Minimalists in History: Cult of Domesticity

© 2013 Christy KIng

“The profession of ladies, to which the bent of their instruction should be turned, is that of daughters, wives, mothers, and mistresses of families.”

Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1830

The Cult of Domesticity was a value system popular among the upper and middle classes in the 19th Century.

While it had many tenets, the movement focused in part on the evils of materialism. Proponents saw a home life led by women as the best way to teach classical republican virtues, including moderation and simplicity.

You might wonder how this became the job of mothers. Fathers had long been the primary religious instructors, but they no longer had time as they began working away from the home for 60 hours a week.

Plus, mothers had fewer obligations than in the past. They tended to have fewer children and bought factory-made goods. Also, due to increased immigration, households were more likely to have servants.

“Let us not inoculate [children] with the love of money. It is the prevailing evil of our country.”

– Lydia Sigourney, 1838

Cult of Domesticity advocates believed that society must return to the virtues of classical republicanism, including a focus on morality, not material goods.

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, reminded readers that “there are objects more elevated, more worthy of pursuits than wealth.” She claimed, “We shall show the various economical and intellectual benefits of a just simplicity.”

It turned out that most women were more interested in finery and high society than in teaching and practicing simplicity, however.

If you’ve read my other posts on Minimalists on History, this will sound familiar. Time and again, efforts to build a society focused on virtue – rather than – materialism have failed.

Other tenets of the Cult of Domesticity

Many readers will cringe at some of the teachings of Cult of Domesticity. All women were to have 4 cardinal virtues: piety, purity, submission and domesticity.

Society expected them to focus only on running their households, rearing their children and caring for their husbands, not on their own happiness or careers.

In fact, some believe the real purpose of the Cult of Domesticity movement was to keep women at home so they wouldn’t take part in the women’s rights movement.

Learning More

The Cult of Domesticity is also known as the Cult of True Womanhood. I didn’t find any books about it at my library, but it is mentioned in The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture by David Shi.

The Cult of Domesticity Today

I’ve not read it, but in my research for this post I came across a book about domesticity today, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity.

It’s an interesting topic to me since I enjoy many of the domestic activities listed in the book, such as crafting, baking bread and making soap. I make time for friends and family and try to live more sustainably. I’m also a professional (a lawyer).

I wonder how many of the women living during the Cult of Domesticity were happy to spend their time on domestic pursuits and how many felt forced into the lifestyle. If you’re a history buff knowledgeable about this era, please chime in with a comment.

For purposes of this discussion, let’s ignore all the tenets of the Cult of Domesticity except domesticity and simplicity. I don’t want this to turn into a heated political discussion.

11 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: Cult of Domesticity

  1. Very interesting post, Christy. I tend to weave in and out of domestic pursuits, sometimes devouring cookbooks and whipping up all kinds of new recipes, and sometimes, when I’m busy with other things, the whole family eats cereal for dinner (they like this funny change of pace, actually!). We’re lucky indeed to live in a time when there is a choice for women to do such things!

    • I do the same thing actually, without the cereal. I go on huge cooking sprees and then get tired of it – but have so much in the freezer we just eat that! I agree that we are indeed lucky to have the options we do.

  2. To comment on my own post, Evelyn’s recent post The Difference Between Housekeeping and Homemaking ties into this discussion.

    She says: “I am committed to creating a nurturing home for my husband and children. It’s one of the biggest reasons I chose to stop working and be a mommy full time. I want our home to be safe, peaceful, beautiful, fun, full of laughter, good food, great memories, strong friendships. A place where truth thrives, bonds grow, love reigns, joy abounds. . . . As women and homemakers, our outlook sets the tone for the entire family. . . . I believe homemaking starts with a contented heart grounded in the Word of God, able to plant and grow and nurture right where she is.”

    I suspect the difference between life during the Cult of Domesticity and Evelyn’s life is the fact that Evelyn chose her lifestyle (note she says “I chose to stop working. . . .”) instead of being forced into it.

  3. Hi Christy,

    What an interesting post! I really am enjoying all the posts in this series! (This in spite of the fact that I am not a history buff.) Thanks for some very enjoyable reading.

  4. My grandmother was a “maverick” for lack of a better term. She hated the whole family-domesticity-thing and would have chosen to have no children (she was the eldest of 15 so she had had her fill of diapers and housework!) That said, she eded up with 6 anyway! Thank goodness the doctor’s office was filthy, or my mother would not be here . . . She was married to a drunkard and decided to leave him. This caused the nuns to call her a tramp and prostitute! She did what she had to, to survive; at one point separating her kids between various relations whilst she found a solution. She even bootlegged!

    She was not only my grandmother, but also my godmother and my hero. This woman was a survivor and did the necessary to care for her family; the result of which is my mother is a fabulous cook (as are her sisters) since she had to do so much of it while her mother was out working.

    I really try to be more for my family in the sense that I cook my meals, tend to my garden and various other “domestic duties”. There are not many around that I could share my experiences with as the street empties by nine o’clock with everyone off to work!

  5. You were right, the 4 cardinal virtues would never have worked with me. I have no first hand experience with what it was like to live in that period but do have the stories of my great grandmother who did live through that period. She was left widowed with 6 small children, my grandmother being only 3 at the time. She worked morning til night to provide for her family. Since women couldn’t work outside the home, she took in laundry for the local nuns which then had to be done by hand then ironed. My grandmother tells of having laundry hung all over the house in the winter and no where to sit besides the floor. My great-grandmother couldn’t survive just off the laundry, so she baked every day. Her children stood outside selling the baked good for her while she continued to labor away. Her children had to help with all the chores, including the laundry and baking as there just weren’t enough hours in the day.

    One thing I can tell you, as it is not a secret, is that my great-grandfather died of syphilis. It was common for the men to carry on with other women and the wives had to take it in stride. By the time I was born my great-grandmother had worked outside the home for many years and was in retirement. She was a strong-willed woman, one I can’t see putting up with a husband who ran around, so I would assume she wasn’t happy with the life she was required to live in that period..

    • Thanks for sharing your great-grandmother’s story. I know I would have not been happy either – my husband sometimes teases me that I’m lucky I wasn’t around even in the 1950s (much less the 1850s)!

      • Christy, tell your husband he’s lucky you weren’t born then either. 🙂 I think we are born into the time we were meant to be, and I for one couldn’t have been happy in a subservient role.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.