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.

Classroom Manners: Analyzing behavior with primary sources

Civil behavior is required for civil society and a civil classroom. Web articles about why, how, and where children and young adults should learn manners are common. But can lessons on polite behavior in the classroom mask important truths that should be addressed rather than concealed?

A common classroom rule is “Show respect to others.”  But what if someone’s words and actions do not deserve respect? Are the standards for polite behavior different for boys and girls, men and women? These modern-day conundrums can be examined in the classroom by using examples from the past.

Polite Behavior in the Past
Good manners
This image and the header image demonstrate expectations for men and women in the late 19th century. From Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms. Chicago: Hill Standards Book Co., 1888

In England and the American colonies in the 1700s, many assumed polite manners automatically reflected good morals, thoughts, and intentions. Rude behavior was thought to be rooted in bad morals and a corrupt nature. This view of human behavior was influenced by Enlightenment philosophers who believed men were rational and virtuous if educated properly.

Enlightenment thinkers didn’t agree about the behavior of females. Some, such as the French philosopher Condorcet, believed women were equal to men, but society cheated women of a proper education.  Others, such as Rousseau, thought that women were incapable of rational thought and behavior and only needed to be educated to take care of a home and children.

In the following primary source, published in 1913 in Munsey’s Magazine, the author Karin Michaelis argued that society forced women to pretend and hide their real thoughts and feelings.

How Social Etiquette Breeds Lies
Society’s rules of etiquette are such that a woman’s small untruths are counted as good form. . . .She who cannot show a smiling face and talk agreeable even to her worst enemy when they meet on neutral ground has not the qualities required of a woman . . . She must be able to hide her feelings, to look as if she was enjoying herself thoroughly when she is ready to fall asleep from boredom.
The women who enters into the life of society is compelled to lead an absolutely double existence, together with her society toilet (clothing and makeup) she puts on a society manner, a society face – yes, even a society soul.

Examining Manners in the Classroom

Many people believe one can or should “fake” good manners to hide selfish motives or their true thoughts. Ask students to consider if phony polite behavior is a good thing, or not? Is it okay to use good manners to manipulate others or create good impressions just to get ahead? Should the rules be the same for males and females? Is it ever okay to have different rules for different people? Encourage students to really consider the wider role of polite behavior in human interaction, now and in the past.

For lots more history and primary sources related to manners and etiquette –  Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies

Hotels in the Nineteenth Century: Place-based Primary Sources

Hotel Advertising Cards, late 1800s, place-based primary sources

Your local library, historical society, or university archives is a treasure trove of primary sources from your community – letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photographs, local publications, and all sorts of other ephemera. In most cases, these local institutions are thrilled to work with teachers developing place-based lessons. The staff will know about local history and have primary sources that you didn’t even know existed.
These hotel advertising cards, all from the late 1800s, are from a scrapbook in Eastern Kentucky University’s Archives. The scrapbook was created by French Tipton (1848 – 1900), a Richmond, Kentucky editor, lawyer, judge, IRS Revenue Agent, and journalist. These hotels existed in an era when railroads were the primary form of transportation for long distance travel. Hotels were located close to the railroad depot, instead of the interstate highway exit.
Teachers can create place-based education mysteries for students to solve. Do these businesses still exist? If not, are the buildings still there? If so, how have they been re-purposed? What changes in American vacationing, travel, and transportation caused them to close? Be sure to connect these wider trends to the present – why do businesses, like hotels, close in the 21st century?

Sanborn maps are valuable resources for locating old business in your town. These maps were created to assess fire insurance liability in towns and cities in the United States from 1867 to 2007. When you visit your local library, historical society, or university archives, ask for the historic Sanborn maps for your town. Many are also available on the internet.

Telephone Etiquette in the 1950s

"The Telephone and How We Use it" booklet. c. 1950s; etiquette, manners
“The Telephone and How We Use it” booklet. c. 1950s

New technology calls for new etiquette. What are the rules of etiquette for texting? for Twitter? for other types of social media? Why do good manners in communication even matter? Ask your students to explore these questions and make comparisons to “old” manners and technology from the past.

Telephone Etiquette of the 1950s

This 24-page booklet, published by the Bell Telephone Service in the 1950s, was distributed to teach children how to use the telephone and the correct manners for telephone conversations. Suggested activities are even included in the back. The rotary phone is obsolete, but have telephone manners (p. 16) also changed? If so, what are the expectations for polite smart phone use?

Teaching Manners in the 21st Century

Ask students to consider why a society should or shouldn’t have standards for behavior (manners or etiquette). How does one learn manners in the 21st century? Who teaches these lessons in correct behavior – parents? teachers? peers? Should students have more lessons in polite behavior? If so, what behaviors need to be covered? How should adults learn the new behavior for the new technology?
The entire booklet is available here http://www.classicrotaryphones.com/useit1.html