What it Is vs. What it Represents

By Carley Chan

Material culture is the belief that objects hold greater value than their intended function. In The Queen of Versailles, the size and grandeur of the Siegels’ current and dream homes are public displays of wealth and power. Though Jackie Siegel claims that moving into the biggest home in America will give the family some “much needed space,” she also describes the 90,000 square foot house, modeled and named after Versailles, as a tribute to her husband’s life achievements. While touring the half-finished home, Jackie rattles off the impressive prices of various fixtures – as if to imply that a window is more than a window if it costs a few million dollars. But as she wobbles up the grandiose staircase, the Siegels’ dream seems more ridiculous than impressive. Versailles is so over-the-top that it barely registers as a home; the dissonance between practicality and extravagance seems too large to bridge.

At the Merchant’s House Museum in Manhattan, material culture is evident in the stark contrast between the lavish ground floor seen by guests and the practical living arrangement of the basement, accessible only by family members and servants. Though both floors were furnished more or less by the same objects, namely chairs, couches, tables, lamps, drapes, etc., appearances were much more important on the upper floor. Compared to the elaborate and modern front rooms, the basement was surprisingly plain and simple. The most luxurious item was a couch that had once been displayed upstairs, but was deemed out of style and thus moved out of the public view.

In the cases of Versailles and the Merchant’s House, the gap between household objects’ intrinsic and extrinsic purposes are enormous. However, this gap cannot be completely written off as a result of a bourgeois world view. As Ann Cvetkovich writes in “In the Archives of Lesbian Feelings,” “affects – associated with nostalgia, personal memory, fantasy, and trauma – make a document significant. The archive of feelings is both material and immaterial, at once incorporating objects that might not ordinarily be considered archival.” Material culture exists in almost all domestic spaces. The worth we assign to our belongings can be used to explain, in part, how a house becomes a home for the people who live in it, and how this distinction is visually represented to the outside world.

This oven is one of my mom’s prized possessions – she frequently says that if she ever moves, she is taking the oven with her. As a stay-at-home mom whose hobby is food, my mom spends a lot of time in the kitchen. Unlike the Merchant’s House family, whose kitchen was hidden in the basement as a part of domesticity inappropriate for public viewing, my mom is proud to be able to provide good food to her family and guests. The reliable appliances that make this possible are naturally important to her as well.

These Chinese calligraphy scrolls are just a few of the many that hang all over my house. Because they are displayed in the room closest to our front door, they are visible to anyone that walks in. I have gotten remarks that my house looks “very Chinese” or “very cultural” and have also been asked what the scrolls say, where my family is from, and if my parents can speak English. The “Chineseness” of the decorations in my house seem to raise questions about the Americanness of my family, despite the fact that we all speak fluent English and only my dad can read what is written on the scrolls.

The decoration that hangs at our front door changes periodically with the season or occasion. This particular one was set out a few weeks ago to welcome Spring. It is also supposed to give the impression that my family responsibly attends to the upkeep of our house. In other words, we are not one of those neglectful families that leave our Christmas decorations out until March. Due to the fact we ourselves rarely see the outside of our front door, the decoration is almost exclusively for our neighbors’ viewing… though I have a feeling they rarely notice.

This post was completed as part of an assignment interpreting the “material culture” of home, and how objects, keepsakes, and ephemera from our domestic lives contribute to our social identities. For additional information on the assignment, please visit: https://americanstudiesmediacultureprogram.wordpress.com/the-concept-of-home-spring-2014-the-archeology-of-home/

A Woman’s Duties by Carley Chan

Gendered advertising is a powerful and visible force in maintaining traditional and heteronormative views of the “American way of life.” Commercialization was a “quintessentially American” approach to developing the image of the home (Cowan, 103). It was often applied to more than just household appliances, however. Numerous companies exploited the extremely large market for goods that emerged from the establishment of the single-family suburban home as the dominant and favored living arrangement (Cowan, 147).  Products were often framed within the contexts of “homemaker and breadwinner [that] were central to the identity of many women and men at the time,” regardless of whether or not they served any actual domestic purpose (May, 172).

Elaine Tyler May explains this phenomenon in The Commodity Gap: Consumerism and the Modern Home:

The values associated with domestic spending upheld traditional American concerns with pragmatism and morality, rather than opulence and luxury. Purchasing for the home helped alleviate traditional American uneasiness with consumption: the fear that spending would lead to decadence. Family-centered spending reassured Americans that affluence would strengthen the American way of life (May, 158).

By turning all spending into a type of domestic spending, advertisers encouraged consumerism and alleviated the buyer’s remorse that came after. Such an approach is most apparent in marketing towards women. By playing to the fears and pressures felt by “discontented housewives,” nondurable goods could be spun as essentials for a bright domestic future (May, 164). The right shampoo would keep a marriage stable and happy;  a proper tampon would keep a housewife productive and presentable. For every problem, there was a product.

In many advertisements, women were promised an improvement in their relationship to others, whether this be their husbands, children, friends, or neighbors (Cowan, 114). Women were treated not as autonomous individuals, but rather as dependents – thus enforcing the notion of being a part of a “family unit.” This arrangement also profoundly impacted men, whose role as a dependable and capable “provider” as a “source of satisfaction” has also been continually exploited in marketing. Lastly, just as Nixon “articulated the essence of American superiority” through the display of home appliances, advertisers urged women to “keep up with the Joneses” through the purchase of various goods (May, 155, 170) In American Green, Anthony Giordano seems to buy into this idea when he states that “a lawn to a homeowner is like lipstick to a woman,” implying that personal appearance and domestic prowess are directly relatable subjects (Steinberg, 75).


“A Mother’s Duty,” 1925. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections.

By marketing to a woman’s motherly instincts, Palmolive shifts the focus away from a woman’s “selfish” desire to own the product for herself by instead framing her daughter as the primary consumer. The ad’s text is almost completely identical to other Palmolive ads of the time period, with the only major difference being the substitution of “your [the woman’s] skin” with “her [the daughter’s] skin.” The ad claims that using Palmolive soap is an essential skincare step that will impact the daughter “all through life,” and it is up to the mother to take the proper “precautions ” to ensure that she will maintain her “skin radiance.” Though it is highly likely that the mother herself will also be using the product, catering to her “duty” as a mother alleviates guilt about spending on an otherwise nonessential product.

A Wife Can Blame Herself If She Loses Love By Getting “Middle-Age” Skin!” 1938. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections.

Palmolive finds its way into the hearts of housewives through this 1938 ad, in which a cartoon woman laments that her husband “never takes [her] out any more,” and fears that he is “ashamed” of her. Her mother speculates that her dry and old-looking skin is the reason he does not want to be seen in public with her, and suggests that her distraught daughter use some Palmolive soap. In the last panel, the wife, her skin so rejuvenated by Palmolive that she turns into a real woman, happily exclaims that “Bob’s so proud of [her] again” and that she has “learned her lesson.” Palmolive again markets their soap as a collective good for the family; more than keeping a woman’s skin radiant and healthy, it is insuring that she is not a disgrace to her man.

“What Men Should Know About film on teeth, and modern ways to end it,” 1922. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections.

This Pepsodent ad provides an interesting contrast between marketing to men and marketing to women. While “men should know” the dangers of teeth film and mouth acid and how to remove them with Pepsodent, the only thing women need to know about toothpaste is “added beauty.” While men are informed that film “breeds millions of germs” and causes teeth decay, women are told that it causes a “stained” and “dingy” appearance which hides the “natural luster of the teeth.” Pepsodent seems to support the assumption that the man reading the ad is a “breadwinner” – a provider whom a woman is both economically and intellectually dependent upon. But, as Elaine Tyler May in The Commodity Gap points out, women’s “lives were functional, not merely ornamental.” In the next paragraph of “The Woman’s Side,” Pepsodent reminds mothers that “children need Pepsodent most.”

“This home shows the wonders of it!” 1917. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections.

According to this ad, Lux Laundry Flakes are perfect for the whole family. Not only does Lux keep a woman’s “blouses and silk underwear pretty,” it also allows her to “use [her] nicest linen every day,” keep her house “radiantly light and fresh” and “delight her heart with the gauziest, the silkiest, the fluffiest for her children.” With Lux, a woman is the ultimate housewife and mother – and everyone knows it. In the ad, other women are impressed and jealous of this young wife’s seemingly decadent lifestyle, calling her a “trifle reckless” for always using her “lovely bridal linen” and assuming that she “squanders a mint of money… buying fresh things all the time.” On the contrary, Lux allows her to be economical while still “keeping up with the Joneses.”


This post was completed as part of assignment on how the idea of home and the concept of domesticity has been used in marketing during different historical moments and in the present. For additional information on the assignment, please visit: https://americanstudiesmediacultureprogram.wordpress.com/the-concept-of-home-spring-2014-selling-home/.

Politics Behind Leaving Home

Politics Behind Leaving Home

By Carley Chan

The concept of home has long been a powerful source of propaganda in the American political landscape. Both the physical and metaphorical act of “leaving home,” whether by men or women, white or ethnic, voluntarily or forcibly, has often had larger political implications.

The plight of marginalized individuals has been continually exploited throughout American history for the purpose of political gain. In the late 19th century, boarding schools to re-educate Indians and assimilate them into American society emerged as a more humane solution to the “Indian problem.” Supporters of this new policy, with their paternalistic faith in the “potential of the Indian,” were the progressives of their time despite the largely inhumane and dehumanizing aspect of the schools which aimed to “kill the Indian and save the man” (Lomawaima, 22). At worst, the white man’s ambitious venture was cultural genocide. At best, it taught Indians the skills for a life of menial labor on the lowest rungs of society.

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is a similar example of the disenfranchisement of individuals for the sake of politics. Japanese Americans were uprooted from their homes to designated sites “surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards” due to suspicion over their loyalty to the United States (Topaz Museum). The move was not a matter of personal choice, but rather to appease “real” Americans and ease political pressure. To prove themselves as “good American citizens,” Japanese Americans had little choice but to submit quietly to their imprisonment.

Ethnic minorities were not the only victims. In the company town of Pullman, residents who settled there were pawns in George Pullman’s pursuit of the ideal “paternalist institution” (Crawford, 37). Pullman received ample attention and praise for its beauty, innovation, and “financial and social success” (Crawford, 39). For the workers living there, however, the town was unusually restrictive; “nobody [regarded] Pullman as a real home” and many left as soon as they were financially able (Crawford, 40).

Women, who were long imprisoned in the home by the idea of “separate spheres,” were both victims and proponents of the use of the home as propaganda. In the nineteenth century, women were expected to “[withdraw] from the outside world” into the private sphere of the home. Women who were unsatisfied with this “shrunken realm of female agency” struggled to metaphorically leave the home for the public sphere (Kaplan, 586). This struggle continues to impact women in politics today. Despite being freer from gender expectations and restrictions, female politicians continue to cite their competence in the private sphere to justify their involvement in the public sphere. Being a capable mother or a compassionate woman is a vital part of a female politician’s image – but male politicians are not held to similar standard (Lecture, 2/19).

Kenji Fujii, the first speaker, said the nisei’s attitude should be unfailingly grounded in his faith in his essential Americanism. Dave Tatsuno, a prominent member of the JACL, and Ernest Takahashi both, in effect, counseled “voluntary cooperation” with the Federal program of evacuation. Warren Tsuneishi urged continued faith in democracy in meeting the problems of evacuation.

Excerpt from “Pros, Cons of Nisei Attitude Discussed,” 06 June 1942. Courtesy of Topaz Museum.

Nisei, literally “second-generation,” were natural-born Japanese American citizens. Many were confined in internment camps for the the duration of World War II. This excerpt is from an article in the Topaz Times, a newspaper run by the Japanese internees of the Topaz WRA camp in central Utah.  The article documents a weekly Town Hall Forum to discuss the topic: “What should the Nisei attitude be towards evacuation?”

As evident in their language, the Nisei featured in the article fully believed in their status as American citizens – even if the government and many other Americans did not. Despite the gross violation of their civil rights, negative attitudes or complaints towards internment are almost completely absent. Instead, the Nisei stress “voluntary cooperation” and “faith in democracy” to deal with such difficult times.  More cynically, this positive attitude can be seen as the Nisei’s way to appease their oppressors, in hopes of proving their loyalty and hastening their return home.

The woman who has never possessed money of her own earning, has missed a great happiness. The depressing feeling of dependence under which many girls and women suffer, is crushing in many ways to their growth, and to the woman who once achieves independence comes an expansion of soul, a breadth of view, a mental freedom she never knew or imagined. For the first time in her life she realizes that she too is an individual, with the ability and the right to regulate her conduct according to her own judgment, and to grow broader, deeper, truer at her will.

There is one consideration which a woman must take into account in settling the question of her duty and her work. She has a responsibility in regard to herself as well as to her husband, and family. … The woman who marries, – deliberately or thoughtlessly as the case may be, – assumes the duties of wife and mother, and these have the first claim upon her.

“Should a married woman work for money? The effect on herself,” 1892. Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

This article, written by Olive Thorne Miller for The Cambridge Literary Bureau and Press, addresses the conflict that arises from the intersection of the public and private sphere. Though Miller acknowledges that wage labor is a liberating and life-changing experience, she still perpetuates the idea that first and foremost, a woman’s place is in the home. Whether or not she wanted to or continues to want to live a domestic life is of little relevance, as her domestic duties “have first claim upon her.” Thorne goes on to write that perhaps, at fifty years of age, a woman will finally be able to pursue her own dreams and desires – but in the meantime, while she raises her children and submits to her husband, she will have to bear “the depressing feeling of dependence” that is “crushing in many ways to [her] growth.”

“Old Kentucky Home - Life in the South,” 1859.

“Old Kentucky Home – Life in the South,” 1859. Image courtesy of In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience.

This oil painting by Eastman Johnson depicts a racially integrated Southern home, where slaves interacted with their white master and his family. This cheerful scene is meant to depict the institution of slavery in a positive light. This romanticized image of white paternalism was far from the reality for many slaves, however. Slavery did not “civilize the Negro;” it was an exploitative and inhumane trade that caused the breakup of African families and forced removal from their homes for the sake of economic profit.

“Emil and Yas Furuya,” 1942. Courtesy of Topaz Museum.

This photo, taken at the Topaz WRA camp in central Utah, shows several internees presumably preparing to leave for an outing. Internees were required to obtain passes before leaving the camp, making migration a larger political issue. A Japanese American’s decision to leave or return home was under jurisdiction of the American government.

This post was completed as an assignment for the American Studies course, “The Concept of Home.”  A list of the readings that informed this assignment can be found here