Reviewed by Harriet
One of the most important distinctions made by Judith Flanders in this fascinating book is that between the concepts of house and home. While a house is a physical structure, home is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘The place where one was brought up, with reference to feelings of belonging, comfort, etc., associated with it’. Home, then, is a state of mind, but it is one that would have been incomprehensible until about three hundred years ago. Indeed, going back to the very earliest records, even having a house to yourself would have been a luxury, and if you were the only family in habitation, you’d have shared the space with your animals, something which remained the norm for peasant families until relatively recently.
How do we know how people lived in past centuries? There are written records of sorts, which provide some clues. A will from a wealthy household in 1633 Massachusetts reveals that the large house contained only two chairs. At around the same date, there was a court case in Italy concerning the theft of linen and cheese from the same trunk – no cupboards existed and storage was at a premium. Sanitation was minimal if it existed at all in the seventeenth century: when King Charles II fled to Oxford with his court to escape the plague, their temporary accommodation was left in such a bad state, with human waste in every room and on every staircase and landing, that even contemporaries were disgusted. And there are printed almanacs advising people to take their annual bath in the spring, before the lice in their hair had had time to hatch.
You might think that contemporary paintings would supply vital evidence about domestic life and people’s houses, but Judith Flanders argues that these are often deceptive. Seventeenth-century Dutch paintings show beautiful, luxurious homes with marble floors and expensive furniture, but according to Flanders, these were often substituted by the painter for the real, but more humble, wood floors and simple furnishings in order to boost the owner’s public reputation. As for the spittoon, an item found in everyone’s house at the time, it never shows up in paintings, and nor does the ‘spitting sheet’, a piece of fabric hung behind the spittoon to protect the valuable wall hangings.
All these examples come from the relatively distant past, but there are still many people living today who can remember a time when their house, in common with about half the working-class houses in London, had no running water. This began to change in the 1930s, but in rural Ulster, ninety per cent of households had no running water as late as the 1950s. The Making of Home traces the development of what we now see as essential creature comforts in impressive detail. And, of course, the homes people lived in affected the way they lived. Flanders concentrates in particular on the lives of women within the home. In rural USA, right up to within living memory, household tasks were shared between everyone in the house: the men hunted to feed the family and butchered the meat, the women fetched water from the well dug by the men, grew and chopped the vegetables, baked with the grain grown, harvested and threshed by the men, cooked the stew and wiped the dishes. In most places and in most eras, women worked extraordinarily hard, cleaning, baking, sewing, cooking, tending livestock and carting wood, as well as caring for children, but many did not perceive their occupations as work, like the housewife in Massachusetts who was busy with all these things from morning till night but wrote that she ‘in no way [did] anything towards earning my living’. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the concept of labour saving began to be recognised, and households were slowly transformed by the addition of such things as cast-iron stoves and sewing machines. However, Flanders points out that by the 1940s:
Middle-class housewives equipped with the latest in labour-saving technologies actually spent more time on housework than their mothers had at the turn of the century: because fewer households had servants; because technology had reduced heavy labour, so more work was undertaken by the housewife and less by commercial services; and because, finally, the new technologies and advances in science had, when combined with older views of women’s roles, produced a change in expectations of living standards.
This, then, is really social history at its best: the lives, attitudes and beliefs of our ancestors emerge with great clarity from an understanding of how and where they lived. A staggering amount of research has gone into the making of the book, but Flanders wears her learning lightly and The Making of Home is immensely readable, with a plethora of endnotes for anyone who wants to follow up the detail. Excellent.
Harriet Devine is one of editors of Shiny New Books.
Judith Flanders, The Making of Home (Atlantic Books, London: 2014). 978-1848877986, 368 pp,. hardback.