Advice discourses present a conundrum for historians, including design historians. Published advice has either been disregarded as inferior to unpublished sources such as letters or diaries or it has been misused as evidence of lived historical practice. Neither approach extracts the optimum value from advice sources as historical evidence. Building on this insight, my major project, Designing Domesticity, contributes an original and highly innovative interdisciplinary method for the use of didactic discourses (advice books) in the writing of design and cultural history.
I posit a new genre, domestic design advice, which brings together etiquette, homemaking and home decoration books. These three categories of published writing on the home complement one another as collectively they concern the social home and the material home, the fabric of the domestic space and the behaviours conducted within it. Domestic design advice is best read as a genre of real ideals, that is, combinations of image and text which collectively inform the way people designed, decorative and lived in their homes, or the way that they wanted to do so. Domestic design advice has been consumed in its own right, as a source of pleasure or entertainment aside from its application in real homes.
Designing Domesticity demonstrates how close reading using techniques of literary analysis can reveal the biases of domestic design advice along lines of class, gender and age. Advice which purports to assist a newly expanded middle class, women working unaided in the home, and teenagers seeking independence is shown under analysis to serve hegemonic forces based on economic advantage, gender and seniority.