The Wives of Woodville


Jeffrey F. Durgee, Morris B. Holbrook, and Melanie Wallendorf (1991) ,"The Wives of Woodville", in SV - Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey, eds. Russell Belk, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 167-177.

Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey, 1991     Pages 167-177


Jeffrey F. Durgee

Morris B. Holbrook

Melanie Wallendorf


Several days of the Consumer Behavior Odyssey project were spent in Woodville, New York. Woodville is a suburb of an old, small manufacturing town in the New York countryside. It is large and quite wealthy, in spite of the small size and blue collar heritage of the town it adjoins. Like the Buena Vista suburb next to Winston-Salem, N. C. and the town of Saratoga near Albany, N.Y., it appears to be a place where wealthy people have chosen to live for many years, even though their money and financial holdings might be elsewhere. The homes are predominantly old (mainly built in the twenties and fifties), large, and bordered by lush grounds, trees, and broad boulevards. Although certainly its citizens have individual identities, nonetheless it is the type of suburb that has a relatively homogeneous population of well-educated homeowners who enjoy an upper-middle class lifestyle (Baumgartner 1988).

Woodville provided the Consumer Behavior Odyssey project an opportunity to explore the lives and lifestyles of a growing population segment, the female heads of households of upper-middle class families. These women are interesting for at least four reasons. 1) They make up what practitioners call "New Traditionalists" (Ad Age 1989). Whether or not they are employed outside the home, they place primary importance on their children's welfare; their activities follow decisions about residential location that are based on their husbands' careers; and they tend to make many of their consumption decisions based on traditional criteria, e.g., classic furniture designs, joint husband-wife decision making, and careful planning for the future. 2) The wives of Woodville adhere to a narrowly defined consumption ethic, sometimes labeled "preppy", "WASP" (Baltzell 1964) or "old money', whether or not they actually attended prep schools or are of wealthy Anglo-Saxon Protestant backgrounds. This, then, is a consumption ethic that may or may not completely derive from demographic or socio-economic roots. This consumption ethic is interesting not only because it is so tightly defined, but also because it is widely imitated and adopted as evidenced by the success of dozens of catalogs and other marketers including Orvis, J. Crew, Izod, L.L. Bean, Ralph Lauren, Talbots, and Brooks Brothers. 3) To many people, the consumption lifestyle of the wives of Woodville represents the American dream: large homes that are carefully decorated, more than adequate financial resources, country clubs, late model cars, coastal vacations, prestigious neighborhoods, and a wide range of sports and arts lessons for their children. 4) Their location in Woodville constrains their lifestyles insofar as they are limited primarily to shopping in Woodville and to interacting with each other. Unlike the wealthy suburbs that serve Manhattan and Chicago, Woodville's location constrains its residents to spend the vast majority of their time and energies in Woodville. Despite exposure to mass media and travel, the result is a culture that is isolated and self-contained in ways that are important for consumption.

The Consumer Behavior Odyssey researchers interviewed five women who live in Woodville. All are married, and all were interviewed in their homes. Four are Baby-Boomers between the ages of 30 and 40, and one is in her seventies. All but one of the younger women were re-interviewed by the authors a year after the Consumer Behavior Odyssey in order to track changes and new developments in their lives. The women are not independent of each other. The oldest woman, Valerie was the mother of one of the younger informants, Martha. Martha, in turn, was a friend or fellow Junior League member of the three remaining informants, Cindy, Shirley, and Nan. Also, Martha had worked or otherwise consulted as an interior decorator for Cindy, Shirley, and Nan, as well as for her mother Valerie. Martha arranged the interviews with the other women and therefore was central to this research in several ways. Not only was she the carrier and embodiment of old Woodville values from her mother, she was also a key gatekeeper and prescriber of traditional decorator values to her friends. The chart below summarizes the women and their relationships to each other.


The following sections describe the lives and homes of each woman.


During the initial interview, Valerie sits on the flagstone patio in her back garden wearing a white dress and confines much of her talk to her house and family. She and her husband Al live in a large stone and wood house built in the 50's. The landscaping is lush and mature, and everything in and around the house is spotless. Valerie and her husband have added onto it many times. As she says, "it has been a constant doing". They changed a two-car garage into a three-car garage and enlarged the master bedroom suite and its bathroom. In 1957, they revamped the den by tearing out closets and building bookcases. Recently, Valerie says that they redid the upstairs so they could have a bigger closet for her husband, Al. Al was tired of moving his clothes from one closet to another each time the season changed. Now his clothes are all in his large, new, cedar-lined closet. The renovation was troublesome, Valerie says, but adds that the compensation is (to her) the big new bathroom they added to supplement the existing master suite bathroom. The new bathroom and closets are described in fieldnotes as follows:

A shock awaits in the form of an immense bathroom done in mauve with fabulous fixtures by Kohler including a bidet and sink counter stacked with big perfume bottles. I photograph the perfectly hung purple towels and jealously regard the arrays of storage space... Behind a mirrored door is Al's closet, which he has designed himself and which features a long double row of handing garments and ... tall, vertical columns of neatly stacked footwear... The whole place looks as if someone has spent two weeks scrubbing it.

The notes also describe a recent kitchen remodelling as well as changes in the master bedroom brought about by the bathroom remodelling.

I soon move into the spanking new kitchen. Here, everything matches in a festival of grey with white piping around the edges - including the refrigerator, dishwasher, and gigantic ice machine. I sneak upstairs .. (and)... immediately encounter a magnificent bedroom with everything put neatly away and hardly any signs of habitation except a stack of magazines topped by "Architectural Digest" and a copy of William F. Buckley's latest spy novel. ... (I find that )..symmetry greets me at every turn. The bed is flanked by two identical lamps and by two wallpaper-disguised doors on each side, with a double curve of small pictures hung carefully above it and flowery bedspread that perfectly matches the wallpaper".

This domestic environment has been made possible by Al's success in the novelty chocolate candy company he started many years ago. Valerie sees him as an innovator in his creation of characters of bunnies and ducks. He developed new molds for making hollow chocolates and added character to the animals. She says, "if I may be so bold. my husband was a pacesetter". However, business and home are kept separate; the only overt indication of the family business in the house is a framed picture of the family ocean cruiser, "Easter Egg'.

In addition to her daughter, Valerie has two grown sons. The eldest, who has now taken over his father's position in the candy business, lives nearby. He is divorced and has one daughter, age 11, who lives nearby with her mother. Valerie is saddened that she doesn't get to see her granddaughter now as often as she did prior to the divorce. She doesn't feel that she can just drop in for a visit at the house where her ex-daughter- in-law and granddaughter live. Now Valerie only gets to see her granddaughter when she visits her father.

Her second son lives in Texas and does not have any children. Martha, her daughter, lives nearby and has one daughter, age 3. This child, therefore, is the only grandchild with whom Valerie has frequent contact. Thus, although large enough for all of her children and their progeny, Valerie's home is seldom filled with the entire extended family.

Valerie's nurturant mothering extends to plants as well. Her backyard features flowers including marigolds to keep the rabbits away; her dining room contains some lush rubber plants that she prides herself on propagating.

Valerie and her husband also own a horse farm about 30 miles away. They have a large stone home there, as well as a small house for a caretaker who looks after their three horses. Valerie calls the youngest horses her "babies". Although she thinks it is good for them to ride, she is concerned when her children and grandchildren ride. She is especially protective of her grandchildren, and worries much more when the I I-year-old rides than when her daughter Martha used to ride as a child.

Al and Valerie also own a condominium in Florida where they spend the winter now that Al is retired. However, they only go there after Christmas, preferring to spend the holiday with as many children and grandchildren present as possible in the New York house that has served as their primary family home all of these years. Valerie acknowledges that she and Al do not need all of the space of this house, but she wants to keep it for the times when the children come home for the holidays.

While she enjoys planning and making changes to the house, she adds that there are some serious pitfalls to undertaking major changes. One accident during a recent project, she said, 'bothered her to death". A box containing some framed clay pieces showing the children's hand prints when they were in kindergarten was lost. She calls it "a box of the children's hands," and clearly feels terrible about the loss. In contrast to her matter-of-fact description of the numerous display cases of valuable ceramics, crystal, and silver, she is almost in tears while describing these mementos, and says it "is a sentimental thing".


Valerie's daughter, Martha, is in her midthirties and lives in a large, colonial-style house with her husband who is a successful attorney and her 3-year-old daughter. At the time of the initial interview, she is pregnant with a second child. She formerly worked in New York City in sales for a large office equipment corporation, but decided that she didn't want to be in middle management all her life and would rather work for herself. Once, during a sales training program, she got to spend a day in a design center, and felt it was "the most exciting day of her life". In order to make a career change, she got a degree from Parsons in design, and established her own design business, initially in the city and then in Woodville after she was divorced from her first husband. She currently runs her design business out of an office in her basement. About half of her design work is commercial. She feels that commercial work is very different from residential interior design work, which she also does. She prefers commercial work because of the license given to her on such jobs. In doing residential interior design work, she often encounters women who think that they are natural decorators and just want her for a second opinion. However, those who hire her for commercial jobs are more likely to just turn the job over to her. She claims that what she says "goes nine times out of ten."

Both Martha and her husband were married previously. One of the primary reasons why Martha divorced her first husband was that he did not want children. Martha has a three-year old daughter by her current husband, and is expecting a second child at the time of the initial interview. In addition, Martha's husband's 10-year-old daughter from his former marriage lives in the area and visits weekly. The house is large enough for each child to have a bedroom of her own.

During the interview, Martha wears a white and pink-striped maternity sun dress, matching lipstick, necklace, earrings, silver headband, and blue eye makeup. The interview was held on the back deck of her house, where her outfit was a colorful complement to the late-summer deep-green lushness of the heavily fertilized and watered lawn and the pink-flowering planting beds and window boxes.

The house is a somewhat eclectic mixture of traditional and contemporary styles. Martha sees this as reflecting the house's as well as her own personality. As she says, the house is "schizophrenic. ... The front is formal, the back is contemporary, where we live. I have a split personality, so the house is that way'. In fact, much of the front of the house is sparsely furnished. She says they moved much of the furniture from the living room to the family room. The television is in the family room, and she does not want the children in the living room. That way, she says, "it is presentable if I have an evening meeting or if someone stops by." She adds that toys - and even children - are not allowed in the living room: "It is nice to have one room that is not destroyed by your children."

In decorating her house, Martha has conformed to the wishes of others, especially her husband, who hates her favorite lavenders and purples and insists on blue and grey. In other respects, he has supported her decorating business (unlike her first husband), while her dad has also encouraged her entrepreneurial flair (which she learned from him). Her mother has served as a role model for many of her decorating activities. For example, Martha's living room features a coffee table modeled on one her mom owned, a highboy made from walnut grown on the family's farm, and the baby grand piano that she played as a child. These family heirlooms give the room a very special quality for her, in spite of its relative emptiness.

Both Martha and her husband love dogs, but he is allergic to them, so they have only a large stuffed dog in the family room. He is also allergic to horses, so she does not often take him to her parents' horse farm. She has some plants, but does not have time to take care of them. In her own home, therefore, and in the homes she designs, she uses a lot of artificial flowers and plants, chiefly made from silk. She loves real flowers, but can't afford them. She knew some people in New York who had fresh flowers delivered to them every week. She thought that was wonderfully luxurious, although expensive. She detests plastic flowers. Her love of flowers extends to the numerous floral patterns on sofas and draperies throughout the house.

She and her husband hope to move into a house they can design themselves. She says, however, that her parents would hate to see her move. Living near them, she is not as independent as she could be. Her mother sees any change she makes in her house. She tries to break away from being a good daughter, but she can't toss that aside because she wants to make her mother happy. She says that she is the kind of person who focuses on pleasing other people rather than pleasing herself. She said that she especially likes to entertain, and can cook and serve dinners in her home for forty people. This skill and interest was reflected in dinners she prepared for us on our interview trips, assembled despite her work and family obligations.

When Martha was re-interviewed a year later, some major changes had occurred. She had given birth to a second daughter, and her mother-in-law had died. Of the two changes, the birth of the new daughter seemed more impactful. She said that the effect of a second child was "crippling'. For example, she had a difficult time taking both children to the grocery store, and had to hire a sitter on days when she drove her older daughter to her school.

Another change that had occurred in the year was that Martha and her husband had bought land for a new, modern house. During our second interview visit, they proudly showed us the plans and explained their dreams. The house was to be made of grey fieldstone and glass, because "that (combination) ties together the combination of traditional and modem furniture". The new house was also to have a toy room for the girls, and would be surrounded by a lot of open space.


Cindy is 39 and lives with her husband and two children (6-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl) in a large 3-story stone home built in the 1920's. She and her daughter wear white shorts and matching red Polo tennis shirts during the initial interview.

The family has lived in the house for only a year. Cindy notes that they are 1~renovating" it - as opposed to remodelling or redecorating (although she has had extensive help in decorating from Martha Keeler). She does not want to modernize it. She wants a traditional style, particularly on the first floor, with the possible exception of the family room. She isn't really sure what she is going to do with the bedrooms, because it will be several years before she gets to them.

While she prefers old houses, her husband does not. He is an engineer, and did not think it would be sensible to buy an old house. in some ways, he is correct, she says, because the house has become like the house in the movie, "The Money Pit"; that is, it has required a lot of time and money already. They do not do all the restoration work themselves. That would be "monumental". Neither of them has that much time; her husband's job takes much of his time and she is very busy as a volunteer for a local women's health services clinic. While the initial interview was being conducted, two workmen were outside, painstakingly burning and scraping paint off the hundreds of small window mullions which a previous owner had wrongly painted with oil base paint.

Their first priority of areas to work on was the first floor. Most of the work so far has been cosmetic, such as wallpapering and paint. It used to be flashy and dark, but she changed it to be airy and open. As was also true in Martha's house, the living room is off limits to toys and children. She would like to have Chinese rugs on the light-stained oak floors, but currently she only has one which is in the living room. It will be a while before they get any others. She thinks that many people would have wanted to redo the kitchen, but she loves it the way it is.

She speaks of the house in a deferential and solemn way. It is infrequent that one of these older mansions on a broad boulevard comes up for sale, so she feels "fortunate to have acquired the property". As she says, "the house commands elegance". She is "thrilled to have the honor to be living in this house. ... It is really grand". 'Me other women also refer to this house as a "grand" house.

Her husband's engineering and electronic interests mean that they have a VCR and computer equipment. Because she doesn't like the way these things look, she would prefer in time to have them hidden away in nice built-in cabinets that go with the style of the house.

She and her husband moved into this house from a 15-year old split level. She has some old furniture from her grandmother which, she says, "looks much better in this house than the last one". She grew up, however, in a large three story house, which was older, but not as grand as this one. Her grandparents and uncle lived on the first floor, and her family had the top two floors. Her husband, in contrast, grew up in a very modem house.

At earlier points in her life, she liked a more rustic and country style. But that type of furniture does not suit a house of this "stature", so she got rid of those things. Fifteen years ago she would not have wanted wing chairs, but now she just loves them. She is not counting on this taste changing.

Later in the interview, while she was fixing lunch for the children, she talked about the house and all the children's activities - and realized that she had taken on quite a lot. Caring for the house, the gardens, the pool, the carriage house, and her husband, she says, is overwhelming. When the interviewer asked what she did for herself, she paused and appeared to be ready to start crying. She intends, however. to go back to school, and get a degree in social work.

By the time of the second interview, the exterior work of refinishing windows and painting shutters was complete. She discussed the difficulties she and her husband encountered in trying to decide on a color for the exterior trim. 717hey simply could not agree, until one day she came up with a wonderful idea and phoned him at work to suggest a color (white). They were quite proud of the result and were pleased to be finished with the mess and invasiveness of workmen.


Nan is also in her thirties and is married to an engineer. Her husband is president of a plastics company owned by his father. They live in a large, new (less than one year old) colonial home on a large, treeless lot in a development of similar new colonials. During the interview, Nan wears a blue and white maternity dress (she is six months pregnant), pearl necklace, and has a short, pageboy haircut similar to that of Valerie Parks. She has a two and one-half year old son, and would like one or possibly two more children. She was originally from Connecticut, although her husband was from Woodville. She taught elementary school French and then worked in college admissions, but is not currently employed. She does volunteer work at a shop (not to be called an outlet since that has a different meaning to her) which sells handcrafted items on consignment for elderly people. She met her husband through mutual friends while they were both working in Boston. She plays golf as does her husband. His interest, she says, is much more on the golf course than at working on projects around the house. In decorating the house, she wanted to use a decorator, but decided against Martha Keeler. They were friends and are both members of Junior League, and she thought that hiring Martha as a decorator might impair the friendship. The decorator she chose, however, selected some patterns and colors that were too bold for her. A floral pattern recommended by the decorator for wallcovering in the first-floor powder room had bright colors and big patterns, and she felt that, "it was too much of a jolt". The pattern she finally selected was a Williamsburg pattern that was more subdued with smaller flowers. She says that dramatic style appeals to her but she wouldn't want to live with it.

She describes her house and interiors as "traditional", and explains that a traditional style is comfortable, homey, inviting, warm and safe. Some contemporary homes, in contrast, do not look inviting and warm. Her husband likes contemporary styles and, if given a choice, would opt for a contemporary interior.

As one researcher notes about the house and interior:

Everything in this house has the feeling of being new. Everything smells new, clean, and freshly painted. Doors stick because of the new paint whose odor permeates the house. Ihis new smell contrasts with the visual impression of the traditional decor. The older objects -books, photos of family members - are lost in this ocean of newness.

The cleanliness in the house is even present in the fireplace, which shows no signs of ever having a fire.

Thus far, Nan and her husband have decorated only the first floor. For this reason, and in order to not disturb her son who is taking a nap, she asks that we not go upstairs. This was the only restriction on access we encountered in any of the homes. She says that she has a long way to go before the house will be done.

Her son's toys are mostly kept in the family room. He is not allowed in the living room. 'Mat way she can have figurines and other things sitting out in there and not have them broken. Many of her ceramics and other figurines are shaped like rabbits. She admits that her nickname is "Bunny', and that she has a large collection of bunny figures throughout the house. She got the nickname in college. She jokes that it was because of her teeth, but also joked that it might be because she looked like a "Playboy"bunny.


Shirley is 40 and lives with her husband and two boys in a development of large new homes. This development, like Nan's, lacks large trees, but aspires to reforestation as evidenced by the number of young saplings. The houses are much closer together, and suggest more of a mix of traditional and contemporary house styles. Her husband is a senior engineer with a local battery company.

For the interview, she wears a sun dress and has no makeup. She has short cropped hair and a dark sun tan. She has her summers free, she says, because she works as a speech pathologist in the school system. They have been in the home for four years, moving to Woodville from Illinois.

The house is wide open. Although it is a hot, muggy day, the air conditioning is not on, and it seems as though all the doors and windows are open. The interview is conducted on a deck next to the family room which also opens to the outside. Shirley says she loves the out-of-doors, and enjoys spending much of her time on the back deck.

The house is full of craft items and antiques. Shirley calls it a "country" look, and is very proud of it. Many items, including figurines, pot holders, and wall hangings repeat similar design motifs: hearts, ducks, flowers, wreaths, and alphabet letters. She says that country style seems more back to nature, more natural. informal, and more comfortable. Country style, she says, is a style she has adopted over time, having begun with a more traditional decorating style. The family room and kitchen are all "countrified", she says, and she is considering changing the living room to a more country style. She does not have the time to learn about antiques and how to refinish them, so she pretty much has to buy them in good shape.

Recently, she bought a pine tramp's cupboard and hung it over her desk in the kitchen. This is an unusual thing to do with it, but she likes it there. Most people would sit it on the floor. It is called this because tramps made it out of old pine boards which don't fit together well.

A large sampler, a special gift made and given to her by her grandmother, has been framed and hung in the dining room. It has this poem on it:

"Give me a house to call my own

Family and friends to make it a home

Love and kindness that ne'er will depart

Enough to fill a thankful heart"

When she was married, Shirley received china, silver and crystal as wedding gifts. But now she prefers a more informal entertaining style. They never use the living room, and when they eat in the dining room, it is usually casual, buffet style. She prefers eating and entertaining outside on the deck. She sees china, crystal and silver as things that just make work for you, "Why make all that work for yourself?" Although she grew up in a home which emphasized traditional, formal styles, she first saw antiques in the home of a girlfriend in elementary school. She always felt comfortable in that house. She is particularly fond of a recently-purchased braided rug: "it looks old. the colors look muted, it doesn't grab you." Her identification with this style is a close one. She says that antiques and country style have always been in her; she hasn't had to learn to like it or learn about it. It comes from in her. (At that moment in the interview she touches her hand over her left breast, over her heart).

In the initial interview - and later, in a second interview after a year - she describes that she is not very close with her neighbors. She says she has been snubbed because she is not interested in spending her time going to others' homes for coffee. She likes friends but doesn't want them in her house all the time. She has too many other things she likes to do. She says that she has friends but that she doesn't need a lot of people.

Some changes have taken place in Shirley's house by the time of the second interview. Most notably, a new addition has been constructed on the back of the house, enlarging the family room. The enlarged family room (new and old spaces together) has been wallpapered in a pattern that continues Shirley's love of duck and heart patterns. The entire space has been "countrified" using primarily pieces that were purchased new and manufactured to incorporate a country style.


As suggested earlier, all of these women employ roughly the same consumption ethic or style. Oddly, the won-ten of Woodville seem to be the upholders and keepers of this style. Their husbands seem to prefer more modern styles, and generally seem more oriented toward contemporary homes and new technologies: home computers, VCRs, and compact disc players. While Martha obviously grew up in an affluent setting, Cindy, Bev and Nan appear to have grown up in more middleclass surroundings. To them, it might be that the Woodville lifestyle is a goal which, once achieved, is held onto tightly. While their husbands (who mainly grew up in Woodville), might want to 'break away' to a more contemporary style, they do not.

Several themes were identified as part of the Woodville lifestyle. These themes are examined below.


In spite of the multitude of women's lifestyles that have emerged in the last twenty years - including childfree, working single, parents without partners, professional career - these women of Woodville lead very conservative lifestyles. All of the women have children as well as husbands who work at full time jobs. All are the primary caretakers of their children and their homes. Despite their affluence, none of the women has live-in household help, a pattern true of at least 90% of Americans since 1940. Their work activities are also conservative: they either do volunteer work but are not gainfully employed outside the home (Valerie, Nan, and Cindy); work out of rather than outside of the home (as with Martha's design business); or are employed in a job that fits with their children's school schedules (Shirley's job as a school speech pathologist). Their volunteer work as well as their career fields preserve traditional roles for women, such as nurturer of children (school speech pathologist, elementary school French teacher), nest builder (interior decorator), protector of health (volunteer work for the women's health clinic), and caregiver for the elderly (Nan's volunteer work at the craft store). Like the volunteers studied by Daniels (1988), their primary energies and time are invested in their children and their homes, followed by their community-based caregiving through their volunteer work. They have the financial resources to live this way, and use home and interior planning to express drives and needs that otherwise might have been expressed in full-time careers. In crafting these role s for themselves, they can be viewed as reconstructing women's traditional roles from the past in new ways (that are not really so new) in the present.

In buying and selecting items for their homes, a key criterion is that the items look old, but not necessarily "used". For the most part they have not inherited many antiques or heirlooms, but rather buy things that look old. Whether "country" or "traditional" in style, their purchases reflect a nostalgic image of the past that they are reconstructing in the present (Davis 1979). They prefer that the new technologies in their homes must fit in context with the old; for instance, VCR's are best hidden behind traditional styled cabinets.

In part, this is an economic decision. Classic designs supposedly never go out of style and never have to be replaced. This decision, however, is largely emotional and rooted in early family background. Martha Keeler maintains a link with her parents by decorating with heirlooms and surrounding them with other traditional designs. In addition, however, she appears to "break away" via her interest in contemporary design and the use of it in her basement office. Cindy Sawyer lives in a house that has 3-stories like the house she grew up in. The pageboy hairdos of Valerie and Nan date back to a prosperous, happy time in contemporary US history, the 1950's. Shirley's use of a country style transplants her midwestern roots into this Eastern suburb. So a preference for something that looks "old" or "traditional" is a way of creating a feeling of being linked with one's past.

Interestingly, however, these women did not actively identify with or want to live in some previous historic period. Cindy Sawyer liked her house and the fact that it was built in the 20's, but she did not express any strong identification with that period. Nor did Shirley Crusader express much interest in Colonial times.

Rather, what seems to be important is what these old designs mean today. Older designs and styles symbolize "old money" and achievement. Like classical music, classical furniture and home designs have stood the test of time. One is confident that all will recognize that one can afford the best.

But these houses do more than construct an image of the past in the present; they also serve to represent opportunities for the future. Oddly, the major satisfaction derived from these homes and furnishings does not seem to be in owning them, but rather the expectation or anticipation of the joys of creating new room and furniture arrangements in the future. Their plans to replace furniture are never justified on the basis of need; instead they will redecorate or buy new furnishings to send a message to themselves and others about their identity and status as expressed in taste (Loyd 1976). As Valerie said, "this house is a constant doing". The homes, like the lives of the women who arrange and manage them, are never finished. Instead, they are always in a state of becoming or evolving. Although Valerie is in her 70's, she is in no way "done" with her house. Martha. Nan and Cindy have many rooms which are largely empty because they do not (yet) have the money to furnish them. At the same time, they also find considerable gratification in the act of planning and designing these future changes.

Belk (1985) defines materialism mainly in pathological terms: possessiveness, nongenerosity, and envy. Yet, if there is a positive side to materialism, It may exist in the happy anticipation of the future experienced by these women through their homes. Rooms, furniture and houses to these women are palettes and paints which they feel they use to express themselves. The joys of materialism to these women are the joys of planning and anticipating new decorating schemes. While the Martha, as a decorator, has made a profession out of her decorating and design skills, all of the women feel competent to select and decide what looks best. Unlike the anti-social tendencies in Belk's study of materialism, materialism here pulls people together, as wives and husbands negotiate and plan what to buy and how to decorate. Martha and her husband talk excitedly of the new home they are designing. Valerie's husband proudly shows his new closet. In other words, the thrill lies in the process of planning, nather than in the having. How one feels about items one has owned for a while is not an issue. Consciousness and hopes are invested in the ongoing process of the houses' "becoming", becoming more elegant, becoming more comfortable, becoming more impressive.


The women want their homes to be striking and impressive - yet also comfortable, warm. and inviting.

On the one hand, this means a serious striving toward perfection. Houses are spotless. Every last detail concerning appearance is attended to. Everything has its place and is put away. Everything is chosen to "go together": make-up is right, earrings are right, wallpaper is right, forming the Diderot unities discussed by McCracken (1988). Arrangements of paintings and household artifacts follow classical concepts of balance, symmetry, and proportion (e.g., rugs become "focal points".)

On the other hand, these women sincerely want people to feel at home in their houses. They do not like interiors that "jolt" or unsettle people. They talk a lot about entertaining other people in their homes and how well they can accommodate large parties. A common word they use to describe their homes is "liveable".

This suggests an interesting conflict. How can one maintain a home that is always neat, clean, perfect and formal in appearance -yet also comfortable, liveable, warm and inviting? Four solutions were observed, and are discussed below.

Segregate children: Children are typically not allowed in living rooms or dining rooms. Children are not viewed as little adults, but are instead expected to behave in ways that may not be compatible with adult lives (Aries 1962/1960). Therefore, certain rooms are set aside as "children's rooms", and toys and other children's things are to remain there. This confines children's clutter to rooms that are the "lived in" rooms, for example, the family room. This is the liveable part of the house. Living rooms and dining rooms are typically reserved for adults invited into the household. This is the striking and impressive part of the house, where impressions can be staged (Duncan 1981). Interestingly, it appeared that it was these more formal areas that were decorated first in a newly acquired home.

Subtle prints and colors: There was a common resistance to bold, large prints and bold colors. Nan said she did not like interiors to "jolt" people. She likes floral prints, but chooses patterns with small flowers. Shirley likes muted colors and fabrics. Like the expected demeanor of the women themselves, homes are expected to have a gentler, more subtle impact. Valerie bragged a bit about her husband's career success, but softened the impact by saying "if I may be so bold," reflecting the self-effacing modesty Daniels (1988) found characterized women volunteer community leaders. Similarly, Nan indicated that others have told her she has good taste, after demurring "if I may be so immodest." The boldest decorating was the contemporary red and white furniture in Martha's basement office. Like her relative boldness in establishing her own business, these furnishings contrasted sharply with the more typical subtle prints and soft colors chosen for decorating the remainder of her house and the entirety of the other houses.

Open to outdoors: Many of the homes feature large windows and doors in the formal spaces, and deck spaces opening off of the informal spaces. The flowers and garden views have a long tradition in formal architecture, yet are also warm and inviting. in the new homes, decks and open views are much more popular than dark, closed-in studies and libraries. The flowers of gardens are echoed in the floral prints typically chosen in decorating. In these ways, these women use culture to transform nature and re-present it to those who enter their homes. Their suburban life is thus able to blend the contact with nature enjoyed in agrarian communities with the tamed environments of the city. In so doing, the association of women with flowers and their system of meanings is heightened (Stilgoe 1988), allowing formality and casualness in the same home.

"Country Style": Of all the older styles of furniture and decorating, "country" style seems to connote the most warmth and naturalness. items look handmade, although they may in fact be mass-produced, and are made from basic materials, such as wood and ceramic. While neocolonial styles revert back ultimately to English country homes and aristocratic lifestyles, country items symbolize the sincerity and authenticity of rural American lifestyles. One can fill one's home with these items - and create a warm atmosphere - yet still keep the home spotless and perfectly arranged, thereby accomplishing both formality and informality at once.

In the arrangement and decoration of these homes, then, both formality and informality are made available, reflecting a pattern of preferences that emerged in the Netherlands by 1650 (Rybczynski 1986). Like much of the rest of their lives, their homes allow them to encompass and alternate between opposites.


In the fieldnotes about Shirley, one researcher writes,

"..Most of what Shirley points out appears quite authentic. However, one striking exception greets me in the kitchen. On the stove, I find a beautiful freshly baked berry pie. At first, I am overwhelmed to think that this lovely lady got up early to cook something for us. Soon, however, I realize that the pie is artificial. Later, I ask Shirley about this and she tells me that the pie sits in an antique tin. It is strictly ersatz, but she feel that this is OK because it's only for decoration. Besides, it has a heart on top (Shirley collects heart-shaped objects)."

There were many such cases of women juxtaposing real items and artificial ones. Real flowers, real pearls, real paintings (versus prints) and real wrought iron fences are expensive. The women, therefore, draw interesting lines between items they feel should be real - versus items which can be artificial.

One frequently-chosen way to draw this line is to use items that are artificial but which can be made to look as real as possible. Martha likes silk flowers and plants because they look real and can be put in places that do not get much light. Also, she knows tricks such as placing dead (real) leaves in pots of artificial ficus trees to enhance the illusion. Artifice is used, but disguised to appear real.


As indicated earlier, these women live the American dream. The homes, cars, clubs and clothes represent success symbols to most Americans. This fact is not lost on the Woodville women. Nan is careful to point out, 'We live in Woodville, not Tylei" (the industrial town Woodville adjoins).

Most of the cues and upper class design codes the women follow are learned from each other, from experts (e.g., Martha) and from magazines. Magazines such as "Colonial Homes", "Country Living", and "Architectural Digest" appear to be very popular with these women. On colorful, glossy pages, they hold out the dream world of homes that these women have bought into. Yet, it seems ironic that this dream world of elaborate lifestyles is made possible by such mundane industries: plastics manufacturers, battery companies, candy factories.

An interesting distinction relates to the recency of these women's financial situation. Valerie and Martha grew up in relatively affluent surroundings while Shirley, Nan, and Cindy came from more modest backgrounds. Also, Valerie and Martha are long-time residents of Woodville, while Shirley, Nan, and Cindy are relatively new.

Thus, Valerie and Martha speak of Woodville and neighbors in a casual way. They have been there a long time, have many friends and relatives. and feel at home in this setting.

In temporal and social terms, Shirley, Nan and Cindy seem more on the fringes of Woodville social life. Shirley admits she does not get along with neighbors, Nan is described (by Martha) as "a very private person", and Cindy says she is disappointed with the noise and bustle in her new neighborhood. It is possible that the perceived emphasis on homes and things for the women who have more recently arrived interferes with opportunities to build social ties. Particularly with new wealth, consumption and materialism might be associated with the negative social characteristics that Belk (1985) describes. With old money, however, consumption behavior appears to have little negative impact on social relationships. If anything, Valerie and Martha appear to be most strongly oriented to nonconsummatory concerns: children, grandchildren, career, volunteer work. The tendancy for older, established groups (both high income and low income) to stress social ties over conspicuous household consumption has been noted in other U.S. cities (e.g., Boston, Gans 1962) as well as other cultures (India, Duncan and Duncan 1976).


An overarching theme that runs through these homes and lives in one of separations. As mentioned previously, adults and children have separate areas in the home. Similarly, men's and women's worlds of activity have a high degree of separation, with the home being the place where men return from the male world of enterprise and industry to enter women's domain (Goldthorpe 1969). Men's world is that of industrial productions and women's is that of domestic production or consumption (Campbell 1987). Although master bedrooms are the territory of both husband and wife, these rooms are decorated in feminine florals with beds that in some cases wear ruffled skirts. office and home are separated; not one of the men has a study or office designated for his use within the home. Despite the contemporary character of these lives, men have their place and women have theirs. Work and play are not mixed. In this regard, home takes on an important cultural meaning and function. Women's cultural task is broader than that of caring for children and husbands. Through the home environments they build, the moral order and its virtues are restored; home is haven for manners, sentiment, and values that are threatened in contemporary life (Forty 1986, Loyd 1976) as well as being the expression of individual personality (HaIttunen 1989).


Most of the heroes and mythology in Woodville concern men. Valerie's husband founded the successful chocolate factory, Shirley's husband was just promoted to vice president of his battery company, and Cindy's husband, she relates, is a well-known area athlete.

At the same time, the women of Woodville have considerable influence and stature. All have at least an undergraduate college degree and are actively involved in community activities via the Junior League. All won out over their husbands who preferred to live in contemporary homes. All have husbands who work long hours, relinquishing home and childrearing decisions largely to them. All talk about connection to others in the community via entertaining in their homes. Martha in particular appears to identify with the role of the young "grande dame", saying she likes to throw dinner par-ties at her house for 40 people. However, they also place limits on their availability to others. Nan and Valerie are very firm about their homes and which rooms are open to whom; these two women either voiced concerns about the researchers seeing certain rooms or flatly forbid them to go in certain areas. All strongly identify with the role of mother. Each in her own way is deeply motivated by her connection to her children: Valerie almost cries at the loss of "the children's hands"; Martha divorced a husband who didn't want children; Nan wants the backdoor kept open while the interview is being done so that she might hear her sleeping son if he cries. It is clear that children hold superordinate importance for these women. Through their homes, they project and construct a strong sense of their maternal power (Bensman and Lilienfield 1979).

In spite of these powers and capabilities, however, several of the women reflected feelings of frustration. Cindy seemed trapped by the financial and physical energy costs of running a family while restoring a 1920's mansion and meeting the never-ending demands of extensive volunteer work. Martha acknowledges the difficulties of relating to her new step-daughter. She also seems torn between her mother's wishes and her desires to break out on her own and live farther away. Shirley is concerned about one son who is having trouble at school. All of the women voice the same regret: that they do not have enough money or time to do the things to their homes that they would like. Rooms remain empty of furniture. Children clamor and draw attention away from house projects. Despite their relative wealth and freedom from having to work, they nonetheless constantly experience the inadequacy of their time and money, just as do others who have so much less discretion in each category.


The wives of Woodville represent a surprising mixture of demographics and sociographics. They include baby boom women who are highly educated, career-minded, and urban in outlook. At the same time, they lead very traditional lifestyles in a semi-rural suburb of a small New York industrial town.

Their consumption of traditional-styled furniture, homes, clothing and other furnishings follows the growth in popularity of this style in the 70's and 80's (Bimbach 1980). While fads come and go, however, it is expected that Woodville wives will hold to this style for many years to come. Unlike suburbs in large cities, Woodville offers few other subcultures than itself for these women to identify with. Through their home-related consumption, these women construct familial bonds and class definitions that sustain them and the assumptions on which their world is built.


Advertising Age (1989) 'The New Traditionalist" (advertisement) Oct. 30, p 33.

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Jeffrey F. Durgee
Morris B. Holbrook
Melanie Wallendorf


SV - Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey | 1991

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