The Antebellum Home and Woman's Culture (Part 1)

Dan Bryan, March 20 2012

George Caleb Bingham, Family Life on the Frontier (Detail)George Caleb Bingham - Family Life on the Frontier (c. 1845)

At the same time that American homes acquired the first touches of modern domestic refinement, an expanded social role was scripted for middle and upper class women that exalted their contributions to homemaking above all else.

While women had always held the secondary part in economic and public life, their position became more restrictive if anything, during the early 1800s, even as their affluence increased to unprecedented levels.

American housing in 1798

Some of the best information about housing in the early United States comes from a singular and particular survey of American homes that was conducted in 1798.

In this year the US Congress passed a one time federal property tax. The immediate purpose was to procure $2 million to raise an army in the midst of international tension with France. Assessors appointed by President Adams blanketed the entire United States to collect this tax.

However disagreeable the citizens found this new tax to be, its long-term legacy is a highly detailed summary of the entire housing stock of the United States, which consisted of 600,000 dwellings at that time.

The average person lived in cramped, squalid housing as the century turned. A few surviving houses of some grandeur are still extant from that era, but these houses were the exception. A typical dwelling might be twelve feet in one direction by twelve feet in the other, of ramshackle construction, with an entire family crammed in and little privacy afforded to anyone.

The interior of a simple home: circa 1800

The floors would most likely be dirt, and in rural areas it would be standard for chickens and pigs, and other farm animals of that sort, to run around at will through the house.

Walls were bare, glass windows were tiny or nonexistent, furniture was spartan, bugs and snakes were everywhere, most people bathed once a year or less, and very few people in the entire country were not afflicted with head lice.

In those days, it was almost a universal phenomenon for men to chew tobacco in the middle and southern states. Excepting a few aristocrats, they spat it anywhere they felt like including ballrooms, theaters, homes, and churches. When men drank -- and alcohol consumption was very common in those times -- they would grab their wet clump of tobacco and hold it in their hand while they swigged their liquor.

It was estimated that the streets of New York hadn't been visible to human eyes in decades, so piled up with manure and mud were they. Wild pigs roamed the streets of any substantial town, feasting on the garbage and waste that people threw out of their windows, and the poor and downtrodden killed these pigs and ate them -- in spite of some good advice dispensed in the Book of Exodus.

No area with more than a few people smelled anything except astoundingly bad.

The start of a newer role for women

It was in this morass of disease and discomfort that the woman of those times lived.

In the rural areas, it was taken for granted that every member of the household would work as much as humanly feasible. A couple times per year -- perhaps after the harvest -- there would be festivals or revivals, but these were the exceptions.

In an environment where a bad harvest meant penury or starvation there was not as much thought given to the precise circumscribing of a woman's role. For the most part, there was merely a general acknowledgment that Christianity deemed man to be the head of a family.

As prosperity expanded and the number of affluent families increased to an appreciable number, this changed. An intellectual debate emerged on the role of women within a republic like that of the United States, and on how their efforts might best contribute to the strengthening to those republican ideals that held the nation together.

This will be explained in more detail, but first the question must be asked: what did "prosperity" mean in the America of the 1830s and 1840s?

The marks of prosperity in the 1840s

The following are some changes that made the American home a more comfortable and domesticated environment as the nineteenth century progressed.

- Two story houses became more common
While most houses continued to have a single story, it was common for more than just the upper elite to begin to build two story houses, especially in the New England countryside.

- House paint became widespread
Production of lead paint increased and it became much more affordable to paint homes and other buildings. Since the most common color produced was white, the white wooden house became a feature of the landscape, particularly the further north and east one traveled.

- Brooms became cheaper
Even a simple household item such as a broom goes a long way in home maintenance. By the 1840s, two million brooms were being sold on an annual basis.

- Wood stoves replaced fireplaces in many households
The wood stove burned much less wood and distributed heat much more efficiently than an open fireplace. In addition to making a room more comfortable, it also reduced the amount of time and labor required to maintain an acceptable level of heating. Jack Larkin quoted one woman as saying she was "disposed to vote for a monument to the memory of the first inventor of family stoves."

- Candles and other illumination became cheaper For the common person, candles were the method of illumination during the nighttime hours, and they grew larger and cost less. Those who more wealthy could afford lamps. These ran on oil procured from the unfortunate sperm whales of the Atlantic Ocean, who were hunted on a massive scale in the 19th century.

A Sperm Whale Emerges from the Ocean - 1800sThe period from 1830-1850 was a golden age for whaling.

In a few cities coal distillation plants were used to create a system of gas lighting. Making this a safe proposition was a matter of trial and error, but systems were set up in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and the most affluent households of those cities could afford to buy into the system.

- Machine grade textiles expanded production of clothes, carpets and curtains
The application of power looms allowed the weaving of carpets to expand considerably. Larkin estimates that one household out of every four or five had a carpet by 1830. Clothes became cheaper and easier for women to make with the expansion in production of fabric. Additionally, the mass production of fabric in the textile mills led to the increase in the number of homes that could afford curtains. This enhanced privacy and added another opportunity for decorative flair.

- Improved printing technology led to cheaper wallpaper
Bare wooden walls had formerly been the norm in this regard.

- Improved glassmaking led to larger windows and cheaper mirrors
Windows increased in size and number, making the insides of many homes less cramped. Looking glasses decreased in price, and a family could break the monotony of their walls by hanging one of them in the main room.

Together, these developments combined to produce the basic elements of what the modern reader might imagine as a standard home.

It is important to keep in mind that these improvements did not disseminate instantly to all corners of the country. Generally, they were first seen in the cities and countryside of New England, and on the southern plantations. From there they spread gradually down the socioeconomic ladder as people could afford them.

Part 2 of this series examines the philosophy of a woman's role that emerged in this environment.

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About the Author

Dan Bryan

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy.

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