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.

The problem with asking students “What did you do on your summer vacation?”

Motion Picture Camera Ad, 1919
“Come back with a moving picture of the good times you have had.” This 1919 advertising message mirrors the purpose of vacation photos in social media – to tell your friends about your vacation. Vacation photos and stories promote vacation destinations and the idea that everyone should go on a vacation.

What did you do on your summer vacation? Teachers often start the school year by asking students about their summer vacations. Modern media is full advice about how, when, where, and what to do on a vacation. Vacationing is such a popular media topic that it appears everyone takes a vacation.

But many families are unable to travel for leisure. A recent poll found that 43% of Americans don’t plan to take a vacation this summer. Why? The cost and inability to take time off work are key reasons. Many working Americans in do not receive paid time off for holidays or vacations.

Time off from work for leisure is relatively new in human history. For most of human history, only the wealthiest could take time away from daily routines or afford to travel for leisure. Only with 19th century industrialization were a new middle class of workers earning enough to pay the expenses for a short vacation. Over time, those with white-collar jobs got at least one or two weeks of paid or unpaid vacation. Vacationing became a sign that one had achieved middle class status. But it was a luxury not typically available to working-class Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sadly, this is still true one hundred years later.

Vacation Primary Sources for the Classroom
Seneca Camera Ad, 1919
Vacations are promoted by advertisers in order to sell goods, services, and experiences. In this 1919 advertisement, readers are informed that a snapshot camera is needed to record and share a vacation.

Vacations required spending money – for transportation, accommodations, entertainments, vacation clothing, and equipment. Many primary sources from the 19th, 20th and 21st century promote vacation and vacation purchases. Student analysis of past and present advertisements and articles about vacation hones skills for historical critical analysis and those needed by modern informed consumers.

Snapshot cameras, first marketed in the early 1900s, were promoted as a vacation necessity.  Vacation photographs could be shown to friends and family and further promoted the idea of vacation and destinations in popular culture. Ask students to consider the impact of vacation snapshots on modern social media? What messages are conveyed about taking vacations? About where people should go and what they should do on vacations?

More Resources

More about vacation photographs in modern popular culture see The Tyranny of Other People’s Vacation Photos

More ideas about using vacations as a theme in the classroom see Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies