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Home and Work in Britain

Special Issue of Home Cultures


Volume 8, Issue 2, July 2011

Oxford: Berg. 100 pp. ISBN 978 1847889959. $57.98


Reviewed by Dr Claire Langhamer

University of Sussex



In this special issue of the journal Home Cultures, historians of different periods and approach explore the complexities and historical specificities of the home / work relationship in Britain. The collection has its roots in an interdisciplinary research symposium on histories of home and the resulting essays say much about the value of such interdisciplinary encounters in encouraging us to ‘see things differently’ [110]. While it does not provide a comprehensive survey of change over time, a ‘snapshot’ approach succeeds in establishing a new agenda for the study of home and in indicating continuing gaps. There are five substantive essays which run broadly from the seventeenth century until the twenty-first and these are complemented by an introduction, written by Jane Hamlett and Lesley Hoskins, which draws these diverse essays together admirably.

At the heart of the collective endeavour rests an acceptance that the boundaries between work and home have been, and remain, fluid. Understanding the relationship between home and work necessitates keen attention to the historically and culturally situated meanings given to these concepts. Did they, asks the introduction, actually exist as concepts for the people and places addressed here? This project of re-conceptualisation demands a wide evidential base and the sources showcased here include both prescriptive and experiential material drawn from the courts, the press, interviews, household accounts and architectural drawings. In each essay the complex ways in which different categories of historical actor inhabited and/or moved through actual houses is emphasised. So, for example, Lesley Hoskin’s meticulous use of death-duty inventories takes us directly into the professional male domesticity of Monmouthshire surgeon Thomas Felton, a bachelor whose ‘home’ was organised around ‘work’. It also allows us access to the material world of lodging-house keeper John Mabon, for whom business and home were ostensibly conflated, but who used the space available to him to maximise family privacy in the face of lodger intrusion. Hoskins concludes that the distinction between work and home was considerably messier within actual nineteenth-century lives than some have previously suggested.

The early modern contributions by Jane Whittle and Amanda Flather provide rich case studies of ‘pre-industrial’ working / domestic lives. Whittle, for example, reconstructs the households of a gentry family, a rural craftsman and a labouring thatcher to explore the social and physical make-up of households, and to examine the ways in which the work of household members was organised. While Whittle confirms a trend towards the spatial segregation of work activities within the home – a trend which found architectural expression in the move from ‘open’ to ‘closed’ housing – she suggests that labouring households stood outside of this move towards spatial specialisation. Moreover, the work of women and servants was by its very nature rooted in the domestic realm, undermining attempts to separate and ultimately remove work from home. Flather also points to the blurring of home and work within domestic space using a case study of the servant-keeping middling sort to explore spatial negotiation and social hierarchy. Eating and sleeping practices reflected but also operationalised social, age and gender hierarchies. These practices were not, however, set in stone. Rather they responded to changing context and, ultimately, household necessity.

Where this special excels is in making connections across time and this is nowhere better demonstrated than in the shift from Flather’s early modern servants, negotiating their sleeping quarters and place at table, to Lucy Delap’s modern middle-class women rejecting the moniker ‘housewife’ and resisting ‘servantless’ living. Delap takes the servant-story into the twentieth century, unsettling well-worn accounts of its demise in the face of ‘modernity’, showing instead that even when the numbers employed declined, servant-keeping aspirations remained. The late twentieth-century resurgence of service – albeit in the guise of au-pairs and cleaners – reflects continuity across time rather than a peculiarity of later modernity. Servant-keeping withstood the democratising and privatising pressures of twentieth-century home-life. Whilst some of Delap’s middle-class women rejected prescriptions of homemaking, Anne J. Kershan’s migrant wives were ostensibly defined by it. And yet this was not an identity that necessarily excluded forms of labour beyond housewifery and motherhood. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Jewish women migrating from Russia and Romania performed a wide range of home-work from dress-making to matchmaking. And yet such activity is hidden in the accounts of contemporaries, who saw ‘work’ only where they looked for it, chiefly outside of the home. Kershan demonstrates that home-work has retained its importance to migrant women in more recent times. The Bangladeshi and Pakistani home-workers she surveys experience work that is low paid and largely invisible. Just like housewifery and childcare, home-based employment can lack boundaries of time and space, expanding to fill the available space.  

This diverse and richly eclectic collection succeeds in addressing a series of important themes in both the history of home and of work. The comparative perspective is particularly illuminating, tracing as it does the specificities of domestic experience across culture, time and place.


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