Reading the inventory: household goods, domestic cultures and difference in England and Wales, 1841–81
This thesis employs almost five hundred household inventories relating to properties in England and Wales between 1841 and 1881; they provide the first large-scale evidence for what people’s houses during this period actually contained. Taking a material culture approach, investigation moves between aggregate analysis, interpretation of individual cases and a qualitative reading of contemporary texts to consider the practical, social and cultural meanings of the contents listed in the inventories. Firstly, differences between the ways that different categories of people equipped and laid out their homes are identified. This calibrates existing class-based accounts, which are based on sources further removed from actual practice, and finds that differences relating to personal wealth and occupation were substantially moderated by geographical location. Secondly, the thesis addresses the functional specialisation of space that has been understood as a fundamental principle of nineteenth-century domestic organisation. It finds that, although some specialisations were widespread, in the area of hospitable provision many homes manifested a flexible, pragmatic, approach; strict specialisation was confined to the wealthier middle classes. Thirdly, the meanings of bedroom goods are tracked in contemporary texts. The bedroom, which has been relatively ignored by historians of the nineteenth-century home, appears as a focal site for ideas about cleanliness, convenience, class, health, science and progress; it was here, in the middle of the century, in the private reaches of the private home, that there was a voluntary adoption of public health measures. Throughout, detailed interpretation of single inventories counterbalances aggregate analysis. This reveals the complicated ways that individuals adopted, rejected or negotiated norms and throws into relief the way that ‘ideal’ separations, such as that between home and work, were in practice impossible.
- Theses