Firstly, an apology for taking such a long time between posts. Since starting my PhD at Queen Mary, I’ve been enormously busy with literature reviews, seminar reading, and teaching a class. I’ve also been to some fantastic lectures and seminars, and met a huge range of exciting new people. But I do finally have a new post, so please read on for my write-up of this Tuesday’s postgraduate study day for academics working on the broad theme of studies of home.
After an introduction by Eleanor John of the Geffrye, the day began with a paper by Johanna Hartmann (University of Bremen) in which she explored the preoccupation with domestic space in post-war West Germany. She argued that the German authorities portrayed the war as something which had ‘happened’ to Germany, rather like a natural disaster, and were keen to gloss over the fascist years and restore order. Exhibitions of the home were key to the performance of normality, with the simple, functional furnishings on display carrying moral associations of morality and honesty. Ness Wood (University of Brighton) also examined post-war home exhibitions, this time in the British context. She focused in particular on a show in Whitechapel, for the fictional ‘Bill and Betty’, who stood for all young, recently-married couples setting up home. The show also aimed to some extent at maintaining order in its desire to direct the taste of young men and women, with its organiser concerned that ‘bad furniture can break up a marriage’. However, many of the items on display in the Whitechapel show were far too expensive for young couples, and many actually preferred older, less fashionable but more comfortable items.
Both of these papers raised questions about the distinction between precept and practice, and of the effectiveness of attempts by outside forces to control domestic space. Johanna and Ness both noticed the gender roles inscribed in the prescriptive spaces displayed. For Johanna’s West Germans, men were the bearers of taste, and were to instruct the women on the appropriate way to furnish the functional home, while in Ness’s study women were targeted as homemakers. In both cases, the home was a place of male relaxation, in which his wife was to work to provide comfort. However, Yvonne McFadden’s (University of Glasgow) oral history study of Glasgow couples who set up home in the post-war period has found that those interviewed portray homemaking as a collaborative enterprise, in which both partners saved for and chose or created the items which furnished their domestic space. Saving was key, and the use of hire purchase schemes carried stigma, although some participants admitted to using an affordable loan scheme to purchase a washing machine. For this couple, along with others, the washing machine was seen as necessary due to the demands of nappy-washing on a mother’s time, while other items such as fridges were less crucial, and viewed as luxury items.
The next two papers focused on the homes of working-class families. Oliver Betts (University of York) explained that, in conducting his study of working-class homes in the period 1870-1914, he has been careful not to define the term ‘home’ but instead to see what emerges from the sources as important to the people he studies. He outlined three important factors which arose from his reading of working-class sources alongside those of middle-class social commentators in York, Bethnal Green and Middlesbrough. The first, unsurprisingly, was money. The cost of living in an area – not just in terms of rent, but also food prices and other external costs – were a key determinant in deciding where a working-class family would set up home. In setting their budgets, these families often had different ideas about how to use their money than the middle-class observers, spending on items which were not technically necessary – for example, many families in Bethnal Green kept songbirds. Credit and hire purchase were crucial to securing items with which to personalise the home space, and such items were often portable, probably because of the unstable and transitory status of working-class homes, which required belongings to be transported or pawned on a fairly regular basis. The next factor Oliver discussed was that of space. As working-class families were often unable to compartmentalise or privatise their domestic space as easily as those higher up the socio-economic scale, home was often identified as being more than the four walls of a building. It could encompass the entire locality and emphasised links to a community, which were often crucial in the struggle to survive. Finally, Oliver spoke about the rhythms of urban life and the dependence of the associations of ‘home’ on wider environmental factors. For example, in Middlesbrough, where the local economy was heavily dependent on the male-dominated iron and steel trades, the home was a female domain, but this could be different in areas where women also went out to work. Furthermore, it is important to consider that paid work, as well as housework, was often done in the home. Oliver concluded that, while his period is often portrayed as one of working-class cohesion, the variety of experiences of home suggests otherwise.
Hollie Price (QMUL) focused in on one aspect of the working-class home: the tea table. Using films from the 1940s – in particular, Love on the Dole – Hollie portrayed the tea table as a site of continuity in the face of external challenge. The table was to be laid correctly with china even if there was little or nothing to actually eat. Hollie sees the correctly laid-out table shown throughout Love on the Dole as contradicting the film’s critics, who complained that its setting was too ‘sordid’. On the contrary, the teatable was a beacon of respectability and of working-class resilience, even in the face of the Blitz.
The final morning session was a roundtable on domestic methodologies, in which problems with sources and ethical issues attached to the study of home were considered. One concern which emerged was over the narratives prioritised in our studies – are we as rigorous in questioning agents’ own words (for example, in oral testimony) as we are when studying prescriptive literature? Other issues included the ethical considerations of using sources such as diaries which might not have been intended for public consumption, and how one can extrapolate histories from objects.
After a hearty lunch, Paul Fawcett (University of Brighton) returned to the ways in which the home was exhibited in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. This time, the focus was on single-room homes. Bedsits were targeted in particular at the young and the old, convenient spaces for modern living but adaptable to allow for personalisation and privacy. However positive this portrayal was, single-room living was often not a choice, as many landlords partitioned bigger properties to maximise profit. Bedsits were usually a temporary solution and not always a welcome one, and older people in particular found it difficult to downsize their possessions to fit the space. Laika Nevalainen (University of Helsinki) also spoke about the difficulties of providing living spaces to fit a particular lifestyle. Her study was of central kitchen buildings in Finland, in which individual apartments were serviced by a central kitchen employing staff to make healthy and economical meals. The aim was to reduce costs by bulk-buying and to save the housewife time in preparing meals, but the schemes should not be seen as community-driven or egalitarian. The central kitchen was to allow the family to become more private, removing the need for live-in servants, and the spare time afforded to women was to allow them to be better wives and mothers, so cannot be seen as feminist. The schemes failed because inhabitants were unwilling to change their habits – the set times for meals were inflexible and the need to prepare menus ahead of time left little room for spontaneity.
Sarah Ward (University of Brighton), on the other hand, examined living arrangements in which spontaneity played a huge part. Questioning Heidegger’s notion that home is a place, Sarah has examined the way in which home is made in temporary spaces. Her case study was Gladstone Court, in which occupants rented rooms on the basis that they could be asked to leave on two weeks’ notice (or give just two weeks’ notice themselves). As such, the inhabitants she interviewed were highly mobile people and, as Sarah argues, ‘mobility challenges the attachment to personal material worlds.’ The participants expressed conflicting desires to be free to move but also to maintain their material links to the past through personal objects. They therefore developed strategies to ‘preserve memories while in motion’, usually involving storing their objects elsewhere. The chosen site was often the childhood home, referred to by some participants as ‘home home’, meaning that for these transitory people, there could be multiple sites thought of as ‘home’. Home, Sarah concluded, was a material and a social world.
Alexa Neale’s(University of Sussex) paper focused on an underused source for recreating the material life of the home, albeit a rather grisly one. Alexa has been using murder cases within the Central Criminal Court collections at the National Archives to explore the physical and emotional site of the kitchen. The case files often include photographs and room plans as well as documentary evidence for the use of rooms, and they usually contain a huge amount of background information on the occupants. Although statements usually follow a formula, witness statements can be compared to build detail. Despite the huge range of living situations, the kitchen emerged frequently among all sectors of society as a particular site of conflict, which often arose over domestic responsibilities. Above all, Alexa demonstrated the enormous potential of her archive as a source for historians of home and family.
The last two papers focused in on particular objects. Sarah Frater (Royal College of Art/ V&A) examined the dressing table as a site of female self-fashioning. The dressing table was usually a piece of furniture chosen by the woman, or given to her, and brought to the marital home, and it was also the place where the woman altered her own appearance on a daily basis. Sarah contacted women through the Women’s Institute, sending out questionnaires about their dressing tables, and the volume and detail of responses returned were overwhelming. Women were certainly attached to their dressing tables, preferring to adapt them rather than dispose of them. Where disposals took place, this was usually in the form of a gift – usually to a relative or friend – or due to irreparable damage. Reuse was often inventive, integrating parts of other objects too, and the dressing table could lose its gendered identity where it was used by men to store hardware items. Nonetheless, it seems that dressing tables remained an item with huge emotional associations.
Carol Circuit (Bucks New University) looked at another item which had undergone many changes in its lifetime, a chaise longue, originally manufactured around 1850. The chaise longue had been reupholstered several times, and in the process of its restoration Carol uncovered a remarkable cache of objects evocative of the everyday life of its middle-class female owner. The unusual stuffing of the chaise longue was composed of wrapped up pieces of textile, including some complete items of clothing. These seemed to span about 6 decades , consisting of a lace cap, two bustles, a pocket, two collars and a tie, and a toddler’s morning dress folded carefully inside a sleeve protector. Many items showed signs of wear and repair. Also inside the stuffing was a store wrapper for the general provider’s firm Burgis and Colburn, seemingly deliberately placed inside a calico sleeve. This was addressed to Miss Smith, at 20 Russell Terrace in Leamington Spa, enabling Carol to trace her in the census. She has also used diaries to try to gain a picture of the everyday life of a woman of Miss Smith’s class, which would normally consist of churchgoing, visiting and receiving visitors, walking, playing cards and reading aloud (this latter activity was sometimes performed outdoors in fields), although diaries recording day-to-day activity rarely also record how participants felt while taking part in these activities. Carol’s research, then, aims to fuse the use of artefacts and material culture with the studies of family and social history, taking into account myth, ritual, symbolism and practices of concealment, in order to gain a more holistic view of middle-class life in the Victorian period.
Overall, the study day offered a fantastic insight into the huge range of sources and methods being used by academics in the growing field of studies of home. It is clear that, with inventive approaches, and co-operation between historians, geographers, archaeologists, art historians, film and literature students and sociologists, this is a hugely vibrant academic field with enormous potential to illuminate a whole range of social worlds.