From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart

A Cultural History of Domestic Advice

By Sarah A. Leavitt

272 pp., 6 x 9.25, 49 illus., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5371-9
    Published: May 2002
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-6038-0
    Published: April 2003

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Today's domestic-advice writers--women such as Martha Stewart, Cheryl Mendelson, and B. Smith--are part of a long tradition, notes Sarah Leavitt. Their success rests on a legacy of literature that has focused on the home as an expression of ideals. Here, Leavitt crafts a fascinating genealogy of domestic advice, based on her readings of hundreds of manuals spanning 150 years of history.

Over the years, domestic advisors have educated women about everything from modernism and morality to sanitation and design. Their writings helped create the idealized vision of home held by so many Americans, Leavitt says. Investigating cultural themes in domestic advice written since the mid-nineteenth century, she demonstrates that these works, which found meaning in kitchen counters, parlor rugs, and bric-a-brac, have held the interest of readers despite vast changes in women's roles and opportunities.

Domestic-advice manuals have always been the stuff of fantasy, argues Leavitt, demonstrating cultural ideals rather than cultural realities. But these rich sources reveal how women understood the connection between their homes and the larger world. At its most fundamental level, the true domestic fantasy was that women held the power to reform their society through first reforming their homes.

About the Author

Sarah A. Leavitt is a historian who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
For more information about Sarah A. Leavitt, visit the Author Page.

Reviews

"Informed by hundreds of domestic advice manuals, popular magazines, and material culture, this book provides a unique look at the ways women, especially middle-class women, shaped and were shaped by an increasingly modern world. . . . Leavitt's strength in this study is her ability to show agency not only for the advisors but for the advised as well . . . it will make a valuable text in any introductory U.S. history or women's study class."--NWSA

"An outstanding instance of the seemingly mundane or ephemeral revealing great significance on examination. . . . An important topic, well researched, compellingly argued. Highly recommended, especially for general readers whether intrigued or appalled by Martha Stewart!"--Choice

"[In] well-paced chapters complemented by fascinating illustrations. . . . Sarah A. Leavitt provides much-needed advice on how to study historical women's conceptualizations of their roles, their houses, and the larger world."--Historian

"A wide-ranging intellectual, as well as cultural and professional, history of domestic advice."--Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Leavitt has written an engaging and insightful history of domestic advice, convincingly demonstrating that interior decorating is never a matter of individual fancy alone."--Florida Historical Quarterly

"Leavitt's entertaining exploration of domestic advisors and their writings brings together material culture and cultural history to help us understand those dreams and their creators."--Maryland Historical Magazine