related to his guests, to make their time seem less long, all the great exploits that his hunter's memory could furnish him" (Pierson, 586). Based on such observations, Tocqueville summed up Kentucky and Tennessee peculiarities, "They are southerners, masters of slaves, made half wild by the solitude, and hardened by the hardships of life."
Tocqueville's first-hand description of American home life is certainly not a corroboration of the domestic life paintings of the time. Romantic representations of well-dressed, refined couples and elegant mothers were rarely a reflection of real life experience in the early nineteenth century.
Unlike the apparent leisure of the women portrayed in the paintings above, most women had the everyday jobs of cooking, cleaning, ironing, sewing, laundry, care of the poultry, dairy work, butter churning, spinning, child care and more in an unending cycle of domestic work. Much of the work of the early nineteenth century took place in the kitchen. This image is an 1833 kitchen exhibit by the American Stove Company at the World's Fair in Chicago. This is the sort of kitchen that might be observed in the larger cities of the North, or the large plantations of the South -- undoubtedly in a wealthy household. The cabins and rural homes that deTocqueville visited would more likely have retained the kitchen of old that served as a common room and which utilized the fireplace for much of the food preparation.
Stoves were common in wealthier homes, however, as sources of heat as well as cooking. The images below show the progression from the elevated stove which the woman would step up on, to a scoop for carrying coal, to the cast iron fire pot stove, and finally to the original whole-meal cooking set of around 1840 (Langdon, 197). The stove served as the center of family life, and altered accordingly over time for the convenience of the homemaker.
Tocqueville might also have encountered items like these in the kitchens of homes he visited in nineteenth century America. The plate and jar have scenes of the Erie Canal painted on them and the 1825 spoon case was used for carrying silver while traveling (Langdon, 199).
Tocqueville's observations of everyday life, in reference to daily activity in the busy city of New York, included, "All the customs of life show this mingling of the two classes which in Europe take so much trouble to keep apart. The women dress for the whole day at seven in the morning. At nine o'clock one can already make calls. At noon one is received everywhere. Everything bears the stamp of a very busy existence. We have not yet seen any fashionables. I even have the notion that good morals are here the result less of the severity of principles than of the impossibility in which all the young people find themselves of thinking of love or busying themselves seriously with it" (Pierson, 70). However, this comment on New York does not give a true sense of the daily routine of a woman in a rural community. The focus of the day for rural women was the required work to live, not the order of visitation.
Despite our nostalgic view of the farmhouses of the past, the fancy homes of the cities were few and only for the most wealthy members of society. Farmhouses were described in 1818 by William Cobbett as, "a sort of out-of-door slovenliness...You see bits of wood, timber, boards, chips, lying about, here and there, and pigs tramping about in a sort of confusion" (Larkin, 128). The white picket fence and manicured yard of popular memory was seldom a reality. Animals had free reign -- inside and out -- of homes, churches and businesses and sanitation was of minimal concern.
Within early nineteenth century homes, furniture was sparse -- particularly in rural houses. It was designed for durability and to meet the essential needs of the family. Often consisting of one large room, all of the activity within households took place within sight and sound of the other members of the family. It is not until the Victorian Era that furniture (in middle class households) becomes frivolous and that partitioned rooms become an everyday luxury for less affluent families.