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Domestic Labor: Excavating the Public Sphere

Excavating the Private Sphere

How is labor history understood differently when we “read the landscape” of the domestic and the everyday? How does this change whose stories get told?

When first introduced to the field of historical geography, we typically read the narratives of places that are big and spectacular: the Mississippi River, the American West, the city of Chicago, Interstate 80. The documents of these landscapes include magnificent feats of human engineering as well as the guarded papers of officialdom establishing land rights, air rights, profit rights. Such documents tell the histories of particular people in a particular place—stories of men, mainly, laboring freely in a public sphere created by them . . . and on their own behalf.

But what about places that are small, and insignificant, and private, and unofficial, and inconspicuous? What documents do we find there of a different story of work, of a different set of people?

It was with these questions, posed between layers of memoir and memory, that I embarked on a minor expedition: a pop-archaeology of my mother’s house. This landscape is tiny, mid-century, ranch, and brick—located on Spring Lane in the rural town of Delavan, Wisconsin. There I read the documents of her kitchen and her closets, her bookshelves and her basement. And I took photographs.

These artifacts reveal a woman and her work, circumscribed by the sphere of the private, of the domestic, of the rural, of the white, and of the working. Below, with their help, I try to tell her story.

Featured image: How to Clean Everything by Alma Chesnut Moore (Simon & Schuster, 1952). Photo by Sigrid Peterson, 2016. 

Sigrid Peterson is a graduate student in the Departments of Journalism and Mass Communication and Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also has an M.S. in Human Geography with subject expertise in feminist economic geographies, the social scientific study of interdisciplinarity, and the restructuring of public higher education. She loves images and text, especially together, and drawing cartoons. WebsiteContact.

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4 Comments

  1. Nora Boothby

    I loved this! Thank you!

  2. Philippa Bergmann

    wonderful! chest-swelling, truly moving work.

  3. Andrea Miller

    Fascinating. I remember some of the toys and other parts of the household from my mother’s house.

  4. David Macasaet

    Beautifully written and photographed. A poignant and significant work.

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