Designing Homes that Made Life Better (and Worse) for Women

The history of American home architecture and interior design—as the history of many fields—is a domain that was initially dominated by men. As such, the design of homes was largely to men’s specifications, with men’s interests in mind. Women’s entry into the field initially emerged, as one might expect, through influence and suggestion before they were involved in actual home design.

Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1983) wrote a wonderful book, More Work for Mother, tracing the historical origins of Hochschild’ssecond shift.” Cowan argued that the changes in the home with the advent of industrialization had the somewhat counterintuitive effect of creating more work for the household at precisely the same time as less people were understood as responsible for the work. The household was, as Cowan famously put it, “incompletely industrialized,” leaving more work for women. So, new appliances, like refrigerators and stoves brought with them more things to clean, and standards of cleanliness began to reach new heights.

In the U.S., it was women who were at the forefront of technological innovation in the home at the turn of the 20th century. When domestic technology entered the American home, it entered–as Rybcyznski said–“through the kitchen door.” When women did begin designing homes, the homes they designed were decidedly different from those designed by men. The “masculine” interest in the architecture of the home at the time was primarily visual. Though the 20th century brought with it a new appreciation for functionality and utility, men’s designs were concerned primarily with the beauty and aesthetics of the home (see Andrew J. Downing for example). Even some of the European designers who were more concerned with comfort (like Robert Kerr) were less concerned with convenience, considering it the business of servants and women once the house was already constructed. Men’s architectural books were written to men, but some of the early American women who wrote books on architectural design wrote their books to women. Women, they argued, were the primary “users” of the home, and as such, ought to play a leading role in its construction and design.

One of these early texts was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe (better known for Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and her sister, Catharine Beecher (1869), The American Woman’s Home. What was particularly noteworthy in this book, and largely absent from men’s books on the topic was not just the look of the house, but a concern with designing a home to be used. It was the practical considerations that set American women architect’s book apart. Beecher and Stowe’s book is full of practical considerations that are by and large absent in men’s book at the time. For instance, Downing paid extraneous attention to the exterior of the house, with intricate drawing of the window frames, porch facades, and more (see right). Yet, drawings of the kitchen simply provide the dimensions. Conversely, Beecher and Stowe’s kitchens were larger and there was much more attention paid to how those kitchens (along with the rest of the rooms in the home) would be used. Drawings throughout the book–like those here–illustrate the attention to everyday detail.

Women also, on average, designed much smaller houses than men. They realized the work it took to clean a home, and took this into consideration when they designed homes. This concern with size was present among men in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but men seemed unable or unwilling to design houses of the same small size as early American women architects.

While Harriet is best remembered for her abolitionist efforts, and Catharine is often fondly remembered for her support of women’s education, it’s also true that Catharine was opposed to women’s suffrage and completely accepted women’s “place” as in the home. She may have hated the feminism of her day, but her voice was certainly aided by their efforts.  Interestingly, the home has been a gendered space virtually since its creation, yet how and why it is considered “feminine” or “masculine” has changed throughout time. For instance, in the late 19th century, concern with the appearance of the home, its aesthetic qualities, would have been understood as “masculine,” though today, that is likely less true. Similarly, Harriet and Catharine were completely concerned with the home’s practicality–this was, as it were, a “feminine” concern. Yet, today, practicality in interior design and architecture is likely popularly consider “masculine.”  It’s just another example of how what we consider “manly” or “womanly” is historically variable.

Thanks to my dad, John Bridges, for recommending Witold Rybcyznski’s work.

One thought on “Designing Homes that Made Life Better (and Worse) for Women

  1. Downing for example). Even some of the European designers who were more concerned with comfort (like Robert Kerr) were less concerned with convenience, considering it the business of servants and women once the house was already constructed.

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