What can historical home decorations tell us about the past?

Images of home decor from the past are primary sources for daily life and culture of the era. But the viewer must distinguish between idealized depictions and reality.

The printmaking firm of Currier and Ives provided prints to decorate the walls of American homes from the 1830s to the early 20th century. The firm produced over 7,500 different lithographs – prints suitable for framing. At first, the prints were black and white and artists added color by hand. Later, full color prints were mechanically produced as printing technology improved.  Every aspect of American life was featured. The affordable prints were sold from the New York City office, by stores and salespeople across the nation, and by mail. Currier and Ives prints hung on the walls of homes through the 19th and into the 20th century. Catharine Beecher, the 19th century expert on home-making, gave practical advice on how to decorate tastefully on a budget and recommended inexpensive prints, or chromos, for decorating the walls.

Primary Source Analysis: Classroom Activity
1868 Currier and Ives print, The Four Seasons of Life: Youth.
The Four Seasons of Life: Youth – “The Season of Love”

Ask students evaluate the 1868 set of Currier and Ives prints on this page and describe the messages conveyed about home and family in the late 19th century

Select each image for more information.

What conclusions can be made about children? What do their activities, the clothes they are wearing, and their placement in each picture say about the expectations for childhood?

What are fathers supposed to do? In the third print in the series entitled “Middle Age” (below), the father is returning home, but from from where? Scrutinize his clothing and make conclusions about his occupation? What are mothers supposed to do according to these prints? Who is doing the hard work of cleaning and cooking behind the scenes?

Where is “home” located – in the city or the country? According to these prints, what was a home supposed to look like on the outside and inside? Note the furnishings. Would every American home in the late 1800s have carpets, a hall tree, and large pictures on the walls? Hall trees were considered requirements for upper-middle class homes of the late 19th century. Hall trees provided space for visitors to leave coats, umbrellas, and visiting cards. Did every home have space and a need for hall trees?

1868 Currier and Ives print, The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age
The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age – “The Season of Strength”

After students have made conclusions about family and home life in the late 19th century, ask if these prints represented daily life for everyone in America. Consider providing idealized images of middle class families from the 20th and 21st century (easy to collect using Google’s image search for “ideal American families”).  Ask what’s different and what’s the same.  And ask what families are NOT represented in the idealized depictions in decorative prints and advertising images. What socio-economic classes are missing? What groups of people are not represented? Do families always have a mom, dad, and two kids? Through inquiry questioning, help students see that idealized depictions of families and homes are not a new thing. Primary source images from every historical culture represent ideals that may or may not depict the reality of daily life.

So, what can home decorations tell us about the past?
1868 Currier and Ives print, The Four Seasons of Life: Old Age
The Four Seasons of Life: Old Age – “The Season of Rest.”

What we know about decorating homes in the past often comes from sources that depict a cultural ideal. Advice books, like Catharine Beecher’s The American Woman’s Home, described what a home ought to be, not the homes that many people could actually afford. Beecher’s advice and these prints depicted the 19th century middle class ideal. Many rural and urban working class families lived in much smaller, sparse, and crowded spaces. These Currier and Ives prints are similar to advertisements and decorating magazines today – – every family is pretty, perfect and every home is neat and decorated in the newest styles. But for most of us, the reality of daily life looks very different.

For color versions of these images, see the collection of the Museum of the City of New York Currier and Ives collection.

Beware of nostalgia in primary sources

Nostalgia – a sentimental longing for the past. Many primary source texts and images suggest the past was a better place. But was it really? The word comes from Greek roots: nostos means to return home, aliga/alegein means pain, to care about, longing.   Homesickness is a similar feeling – a longing for home.

Historical sources are often nostalgic, skewing our views of the past. You’ve heard modern references to the halcyon days when people didn’t need to lock the doors of their homes, when neighbors always helped neighbors, when men were brave and chivalrous, women virtuous, and students always did their homework and behaved. In every historical era, references are made to previous golden age. But was a previous era really that good?

Probably not. Every culture throughout time had the good and the bad. Nostalgic primary sources say more about the creators’ views of their own contemporary eras than an idealized past.

Nostalgia in Primary Source Images
late medieval depiction of idealized chivlary
At the 16th century Renaissance kings Henry VIII and Francis I , chivalry was nostalgic for past eras of warfare before the destruction caused by the new weapon – gunpowder.

For example, in the late Middle Ages, (1300s -1400s), the nobility was obsessed with chivalry and elaborate tournaments. At the same time, mounted knights in war were becoming obsolete due to the introduction of gunpowder. At the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520), jousts between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France were nostalgic re-enactments of battle, not the reality of 16th century warfare. Times were changing and the past was idealized.

In the late 1800s, more and more Americans were leaving the farm to live and work in towns and cities. At the same time, nostalgic lithograph prints depicting idealized rural farm homes were especially popular. The 1877 lithograph used as a header image for this post is entitled “Home Sweet Home.” A rural family is relaxing on the porch of a perfect home. No references to the hard labor required by men, women, and children on a late 19th century farm.  Many people were yearning for this nostalgic, peaceful life after the economic disaster caused by the Panic of 1873 and a year of the labor unrest, the Great Railroad Strike, Indian Wars, and violence.

Analyzing Primary Sources in the Classroom

Ask your students to consider modern media depictions of the 1950s. The “mid-century” nostalgic trend portrays a time when families were “traditional” – dads worked, moms got to stay at home and loved it, and kids could “play all day outside and didn’t come home until dark” because the world was a much safer place. Historical study of the real 1950s reveals that most people did not live this utopian life. Everyone was not suburban middle class and sexism and racism were prominent features of daily life.

Ask students to consider what broader modern trends cause Americans to yearn for the idealized1950s. Future historians will probably conclude that concerns about job security due to technological change and globalization and changing family patterns are the “real” history of the early 21st century.

Primary Source Images: Context Matters

Looking for primary source images for social studies lessons? Beware of Google image searches – you may get more junk than historical sources. Knowing the date and original context of a historical image is essential for a good primary source lesson.
If you locate an interesting image on the internet that does not include historical documentation – try using a reverse image search to find the same picture on other websites. You may find the documentation you need in ensure that the image is actually from the time period you plan to teach. To learn more – see Search for images with reverse images search

Save time doing searches that may not yield good results by bookmarking a few favorite and reliable websites. Here are a few of my favorites:

Primary Source Mysteries

Start out the school year with a lesson that illustrates how historical context matters. Create primary source image “mystery” activities for your students.  Choose various images that seem time-period appropriate and ask students to search the internet for the image and historical documentation. Be sure to include images that are from the time period being studied and a few that seem “real” but are from a different time period or hoaxes.

primary source image mystery
Real or hoax? Purpose? Date? Challenge your students to solve primary source mysteries.

The Museum of Hoaxes is a great resource.

For example, is this poster promoting temperance real? Or a hoax? In what time period was it created? For the answer and an example of how to discover the origins of internet images, see Prohibition Poster – Fact or Fiction?





Header Image:  Illinois WPA Art Project, created between 1936 and 1940. Courtesy of Library of Congress.