What 19th-Century Domestic Manuals Say about Housing as Infrastructure

windows on a red brick wall

This article on housing as public infrastructure is the fourth piece in the 2020 Visions: Imagining (Post-) COVID Worlds series, which aims to reflect on the uneven impacts of the “pandemic year” and to consider new futures that might be made possible in its wake. Series editors: Weishun Lu, Juniper Lewis, Richelle Wilson, and Addie Hopes.

As an environmental humanities scholar of nineteenth-century American literature, I am all too familiar with a major problem in my own field: that, as a group, we often remain solely focused on what we call (following the era’s own language) “Nature” with a capital “N.” This delineation defines Nature as that which exists beyond homes, beyond cities, out there, and, primarily, as a space of masculine exploration. This assumption not only shaped the fields within environmental humanities but also influenced public perceptions of what counts as “environment.”

The narrow conception of “environment” has excluded numerous other spaces worthy of study and attention, especially domestic environments. Since working from home has been and will likely be the new normal for many white-collar workers, our global society can no longer ignore the critical role domestic environments play in health and wellbeing. Looking back to nineteenth-century origins of the idea of “home environment,” this article seeks to answer the question: what could domestic manuals from nearly 200 years ago teach us about housing and its place in environmental and social justice today?

We are only as safe as the person breathing the most polluted air or with the least access to stable housing.

By focusing on what I term “environmental domesticity,” we can center our attention on some of the most common and well-traversed locales in literature and life: the home, the garden, the community park, the city street, and more. More importantly, broadening the category of “environment” to include “domesticity” illuminates the fact that overlooking these spaces equates to overlooking an essential piece of public prosperity. This is especially obvious in the era of COVID-19, when the home has become a vital space for survival and “waiting out the storm.” Privileged, housed individuals have felt the annoyance of pandemic restrictions that asked them to stay indoors. However, their health has been relatively secure, which is not always the case for persons experiencing houselessness, members of under-resourced communities, and lower-income families living in unsafe, underfunded, or over-exposed environments.

Drawings of women caring for children and tending the garden. Title page of American Woman's home
Title page of The American Woman’s Home, by Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The idea that the health and security of a home directly relates to the health and security of the greater public is not new, even if it is receiving newfound attention this past year. In the U.S., this concept is actually as old as the nation itself. Beginning with the concept of Republican Motherhood in the eighteenth century and continuing with the burgeoning field of domestic economy in the nineteenth century, homemakers have argued that one facet of domesticity is ensuring the health of the family. Indeed, according to sisters Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who co-authored a domestic treatise titled The American Woman’s Home: or, Principles of domestic science, “the first consideration” for female homemakers was “the health of the inmates” of the home, for their domestic impact was thought to extend beyond the bounds of the country house or city apartment and affect the wellbeing of the entire body politic.

For these domestic economists of the nineteenth-century United States, though, it was not just their actions as homemakers that affected the health of the nation, but their houses themselves. Domestic manuals from Lydia Maria Child’s 1829 American Frugal Housewife to Godey’s Lady’s Book (published from 1830-1878) to Edith Wharton’s 1897 The Decoration of Houses all highlight how the architecture and design of a house directly impacts the health of its inhabitants, who then go on to impact the health of the nation. In this way, female authors of nineteenth-century domestic manuals provide us with an early justification of housing as a category of critical health infrastructure that communities and governments should heed today.

One cannot invoke nineteenth-century domestic ideology, however, without acknowledging its inherent classist and racist forms of gatekeeping that excluded anyone who did not fit the stereotypically white, upper/middle-class domestic mold. In fact, racial difference was used to define domestic ideology itself; as Hazel Carby notes, “existing outside the definition of true womanhood, black female sexuality was nevertheless used to define what those boundaries were.” In villainizing black women, white female domesticity became further instantiated as the dominant culture.

Since nineteenth-century domesticity overlaps with white femininity and white feminism, scholars like Carla Peterson and Frances Smith Foster make clear that we cannot conceptualize “the domestic sphere of black society . . . in the same way as that of the dominant culture” and that any feminist overtones in nineteenth-century domestic ideology were not intersectional (that is, they overlooked how race and gender might operate together). As such, they did not constitute a domestic “sisterhood” between white and BIPOC women. The early feminist grappling with environmental health concerns that we see in domestic manuals and treatises thus stems from a white feminist interest in health that was not always humanitarian in intention. 

Nineteenth-century domestic manuals portray individual houses and homemaking efforts as a small but essential part of public infrastructure.

This exclusionary impulse holds equally true of the classist gatekeeping intrinsic to nineteenth-century domestic ideology. As Amy Kaplan has famously asserted, domesticity was not only an ideology in the nineteenth century, but a project, “which entail[ed] conquering and taming the wild, the natural, the alien.” In this sense the nineteenth-century home was akin to the imperialist nation, for both drew boundaries between the “domestic” and the “foreign” and sought to bring the outside, uncivilized, and wild forces in through (often violent) processes of domestication and amalgamation.

The ideology of domestication is especially obvious in the labor performed by so-called “domestics” or “domestic servants,” who were ironically made up of largely foreign workers. Through the process of working within the homes of wealthier Anglo-American families, such workers became “domesticated,” but were continually otherized through unequal pay, poor living conditions, and a lack of civil liberties. Nineteenth-century homemakers also described such laborers as unhealthy, uncouth, and unclean—a sentiment that extended beyond the nineteenth century, gained traction in twentieth-century eugenicist movements, and is still present in racist and classist immigration and housing policies and continued factions of ethnonationalists and ecofascists in the U.S. today.     

Floor plan of a house
The ground floor plan of the house design in Beecher and Stowe’s domestic treatise indicates the “fresh air” flow through the front entrance and around the chimney/stairs. Courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections.

Even with their history of inequality and exclusion, nineteenth-century domestic economists did understand one thing as being both universal and a common concern: air. Just like those of us who have taken an interest in improving the designs of indoor spaces during COVID-19, nineteenth-century homemakers were particularly concerned with air quality, air flow, and ventilation. As Melanie Kiechle elucidates, even before a full understanding of germ theory and airborne diseases, nineteenth-century Americans relied on airborne odors to alert them to insalubrious, noxious, or effluvious air and employed numerous methods and contraptions to protect themselves. Ventilation, then, was the obsession of domestic economists at the time, as they knew that the air flow in their homes, schools, hospitals, and streets would go on to affect family, community, and national health. 

Because air obeys no borders, private homes became just as public as schools, hospitals, or streets to health-minded nineteenth-century domestic economists, functioning as a subset of greater municipal infrastructure. According to Beecher and Stowe, “the first and most indispensable requisite for health is pure air, both day and night.” They go on in their chapter “Scientific Domestic Ventilation”—aptly titled as it bridges concerns of the home with those of the science of health—to explain that “wise women” are especially needed for house design, “for, owing to the ignorance of architects, house-builders, and men in general, they have been building school-houses, dwelling-houses, churches, and colleges, with the most absurd and senseless contrivances for ventilation, and all from not applying [the] simple principle of science.”

The message in Beecher and Stowe’s chapter is clear: because female domestic economists were more familiar with their domestic environs, they were better suited for the job of designing houses and ensuring healthful ventilation than their professional, male counterparts. Providing pure air for indoor environments became the responsibility of female homemakers, who would protect the well-being of the public by designing and altering their private residences. In this sense, nineteenth-century domestic manuals actually portray individual houses and homemaking efforts as a small but essential part of public infrastructure.

Drawing of a ventilation device made of many pipes. Air flow was an important part of safe housing infrastructure.
A home ventilation method from Beecher and Stowe’s treatise. Courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections.

Nineteenth-century domestic economists also recognized the need for broader public intervention. Even though the Public Works Administration Housing Division did not come into being until 1933 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, women writers and philanthropists were calling for greater oversight of housing and building ventilation as early as the nineteenth century. In the article “Air and Ventilation,” an author at Godey’s Lady’s Book writes: “Pure air is so necessary to life, health, and comfort,—more necessary, indeed, than food itself . . . that to insure it in every house occupied by the poor, in every factory, workhouse, hospital, or other building made to receive numbers, seems a primary and imperative duty.” Home infrastructure and ventilation should not solely be the responsibility of individual homeowners and dwellers, this author claims, but are rather public issues and therefore a public responsibility. Many female philanthropists took this to heart, including Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr when founding Hull-House (a settlement for new immigrants from Europe) in Chicago in 1889. Nevertheless, widespread government intervention was and, in many cases, is yet to come. 

One may claim that our modern-day public housing infrastructures now meet these demands, but the effects of COVID-19 have given the lie to this boast. In March, senator Bernie Sanders said that what the COVID-crisis was beginning to teach us is that “we are only as safe as the least insured person in America.” However, we can change that phrase to reflect the multiple infrastructural and environmental oversights and failings in the U.S. that have made the pandemic more dangerous. We may only be as safe as, for example, the person breathing the most polluted air, drinking the least clean water, or with the least access to stable housing.

What COVID-19 has revealed are those categories of infrastructure that we have been underfunding, undervaluing, or even refusing to consider “infrastructure” at all. Even in the rollout of his new $2 trillion infrastructure plan, President Biden veiled his administration’s commitment to human infrastructure, initially touting it as primarily a jobs and transportation plan. As President Biden and his team undoubtedly recognize, infrastructures of movement and production tend to fit better into the U.S.’s competitive ethos than infrastructures of home and caretaking. 

A chart showing a breakdown of Biden's American Jobs Plan: housing as infrastructure; transportation infrastructure; workforce, and caretaking economy
A breakdown of the American Jobs Plan (April 2021). Image by Matthew Yglesias, 2021. Click image to enlarge.

However, the fact that roughly half of the American Jobs Plan’s budget is allocated to housing and health suggests that COVID-19 is finally revealing the shortcomings of previously narrow definitions of infrastructure. Indeed, the pandemic is forcing the global community to analyze the cracks and gaps not only in pipes and foundations, but in infrastructure policy itself. In his 2014 essay “Rethinking Repair,”  Steven J. Jackson states that “worlds of maintenance and repair and the instances of breakdown that occasion them are not separate or alternative to innovation, but sites for some of its most interesting and consequential operations.” If we apply Jackson’s hopeful approach to “Broken World Thinking” to our current environmental and global health crisis and view repair with a sense of wonder, we can begin to see housing as a part of health and environmental infrastructure, and one that requires much more attention that it currently receives. 

Thankfully, scholars have already begun to pay more attention to infrastructures affected by the current pandemic, as evidenced by the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s report titled “The Value of Inclusive Infrastructure in a Post-Coronavirus World.” The report notes what we should have already known: that the most vulnerable populations worldwide have been the hardest hit by COVID-19 and that “resilient” and “inclusive” infrastructure is necessary to keep the whole of society functioning in the face of crises.

In the U.S. specifically, the COVID crisis has brought environmental and infrastructural racism back into public attention as populations breathing higher levels of polluted air have been found more likely to face hospitalizations and death from COVID-19. This is especially true of those living in homes that aren’t connected to a power grid (thus necessitating the use of wood-burning stoves or propane tanks) or dealing with the effects of structural racism (and therefore suffering from less access to safe housing, public transportation, health resources, fresh foods, and clean air).

COVID-19 has revealed those categories of infrastructure that we have been underfunding, undervaluing, or even refusing to consider “infrastructure” at all.

When it comes to the air we all breathe, any associated infrastructure is necessarily inclusive, whether we choose to see it that way or not. As Brooke Jarvis phrases it, “our very breath ties us to one another and to the world around us.” This year, she writes, “the air had never felt so communal, nor these vessels of ours which contain it so frail.” The word “vessels” here refers to human lungs affected by COVID-19, but homes, offices, and indoor spaces have also all acted as containment vessels for communal air this past year. These typically private environments are, in fact, more public than many ever realized. If we let it, this time of emergency can push us all to build on the work of nineteenth-century domestics and elevate the visibility, necessity, and essential nature of domestic space as a public and environmental concern.

As invested global citizens, we can call on governments, companies, and communities to provide everyone with free, easy access to breathable air, drinkable water, reliable HVAC systems, and more. Whether we call it “inclusive infrastructure,” “social infrastructure,” or “human infrastructure,” we must recognize what home-laborers have known for centuries: that adequate housing is a crucial piece of community, national, and environmental health, and it is time to invest the time and money necessary to make it a reality.

Featured image: Windows in a nondescript brick building, with small ventilation devices in the corners of the window frames. A visual reminder that housing is infrastructure. Photo by Tom Magliery, 2015.

Leah Marie Becker is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work considers nineteenth-century American domesticity as a subset of the environmental humanities and links what she calls “environmental domesticity” to current fascinations with “green” consumption and goods. She loves to cook, bake, and play with her Scottish Terrier, MacDougal. Twitter. Contact.