Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 24, 2008 with permission of the Hudson River Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Hudson River Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


The Victorian Household: Stronghold, Sanctuary, or Straightjacket?

by Jan Seidler Ramirez


In a famous Phi Beta Kappa address delivered at Harvard in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson exhorted the new "American scholar" of his generation to stop looking to Europe for cultural and artistic models. Instead, he urged his countrymen to seek fresh inspiration in indigenous materials; specifically, in the daily incidents, native folkways, and local character of American life. "I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic," Emerson announced; "I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.[1]

Among the topics he proposed as especially worthy of artistic exploration and poetization was "the meaning of household life." At a time when exotic settings, sensational plots, and exceptional personalities comprised the popular grist for novels and paintings, Emerson's advocacy of humble domestic themes posed a challenge to the traditional hierarchy of subjects associated with noteworthy creative endeavor. In that stratified system, genre, or scenes of everyday life, held subordinate status to such esteemed, academically-sanctioned fields of inquiry as history, religion, mythology, portraiture, and, with the rise of Romanticism, landscape. Understandably, widespread curiosity was aroused by the bold revisions Emerson called for in the organizing principles of America's arts and letters.

The ideas forwarded in Emerson's "American Scholar" oration were fated to strike a sympathetic chord in his contemporary audience, however, for the nation's cultural climate offered ideal conditions for an art based on the "ordinary" to take root and flourish. Jacksonian democracy, with the patriotic passions it stirred, helped to prime public interest in prose, verse, and visual images that celebrated America's egalitarian ethos and hardworking, high-principled citizenry. A rapidly expanding middle class also created a ready consumer market for art and literature that reinforced their workaday philosophies, moral values, and domestic attachments; that consecrated the familiar faces, trappings, and customs of daily existence while ennobling its relentless routine of humdrum chores. Moreover, as the Victorian era unfolded, the concept of "household life" acquired a charged spiritual significance that seemed to guarantee an enthusiastic reception for any vignette, pictorial or fictional, documenting the rituals and beloved inhabitants of this vestal temple.

"Home," the accepted wisdom of the period went, was the nurturing factory in which the industrious habits, genteel manners, and pious character of society's future members were instilled. "Home" stood as a beacon of stability in a culture undergoing complex transition. An oasis of harmony and virtue administered by the sweet, selfless mother-housewife, home functioned as the family's moral bunker against the corrupting influences of modern urban and industrial life. A sanctuary from the aggressive world of trade, home also replenished the spirits of its breadwinner, anti doting that very system of capitalism supplying the household's material comforts. That the nuclear family was the mainstay of a sound society, and that the private home operated as a potent cementing force on the family unit, were two of the enduring assumptions which shaped American ideology over the seventy-year period framing the inquiry of Domestic Bliss.

Once the cult of domesticity had seized hold of the nation's affections (approximately at the time Queen Victoria ascended to the British throne), American purveyors of taste mobilized to turn these reverential home sentiments to account. The talent conscripted into this campaign was as bountiful as it was diverse, amounting to a mass crusade that drew support from such wide-flung sources as the church pulpit and the pulp periodical, and enlisted the voices of those of populist and elitist persuasion alike.

This consortium of artists, writers, ministers, pedagogues, and other idea-peddlers employed an equally broad battery of visual media and literary forms to pay homage to household life. The canvases featured in the exhibition Domestic Bliss represent but one memorable manifestation of nineteenth-century American society's deep-rooted fixation with the domestic sphere. As the following catalog reminds us, the cult of domesticity was an all-embracing cultural phenomenon which found popular expression in songs, sermons, books, and magazines as well as political rhetoric, theatrical productions, parlor games, home decorating manuals, and prints -- the last medium gaining commercial momentum toward the middle of the nineteenth century with the introduction of chromolithography and other inexpensive means of graphic reproduction. Numerous other examples could be added to the list. Several deserve brief mention to underscore how embedded the ideals of domesticity had become in the American psyche by the second half of the nineteenth century.

Beginning in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and accelerating sharply after the Civil War, a spate of pattern books and treatises on residential design aimed at a prospering middle class eager to build their own homes appeared in this country.[2] Bearing titles like The Economic Cottage Builder (1856), these chatty disquisitions were authored not by practicing architects but rather by non-professionals -- builders, ministers, educators, doctors, and the occasional housewife -- who used the tracts to impart advice on how to lay-out, construct, and appoint new dwellings so as to preserve domestic stability and enhance the quality of private family life. (Modern architectural historians apply the term "vernacular" to this body of literature.)

Although floor-plans and drawings were included in these guides, their primary purpose was to explain, in simple terms, the social functions of housing and to emphasize the moral principles that should govern modern residential design.[3] Fireplaces, for example, were standard fixtures in the house plans endorsed by the authors because they viewed the hearth as a symbol of security; the warmth and good cheer it radiated drew family members together, tightening the bonds of kinship. Parlors and sitting rooms also figured prominently in their schemes, no matter how humble the dwelling. When arranged with attractive furnishings and interesting bric-a-brac (nineteenth-century technology had brought a multiplicity of decorative items within the affordable reach of the average family), the parlor provided a congenial, educational atmosphere for social intercourse between parents and children, husbands and wives. Because of the conversation, affection, and relaxed frame of mind it encouraged, the parlor offered the male in particular a desirable alternative to seeking entertainment outside the bosom of his family, as in the saloon or men's club. With the professionalization of the fields of home economics and interior design later in the century, household spaces would be further codified and rationalized to preserve interfamily health and harmony.

Paralleling the publication of these preachy, practical treatises on domestic architecture were the sentimental novels of a school of nineteenth-century women writers aptly named "the literary domestics" by one recent scholar.[4] Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan Bogert Warner, Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth, and Sara Parton (whose pseudonym was "Fanny Fern") were among the authors affiliated with this popular corps of female fictionists.

Relying on a set of stock characters and formulaic plots that revolved around the romantic adventures, religious crises, and day-to-day tribulations of Victorian womanhood, the "literary domestics" drew their materials from first-hand experience as daughters, wives, mothers, Christians, and, in certain cases, widowed or deserted heads of households. They were rewarded for their imaginative embroidery and tireless reworking of these familiar domestic themes with a wide, loyal readership. Susan Bogert Warner's novel The Wide, Wide World was published under the pseudonym "Elizabeth Wetherell" in 1850 and sold over a million copies. Better yet, handsome royalties often accompanied their ventures into authorship.

Envious of their financial success and awed by their prodigious fictional output (two or three novels per author might reach print in a single year), Nathaniel Hawthorne denounced this camp of best-selling writers as "that damned mob of scribbling women." But publishers valued their steady flow of manuscripts as bankable properties. Recognizing the public's partiality to the saccharine prose style, melodramatic plots, and assertive religious tenor that were the trademarks of these "scribbled" texts, few publishers fretted over florid language when a novel's consoling, uplifting story-line assured automatic sales.

Significantly, new scholarship on the careers of "the literary domestics" reveals that many of these novelists experienced personal ambivalence, if not anxiety, over the financial autonomy their writing had enabled them to achieve -- regardless of the real economic needs that pressed many of them to seek publication.[5] Privately, they worried that their public success as wage-earners might make suspect the essentially conservative doctrine their books espoused about woman's proper role in, and influence on modern society: to wit, that woman's rule was the domestic dominion, and that she should not jeopardize her superior spiritual grace, intuitive faculties, and morality by sullying them in the male marketplace. Although a number of these writers were themselves victims of marital strife and depression suffered over unremitting family obligations, their collective oeuvre stressed the importance of curbing instincts for freedom beyond the boundaries of marriage and home. By tending to her flock as household executrix, by performing her sacred duties as wife and mother, the American woman did no less than uphold the very cornerstone of civilized Christian society: "The Family."

By the mid-nineteenth century, domesticity had also invaded the art market, its influence penetrating an extraordinary range of artistic disciplines and visual media, and its drawing power securing patrons from all levels of society. Currier and Ives's wholesome scenes of native hearth and home are sufficiently well-known to exempt them from discussion here. It is worth noting, however, that the broad appeal and commercial success of that firm's sentimental prints were rivalled by John Rogers' popular domestic tableaux, issued in plaster. Between 1860 and 1893, this enterprising sculptor created nearly ninety original groups from which replicas were cast in editions of hundreds and thousands. Although their "lowly substance" and diminutive scale may have disqualified them as legitimate sculpture in the eyes of the cognoscenti, Rogers' anecdotal compositions disarmed many a skeptical art critic with their scrupulous modeling and unaffected charm.

Rogers' statuary groups dramatized, with clever economy of detail, endearing scenes and commonplace episodes that were part of the middle-class family experience. Coming to the Parson, Weighing the Baby, Checkers up at the Farm, and Neighboring Pews were some of the more popular titles in his brisk-selling repertoire. Priced to accommodate even the most modest of budgets -- fourteen dollars was the average cost per group -- they were nationally marketed and avidly collected. (Mrs. Lincoln bought several for the White House.) Nineteenth-century photographs of American interiors often show Rogers' genre statuettes perched on pedestals, or ornamenting library tables.

Academic sculptors of the neoclassical school also capitalized on the public's taste for such ingratiating domestic subjects, albeit in a costlier vehicle than plaster. By the 1860s, their studios at home and abroad were generating a steady volume of marble (and, before long, bronze) statues depicting frolicking children and tender maternal scenes. Intricately carved props were often incorporated into these compositions to elicit affectionate memories of the nineteenth-century household: a cosy upholstered armchair, an open prayer book, knitting apparatus, a child's jump rope, and similar accessories in this intimate vein. Viewers derived great delight from inventorying these homespun details, marvelling at the technical wizardry displayed in their production. The seemingly inexhaustible variations of romping juveniles and affectionate mothers populating the Victorian sculpture market attest to the perennial appeal of domestic imagery even in high-priced materials like marble and bronze.

Admittedly, this species of plastic sentimental conceit did not beguile everyone.

A vocal group of nineteenth-century critics and connoisseurs objected strenuously to marble's exploitation for such "non-heroic" purposes. Any depiction of the "quotidian" debased sculpture's elevated mission and serious mien, they argued; contemporary life, especially in its mundane aspects, had yet to earn the right of immortalization in eternal stone. Complaints were also lodged against the proliferating school of genre sculpture purposely designed to play on the public's fond emotions toward the family circle. "We are domestically sentimental," carped the Harvard-educated sculptor William Wetmore Story, taking stock of the simpering "boudoir" sculpture relished by the art public of his day. "The Mother's Step, The Morning Prayer, Peek-a-Boo, The First Step, The Last Step, ... these are the subjects that touch us," he observed. To sentimental conceits of this stamp he applied the pejorative term "namby-pamby".[6] Story himself preferred to traffic in loftier cerebral themes, consulting Greek tragedy, ancient history, the Bible, and the great sweep of western literature for compositional ideas.

Story's low opinion of the "domestically sentimental" invites some comment on the art which has occasioned this exhibition'. For until recently, Story's point of view was largely shared by critics, who tended to dismiss the productions of America's nineteenth-century genre painters as banal rehashings of a conventional imagery handled with superior skill -- and charm -- by Dutch, French, and English painters. It was generally agreed that the amiable confections associated with this school of Sentimental Realists failed to incorporate the compelling ingredient of tension which entices viewers to linger over a picture and contemplate its implications.

Artists who dealt in domestic genre rarely seemed to transcend their materials, the assumption went. The challenge confronting them, and usually eluding them, required that larger meanings be located in "the quotidian." It was one thing to tabulate the people, paraphernalia, and operations of the household. It was another thing altogether to discern the significance of its routines and convey the complex psychology involved in family interplay. Without that introspective component, their pleasing domestic scenes, no matter how artfully rendered, merely amused and soothed. Rarely did they inspire deeper thought. This is not to imply that these genre painters adhered absolutely to the golden rule of congenial subject matter. When a social evil demanded attention, they felt entitled to use their art as a reforming instrument, and adjusted their imagery accordingly. But in the main, their oeuvre promoted an idyllic view of domestic harmony and contentment with the benefits of American democracy. While we may appreciate their art as a reflection of the optimistic mood of a burgeoning nation, we are ultimately benumbed by it, or so critics would have us believe.

Leo Tolstoy's famous overture to Anna Karenina - "All happy families resemble one another, every unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion" - has applicability here. For the point of Tolstoy's observation is that the well-adjusted household, by virtue of its inherent tranquility, lacked the element of internal intrigue necessary to yield a story that would hold our curiosity. The uniformly "happy" aspect of "domestic bliss," in other words, tested the imaginative resources of those who made it their subject, for more than accurate description was required to maintain an audience's interest in such genial concerns.

It is interesting to note that "domestic bliss" as a theme played a marginal role in the classic texts of nineteenth-century American literature. Family life, as it was investigated and idealized in the sentimental novels of the "literary domestics," was conspicuously foreign to the fiction of writers like James Fennimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. Their work focused instead on relationships that were alternative or alien to the conventional family unit. Their memorable characters were not the familiar players of happy households, but rather outcasts and drifters whose domestic urges found fulfillment in unorthodox partnerships and living arrangements.

Hester Prynne, an adulteress and unwed mother shunned by her community, is forced to pursue a make-shift family life away from mainstream society and its rigid codes. (Despite its seventeenth-century setting, The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, explored issues that were of acute interest to Hawthorne's nineteenth-century readership.) Natty Bumppo, the frontiersman whose exploits were chronicled by Cooper in The Leatherstocking Tales, is a voluntary exile from civilization. Free of commitments to wife, children, and home, he prefers to wander the American wilderness in the male company of Chingachgook, a Mohican warrior. Ishmael, the sailor-narrator of Melville's Moby Dick (1851), is also a social pariah who has renounced the securities of both family and shore life. At sea, aboard a whaler crewed by similar castaways and misfits, he acquires a surrogate mate in Queequeg, a Polynesian cannibal. Ishmael claims of this unlikely union that he and his pagan consort made "a cosy, loving pair." Huck Finn, the protagonist of Mark Twain's well-known novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), likewise devises a provisional conjugal partnership with Jim, a runaway slave with whom he resides on a raft floating down the Mississippi River. The son of a drunken, brutal father, and an eyewitness to the moral hypocrisy infecting the mainland domestic culture he encounters on his travels, Huck opts to flee west at the novel's conclusion to avoid "being 'sivilized" and elude his impending adoption by Aunt Sally. To the characters of these novels (and numerous other works by American authors dating from the mid-nineteenth century), domestic relationships in their customary configuration were a straightjacket that stifled creativity and individuality. Hence, they fabricated ideal households away from mainstream culture, often with "mates" of the same sex, or of a different race, with whom procreation -- or the perpetuation of the family -- was a scientific and social impossibility.[7]

Domestic affairs gained increased presence as a literary sub-text in the novels of America's emerging schools of realist, naturalist, and local color writers in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Even so, portraits of felicitous family life were only occasionally sketched by these authors. What links this otherwise heterogeneous grouping of fiction are the recurring images it contains of households in decline and of family relationship gone awry. The stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and many other New England regionalist writers, for instance, examined the enfeebled condition of local domestic culture resulting from the decampment of rural villages by youthful residents who sought a more invigorating existence elsewhere, usually in the city. Depleted of all generations save the elderly, the communities so poignantly depicted in their tales are tenanted by spinsters, widowers, and retirees whose quaint homesteads, with their peeling paint, vacant parlors, and antiquated decor, symbolize the family life vanished from these quarters. In towns whose populace had lost childbearing capacity and where gravestones were beginning to outnumber inhabitants, the survival of the very institution of family must have, indeed, looked grim.

Intact family units were also scrutinized by American writers, who frequently focused on disturbing trends they saw occurring within the family's internal dynamics. Strain and alienation, for example, surfaced as the controlling emotions of "modern" family life in a number of their stories. William Deans Howells' novel A Modern Instance (1882), cited by Lee Edwards in her discussion of marriage themes in American genre painting, exemplified the new candor with which writers explored the fragile nature of domesticity.

Recognized as a landmark text of the realist movement, A Modern Instance caused a minor sensation in the literary marketplace because of its frank treatment of the disintegrating marriage of an average couple and its daring examination of the controversial issue of divorce. Needless to say, divorce was a hostile concept to subscribers to the cult of domesticity, for whom marriage was an inviolable contract, no matter how discordant its circumstances. But obviously Howells felt justified in broaching the subject in light of the divorce statistics of the day, which confirmed the phenomenon as epidemic. As the grounds governing divorces grew less restrictive over the nineteenth century, marriage contracts were more easily dissolved. Clearly, many American couples were choosing to act on this liberalization of legislation since divorce rates climbed steadily over the century, experiencing a sharp rise after the Civil War. It has been said that in the Victorian period more divorces were granted in the United States than in all of Europe.

Significantly, the germ for Howells' study of matrimonial disharmony came to him following a performance of Euripedes' Medea which he attended in Boston in 1875. That he found his metaphor for the fallibilities of modern marriage in this particular Greek tragedy is telling, for the tortured drama of Medea assailed and inverted those cardinal romantic premises about the eternal nature of marital and maternal affection held sacred by Howells' Victorian public. Euripedes' Medea, the spurned and jealous wife of Jason, revenges her husband's infidelity by hideously murdering their two children. Howells' original choice of title for the story he developed after seeing the play was, in fact, The New Medea.

In addition to divorce, many other influences and developments were converging in post-bellum American society to challenge the workings of the traditional family unit. Prostitution and alcoholism; plummeting birth rates among white Anglo-Saxons; soaring birth rates among immigrant populations; the exchange of an agrarian economy for an industrial one; the growth of commercial concerns which could supply goods once produced at home and perform domestic services ranging from laundering to childcare -- all were among those forces conspiring to shake the foundations of family life and reorder its priorities in the late nineteenth century. As society's ethical fortress and moral stronghold, the nuclear family was openly under siege.

What, then, does one make of the images of "domestic bliss" which form the heart of this exhibition? It is Lee Edwards' persuasive argument that America's nineteenth-century painters, like writers and other monitors of culture, were keenly aware of the radical drifts at work in society and equally concerned about the upheaval these forces of change seemed to spell for American family life. Their affectionate, idealized renderings of families at work, at play, and at rest were invented in part out of an instinct to memorialize, for future generations, what they sensed to be an endangered species. The act of visual preservation itself represented an important step toward the acceptance of change, helping to ease the transition to history's next plateau. As a redemptive symbol, the family proved an enduring and resilient theme.

But Dr. Edwards also cautions us against reading these portraits of domestic camaraderie too literally. Their complacent, benign facades could be deceptive. Through subtle gestures, carefully chosen props, and telling omissions, these seemingly straightforward sketches of daily experience often carry psychological innuendoes hinting at a darker vision of "domestic bliss" than the roseate one we customarily assign to this art. The images assembled in Domestic Bliss thus assume new significance when viewed, as we are encouraged to do, not simply as avouchments of an era's sentimental artistic sensibility but also as expressions of a complex, internally segmented society under strain from its various class, ethnic, and gender enclaves.

1 Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar," in Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Stephen E. Whicher, ed. (Boston: Riverside Editions/ Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1957), pp. 63-79.

2 For a listing of titles, see Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Jr., American Architectural Books: A list of books, portfolios, and pamphlets on architecture and related subjects published in America before 1895 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962).

3 A number of excellent studies have been published on the social implications of nineteenth-century American housing designs. See, for example, Clifford E. Clark, Jr., "Domestic Architecture as an Index to Social History: The Romantic Revival and the Cult of Domesticity in America, 1840-1890," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 7 (Summer 1976), pp. 33-56; John Brinckerhoff Jackson, American Space: The Centennial Years, 1865-1876 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972); and Gwendolyn Wright, Moralism and the Model Home: Domestic Architecture and Cultural Conflict in Chicago, 1873-1913 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).

4 Mary Kelley, Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

5 In addition to Kelley's illuminating study of the "anxiety of authorship" experienced by these women writers, see Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Cubar. The Mad Woman in the Attic: The Woman Writer in the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

6 William Wetmore Story, Conversations in a Studio, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin Co. 1890) vol. 1, p. 28.

7 Leslie Fiedler provides an extended analysis of these non-traditional unions in his classic and provocative study, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion Books, 1960).

About the author

Jan Seidler Ramirez was the Research Curator for the Hudson River Museum when she wrote the above essay as part of the book, Domestic Bliss: Family Life in American Painting 1840 - 1910. The catalogue was published to coincide with the exhibition of the same name at The Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, New York, May 18 through July 14, 1986. Jan Seidler Ramirez, a 1973 graduate of Dartmouth College is chief curator and director of collections for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. Previously she served as vice president and museum director of the New York Historical Society. Ms. Ramirez has held curatorial, education, collections management, and directorial posts at several museums in Boston and New York over the past three decades. She earned her master's and doctorate degrees at Boston University.


Resource Library editor's note

The above exhibition catalogue text was reprinted in Resource Library on July 24 2008, with permission of the Hudson River Museum. The permission was granted to TFAO on June 18, 2008. Ms. Ramierez' essay pertains to Domestic Bliss: Family Life in American Painting 1840 - 1910, which was on view at the Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, New York, May 18 through July 14, 1986. The exhibition was later shown at The Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, Rochester, New York, August 17 through November 30, 1986.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Laura Vookles, Exhibits Curator of the Hudson River Museum, and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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