The Cult of Domesticity: Values Past and Present
Definition of the Cult of Domesticity
The values of the Cult of Domesticity focused on the happiness of the family unit and the wholeness of the home.
Feminism sometimes unfairly places blame on this movement in history as being a means of "putting women down," or "keeping women in their place," but the movement itself was wholly a reflection of very feminine ideals at work, and it made homemaking into an appreciated art form -- an art that many homes still use today.
The Cult of Domesticity was the idea that a woman's sphere was in the home -- tending to its every need, and that every woman should be religious, pure in heart and body, and submissive to her husband and God.
In the United States, Canada, and Great Britain this movement reigned in the 1800s to early 1900s, saw a resurgence in the 1950s, and is now finding a new set of followers in the 2010s. The modern phenomenon, for example, has been labeled the "New Domesticity" by author Emily Matchar. We will discuss this further down in the article.
The Role of Wives During the Cult of Domesticity
- Wives were put on pedestals for their piety, femininity, and their dedication to husband, children, and household duties. It was an age where women were not expected to fight the harsh realities of the working world, but where husbands came home after fighting it themselves and languished in the loving home their wives created.
- Women cooked, cleaned, sewed, gardened, and tended to their children.
- They taught their children manners and morals, stemming from both existing social norms and Biblical teachings.
- Women attended church, whether or not their husbands chose to come.
The Role of Husbands During the Cult of Domesticity
- Married men were expected to solely provide for their wives and children, if they had any. According to the Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, in the United States the work-week around the year 1900 was typically 60 hours. Men were frequently engaged in occupation and trade from Monday to Saturday so they could put food on the table and keep their family warm and free from the cares of the harsh world.
- They instilled discipline and behavioral boundaries into their children's lives.
- They were expected to practice an even temperament with their family and to treat women with respect.
The Cult of Domesticity coincided with some of the most cherished times in American, British, and Canadian history:
The Industrial Revolution, which brought forth a booming economy, population, and many middle- and upper-class occupations: factory managers and owners, accountants, shopkeepers, and doctors, for example. This money helped fuel the Cult of Domesticity, wherein women bought china for their dining rooms, furniture to fill their houses, and nick-knacks to adorn their shelves. Women of the time frequently got their shopping ideas from ads in The Ladies Home Journal.
The Age of Innocence, although the official name of a novel, is also a time period between the end of the American Civil War and before World War I, in which social graces, kindness to elders, obedience to figures of authority, and an ingrained expectation of hard work were of the utmost importance.
The Victorian Era, which gave the Western world artistically built homes, long, feminine ladies' fashions and elaborate hats, and even gave rise to the popularity of nursery rhymes such as Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.
Ads from The Ladies Home Journal in the 1890s
A Woman of the Age of the Cult of Domesticity
The woman above would be typified as a participant in the Cult of Domesticity. Her late 1800s style of dress reflects an upper-middle class or wealthy social status, as does the large wedding ring on her left finger.
The Cult of Domesticity as an Art Form
The movement elevated everyday household duties into an art form. Here are some examples:
- Tea Time: If a woman poured tea with her left hand on the lid of a teapot, it meant she was trying to brag by showing off her large wedding ring. If she poured tea with her right hand on the lid (which was encouraged), it meant she was with God and had a humble character.
- Dinnertime: Cassells Household Guide from the 1880s notes many rules for setting up dinner parties including ensuring that flowers on the table do not impair any guest's view of another guest and that artificial flowers should never be used at the dinner table.
- Crafts and Hobbies: Hobbies were and are still considered a way to keep the mind occupied in a healthy way. Girls and women learned needlepoint, which they did in their spare hours. They frequently stitched passages from the Bible, such as Psalms or the Ten Commandments. It was a way of combining creativity with Godliness. Other needlework subjects included leaves, flowers, nursery rhymes, animals, or scenes of nature.
Indeed, in entertaining, people would talk about the home they went to and how up to snuff the party was. The word would soon spread at how wonderful, sophisticated, or not quite grand each event was. Thus, such great care and intricate preparation was put into entertaining that the wife of the house had had no lack of mental stimulation. She had to memorize so many rules and details that her mind was always busy.
The Importance of the Sitting Room
During the Cult of Domesticity the sitting room or living room, was then as it still is now, a place where family members congregate to read the latest book or newspaper, play card games, embroider, or even take the occasional nap.
When all the work of the day was done, or when there was extra time to relax, the sitting room became the heart of domesticity. Husbands, wives, and children all came back from their separate spheres of life to enjoy the bliss of home together. Although the home was a woman's place, it was truly also everyone's place.
Resurgence of Domestic Values in the 1950s and 2010s
The 1950s saw a resurgence of domestic values similar to the movement in the 1800s. Many people now believe that being a housewife was entirely expected of every woman up until the 1970s, and don't understand that there was a so-so attitude towards homemaking between WWI and the 1950s.
WWI sent many women into the workforce to replace the men that went off to war, and men fully expected to get those jobs back when they returned from the front. Well some men did get them back, but many women became exposed to making a paycheck that they hadn't had before, and they all weren't too keen on making that transition back to domestic life again.
Women then got the right to vote in the 1920s. The roaring 20s then came about, and feminism became more pervasive in society, as did corporate culture. Jobs for women such as typist, filing clerk, stenographer, and secretary became plentiful. But the Great Depression put its brakes on the expanding working sector -- for everyone.
According the U.S. Census, the unemployment rate was at its peak in 1933, when almost 25% of the working population could not find a job. Both men and women were on the losing end in the workplace.
The economy boomed at the end of WWII, which also led to a boom in couples having children. This spearheaded the second Cult of Domesticity movement. Although the style of dress had changed, some of the religiosity had died out, and modern appliances made some housework easier, the 1950s were a time of stay-at-home pancake-flipping, bed-making, and dish-washing wives and mothers.
The 2010s: The New Domesticity
The "New Domesticity" is a term made popular by Emily Matchar, who studied women who gave up the work world for the domestic sphere in the post-2000s world. She found that many of the women were already college-educated and simply desired to delve into more homey pursuits.
Although no one needs to validate women for wanting to be homemakers -- it's the one pursuit perhaps closest to female nature -- it's nice to know so many women are returning to it.
Here are some of the trends and impetus behind the New Domesticity:
- The Great Recession kicked many women out of the workplace unexpectedly. Left at home some occupied their time with female-centric house-nurturing.
- A segment of the female population will always choose to be stay-at-home mothers anyway. A smaller segment of childless homemakers do as well.
- Hobbies of gardening for food, selling goods on EBay or Etsy, learning canning, home-schooling, Biblical living, cooking from scratch, and DIY decorating have inspired a new generation of women into fulfilling home activities that have nothing to do with the unfeminine cut-throat world of corporate competition.
- The traditional values of marriage, child-rearing, and living in harmony with the environment have clicked with some women of Generations X and Y -- those in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s -- as an alternative to the modern working world many were raised to consider a standard part of their life.
While certain aspects of everyday life change over the generations and centuries, it is nice to know that we will always return to some of them as well -- to give great attention to the activities that make our houses into homes and our relationships into happy families.
The Cult of Domesticity is ever-present.
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