"JUST A HOUSEWIFE" The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America By Glenna Matthews Oxford. 281 pp. $19.95

THIS HOUSEHOLD Gibbon documents the rise and fall of the domestic empire. As all such books must, it explores two opposed themes. The presence of the second -- decline -- is unremarkable. The story of the entrapment of the woman by her housewifely duties, and by the culture of consumption, should be familiar to anyone who has followed the feminist polemic of the last 15, post-Friedan years. Women's rejection of their home-keeping roles, and their sortie into the marketplace, are historical facts -- more than half of American women now work outside the home. Few would argue that the cult of domesticity -- of the aproned little woman, waiting for her bread-winner -- is not something of the past, indeed, for most young women today, something of the ancient past. Of course, some would have women return to the kitchen, but the very vociferousness of advocates such as Phyllis Schlafly only underscores the magnitude of the change that has taken place.

But the by-now familiar picture of the decline of domesticity has a pendant that is less familiar, and it is the intriguing story of the ascendancy of the housewife in the American home that sets Glenna Matthews' original book apart. For it is her thesis that "while American women were relegated to a separate domestic sphere in 1850, it was a sphere that was central to the culture." She thus rejects the facile argument that women were simply trapped in their domestic roles, and suggests a more complex relationship between the home, the housewife, and society.

According to the author, the cult of the home that grew up during the first half of the 19th century was fueled by numerous sources. Religion emphasized the role of the family in the nurturing of children. Politics saw the home as the indispensable locale -- a moral beacon -- for the development of civic virtue among the citizens of what was still a new republic. In this spread-out and sparsely populated country, whose public institutions were not yet fully rooted, it was the little house on the prairie that became "a mainstay of the national culture." The moral authority of the housewife was also based on the material improvements that had taken place in the home. Matthews shows how American cuisine, for example, evolved considerably from the colonial period, and how, as diets became more varied, cooking and food preparation became more elaborate. This required more and better equipment -- she cites a Philadelphia hardware store that offered its customers 250 different kitchen tools -- but it also required a new expertise on the part of the housewife.

COOKERY, BAKING, preserving, sewing, needlework and the management of increasingly intricate houses demanded great skill, and it is one of the author's useful insights that she demonstrates how this "feminine craft tradition" not only contributed to women's authoritative position in the home, but also to their sense of self-importance. During the early 1900s, this craft tradition came under attack. In "Just A Housewife," the home economics movement comes in for a fair amount of criticism as one of the culprits. The home economists, "in order to establish their own profession as worthy . . . needed to denigrate the quality of housewifely competence." They were assisted in this by the rapid development of domestic technology, commercial food processing and the rise of industrialization, which all tended to undermine traditional domestic skills. At this point, it all begins to sound a little too much like a plot, as the author indulges in some fashionable bashing of business and consumerism. But plot or not, the home was fast losing its central position in American life. The automobile, and the movie house, had shifted the focus away from the home, especially for adolescents. The business of America was becoming business. The golden age of domesticity was over.

Glenna Matthews' purpose is to remind us that housewifery has a past -- an honorable past -- and that modern feminism, with which she is obviously in sympathy, needs to understand this history. In the preface, Matthews, who after raising a family returned to Stanford to acquire a doctorate, writes that "I think of my graduate school career as having provided intellectual capital upon which I will be able to draw for the rest of my life." Indeed, my only criticism is that, occasionally, self-conscious scholarship and the citing of secondary sources weigh down "Just A Housewife." But if the author has spent a little too much time in the library, she has also obviously spent time in the country -- in the home -- and her experience and good common sense enliven, and enrich, this valuable study. One looks forward to her next book.

Witold Rybczynski is the author of the recently-published "Home: A Short History of an Idea."