The American Family 1750-1870

By Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett

Abrams. 304 pp. $49.50

THE SUBTITLE of this handsome coffee-table book is somewhat misleading, for Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett writes therein less about American families from 1750 to 1870 than about the houses in which they resided and the chattels with which they furnished them. It is, she writes, a "period during which the American home exhibited both change and continuum," and continues:

"The stark, linear aspect of many 18th-century interiors softened into the Victorian as the poetic picturesque replaced the rational, and as the symbolic became as significant as the real. Possessions accumulated, rooms multiplied, pieces grew grander, and privacy was enhanced as the furnace in the basement and gas lighting encouraged the family to spread out through more rooms a greater part of the year in comfort. But privacy had been desired in 1750, and there are many other areas of comfort and discomfort that would not change radically until electricity and modern medicine separated the world of today from what Peter Laslett has called 'the world we have lost' and Robert Wells, 'the world we have escaped.' "

This is to say that At Home is about several interconnected yet discrete developments, most important among them the gradual evolution of the American house from a place of defense against nature's and man's hostile intrusions into a comfortable dwelling in which furnishings became a form of self-expression; the emergence of early conveniences, many having to do with heat and light, that foreshadowed the 20th century's great rush of modernization; and the mixture of relief and nostalgia with which we escaped this lost old world and entered our brave new one.

It is also, as cannot be stressed strongly enough, a book about the houses and apartments that were occupied by members of the middle and upper-middle classes, the latter in particular. Though Garrett makes gestures toward egalitarianism, citing from time to time living conditions in the residences of ordinary workers, readers cannot reasonably expect a vice president of Sotheby's and "well known . . . lecturer on 18th- and 19th-century fine and decorative arts and American social history" to cast her eye much beyond the boundaries of her expertise. More important, such documentary evidence about domestic life as has survived comes almost entirely from the relatively privileged classes, who were more likely to have kept inventories and diaries and to have commissioned portraits than those less affluent and more transient.

Say it for Garrett, though, that given these limitations of outlook and evidence, she has produced not merely a work of serious and revealing scholarship but also a book that resists virtually all temptations to sentimentalize the past. However much she may admire the trim houses of early America and the handsome pieces with which they were furnished, she is at pains to emphasize the less pleasant aspects of the good old days: the filth of the streets and the vile odors that permeated the air; the "nagging fear of fire {that} plagued all early Americans"; the scarcity of light for nocturnal reading and other indoor pursuits; the bitterness of winter cold, from which in many houses there was no retreat except bedcovers; the "herculean proportions" of the "biannual housecleaning of calendrical immutability," an event that left the women of the household exhausted; the pervasive presence of disease and the deaths of children that left families devastated.

It was a hard life, hardest of all for women. No doubt it is in deference to the current spirit of scholarly egalitarianism that Garrett bears down so firmly as she does on the physical and emotional price that women paid for domestic order and tranquillity, but this is also a matter of historical fact that too often in the past was overlooked or scanted. Indeed the best sections of her text are not those devoted to bedsteads and sofas, but those in which she depicts woman in her place:

"The cellar must be replenished with apples and late vegetables packed in sawdust or sand. Pigs had to be killed -- the worst job of the year, according to one housewife -- sausages made, and barrels of pork and ham put down. Pies were baked in quantity to be kept frozen in the storeroom, the garret, the guest chamber, or the closed-up parlor. Far into the 19th century, many housewives were obligated to spend cold fall days making soap and candles. Maria Stillman Church was relieved to be able to report on 22 January 1834 that she had 'now completed all the winter jobs of sausages, pork, putting down hams, making candles, & mince pies.' Once the family was provided with winter clothing and provender, the house must be outfitted. New England diaries portray the autumn ritual of banking or 'blocking up' the house with leaves or seaweed. Doors were battened, and windows sealed by papering, pasting, or covering them with baize."

On and on it goes, this catalogue of essentially thankless tasks that could not go unattended, lest the house fall into decay and its occupants suffer grievous harm. Life was hard and often ugly, which makes it all the more remarkable that so much beauty was created by those who lived it. Much of this has vanished, either literally or into the antique collections of the rich, but it comes back to life in the scores of illustrations with which At Home's text is supplemented. Many of these are family portraits; looking not at the faces of those represented but at the clothes they wear and the furnishings with which they are surrounded, Garrett is able to draw perceptive conclusions, as in an antebellum family tableau in which, as she notes, "didacticism was as much a part of the Victorian parlor as the luscious carpet that engulfed the floor or the lace curtains that fluttered at the windows."

That quotation is not from Garrett's main text but from the caption accompanying the illustration; this failure to interweave text and pictures is perhaps the book's chief shortcoming, as it forces the reader to leap back and forth between the two and thus to lose track of the text. Another flaw is the excessive enthusiasm with which Garrett quotes from primary sources; her text is so riddled with extracts from diaries and journals and other materials that at times the reader begs for a bit of simple descriptive prose devoid of quotation marks.

But the pictures are fine and so, on balance, is the text. At Home suffers only rarely from the turgid academicism that marks so much of the new "grass-roots" history; instead it is lively without being condescending, history written for the general reader without losing its serious purpose in the process. This makes it that genuine seasonal rarity, a gift book that is also a good book.