What 19th-Century Domestic Manuals Say about Housing as InfrastructureRoundup
tags: infrastructure, architecture, public health, housing, womens history, Domesticity
Leah Marie Becker is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work considers nineteenth-century American domesticity as a subset of the environmental humanities and links what she calls “environmental domesticity” to current fascinations with “green” consumption and goods.
As an environmental humanities scholar of nineteenth-century American literature, I am all too familiar with a major problem in my own field: that, as a group, we often remain solely focused on what we call (following the era’s own language) “Nature” with a capital “N.” This delineation defines Nature as that which exists beyond homes, beyond cities, out there, and, primarily, as a space of masculine exploration. This assumption not only shaped the fields within environmental humanities but also influenced public perceptions of what counts as “environment.”
The narrow conception of “environment” has excluded numerous other spaces worthy of study and attention, especially domestic environments. Since working from home has been and will likely be the new normal for many white-collar workers, our global society can no longer ignore the critical role domestic environments play in health and wellbeing. Looking back to nineteenth-century origins of the idea of “home environment,” this article seeks to answer the question: what could domestic manuals from nearly 200 years ago teach us about housing and its place in environmental and social justice today?
By focusing on what I term “environmental domesticity,” we can center our attention on some of the most common and well-traversed locales in literature and life: the home, the garden, the community park, the city street, and more. More importantly, broadening the category of “environment” to include “domesticity” illuminates the fact that overlooking these spaces equates to overlooking an essential piece of public prosperity. This is especially obvious in the era of COVID-19, when the home has become a vital space for survival and “waiting out the storm.” Privileged, housed individuals have felt the annoyance of pandemic restrictions that asked them to stay indoors. However, their health has been relatively secure, which is not always the case for persons experiencing houselessness, members of under-resourced communities, and lower-income families living in unsafe, underfunded, or over-exposed environments.
The idea that the health and security of a home directly relates to the health and security of the greater public is not new, even if it is receiving newfound attention this past year. In the U.S., this concept is actually as old as the nation itself. Beginning with the concept of Republican Motherhood in the eighteenth century and continuing with the burgeoning field of domestic economy in the nineteenth century, homemakers have argued that one facet of domesticity is ensuring the health of the family. Indeed, according to sisters Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who co-authored a domestic treatise titled The American Woman’s Home: or, Principles of domestic science, “the first consideration” for female homemakers was “the health of the inmates” of the home, for their domestic impact was thought to extend beyond the bounds of the country house or city apartment and affect the wellbeing of the entire body politic.
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