Painting the Domestication of Consumption in 19Th-Century America

ABSTRACT - The rise of private, middle-class, and, above all, feminized domesticity in the middle decades of the 19th century marked an important milestone in the history of consumption. Art from this period can be a useful data source for gaining insight into the processes, conflicts, and meanings that accompanied the social construction of domesticity. Accordingly, this paper examines the lives and work of two American genre paintersCFrancis W. Edmonds (1806-1863) and Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902)Cand then discusses some implications for consumption history.


Terrence H. Witkowski (1999) ,"Painting the Domestication of Consumption in 19Th-Century America", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 644-651.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 644-651


Terrence H. Witkowski, California State University, Long Beach


The rise of private, middle-class, and, above all, feminized domesticity in the middle decades of the 19th century marked an important milestone in the history of consumption. Art from this period can be a useful data source for gaining insight into the processes, conflicts, and meanings that accompanied the social construction of domesticity. Accordingly, this paper examines the lives and work of two American genre paintersCFrancis W. Edmonds (1806-1863) and Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902)Cand then discusses some implications for consumption history.


The advent of large factories and other changes wrought by industrialization, especially rapid urbanization, meant that middle-class American women were losing some of their sources of income as well as their personal trading networks (Cott 1977). The "putting out" system of manufacture, where households performed some of the steps in the production process such as spinning and weaving, declined sharply in the 1800s. Like Martha Ballard, the intrepid heroine of A Midwife’s Tale (Ulrich 1990), women in rural areas had long traded their services (cooking, washing, nursing) and homemade products (eggs, butter, spun linen) with other women and with country storekeepers (Perkins 1991). Although these patterns persisted fr many years in farm and frontier communitiesCwhile working class girls and adult women continued to work in factories or as domestics in other people’s householdsCthe home-centered productive roles traditionally assigned to women evolved into more purely home-centered consumption roles. By the 1850s, consumerism was gaining respectability as it was increasingly identified with private, bourgeois domesticity (Slater 1997). Consumption was becoming more than just the act of purchasing. The home and its furnishings established and announced family and class identity (de Grazia 1996).

A new ideology of domestic virtue also emerged during this time. Starting with the "republican-mother" ideal of the early federal period (Norton 1980), American women were expected to set the new nation’s moral standards and to exercise their talents and responsibilities within a home-centered life. Women found that their consumption choices were increasingly scrutinized and held to higher standards. Spaces such as entry halls and parlors, reserved for the family’s best possessions and formal gatherings, became public domains, stages upon which the Victorian "cult of domesticity" was played. How women organized and ornamented these areas was a measure of their domestic worth (deGrazia 1996; Sparke 1995). In effect, the home continued to be a site for production, but more a place for creating social status and gender meanings rather than making tangible goods.

This social evolution did not take place without comment and protest. Domestic consumption implied feminized consumption, but women had long been identified with consumer excess and had been characterized as impulsive, emotional beings unnaturally attracted to things. Luxury was typically personified as a "she" and a picture had emerged of women being preoccupied with surface appearance rather than substance and utility (de Grazia 1996; Sparke 1995). Moreover, the "cult of domesticity" undermined whatever control over household spending some fathers and husbands may have gained from becoming the sole bread winner. Finally, this transformation took place in an era, beginning in the early 1830s, when a few bold American feminists were publicly questioning women’s lack of legal, economic, and political rights (Johns 1991). These challenges to male authority provoked a backlash which, among many misogynist expressions such as jokes, stories, and visual caricatures, took the form of criticism of women’s aesthetic taste.

The purpose of this paper is to examine antebellum American genre paintings that deal with the domestication of consumptionCplacing it within the private sphere of the home and into the hands of womenCand its contested social construction. The study of American consumer history is critical because the United States has had the world’s most modern consumer culture for nearly a century. Many American values, such as the emphasis on private versus public consumption and on the autonomy, if not primacy, of the female consumer, appear to be ascendant internationally in the late 20th century. Looking at how Americans contested domesticity and the gender of consumption in the last century will further understanding of the evolution of these values and practices.


Art can reveal things about past consumption that cannot be conveyed by other data sources (Belk 1986). It can show visually what buyers and sellers and their merchandise and accoutrements actually looked like. It can depict color, form and movement. Through narrative content and allegory, art can express social attitudes and, hence, validate or challenge written sources such as diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, or probate records (Witkowski 1994). Art objects are also consumer goods that had and have value in the marketplace. Thus, their marketing histories and records of ownership or provenance also can be of some nterest to researchers in the area of luxury consumption (Berry 1994).

However, art can be misleading, for artists selected only certain subjects and rendered the world the way they perceived or remembered it. Artists also created within the expectations of their patrons and audiences. Consequently, art can sometimes be a better guide to past social attitudes and cultural conventions than to the exact nature of people, things, and consumer behavior. American genre painters, for example, sometimes distorted actual behavior in order to instruct or entertain the viewer and drew upon stock social characters that fulfilled the expectations of their patrons (Johns 1991). Works of art have aesthetic qualities and sometimes political content that can elicit powerful emotional responses in the researcher. As objects of beauty and admiration, and sometimes of disgust and insult, artworks can provoke bias. Art must be read carefully. Moreover, the analyst needs to distinguish a contemporary reading from a historical or period reading. For example, it is hard for us to understand 19th-century sentiment because the language of expression, and even its character, has changed (Bolton-Smith and Truettner 1973).

Art history writing traditionally has been concerned with the form, content, and purpose of a work of art and with the artist’s life (Barnet 1985; Carrier 1991). Today, much art history, as well as research in the closely related field of material culture, take art and other artifacts as the analytical point of departure, but then branch into questions about the original audiences, owners, or users, and the society and culture that produced and received them (Fernie 1995; Prown 1982). The emphasis is less on the object itself than on the world in which it was created, in effect, a blending of both historical and art historical methods (Hupfer 1997). Works of art should not be used just as passive illustrations of consumer culture, but should be actively engaged as evidence to investigate consumption history.





American genre paintings of the mid-19th century, along with records of their initial critical reception and sales history, document conflicts over domesticity and consumption and give insight into the social and cultural context of the times. Beginning about 1810 with the work of John Lewis Krimmell (1789-1821) and reaching full flower with the masterpieces of William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) and George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), genre painters chronicled the everyday lives of ordinary people. These artists recorded the activities of New England farmers, country politicians, western frontiersmen and riverboatmen, the urban poor, and African-Americans (Hills 1974; Johns 1991; Williams 1973). These were largely male social types. When depicted, women were the receptors of male action (e.g. courtship) or simply bystanders from another sphere. Genre artists also commented upon the morality of market transactions (Witkowski 1996) and, to a lesser extent, purchasing behavior and its consequences. Because of space limitation, this paper will not attempt to cover all such art relevant to the domestication of consumption, but instead will feature just a few of the more significant paintings by two very intriguing artists.

FRANCIS W. EDMONDS (1806-1863)

Francis W. Edmonds was a banker by profession. Born in Hudson, New York, he began his career in 1823 as an underclerk at Tradesman’s Bank in New York City. Rising through a series of positions at other banks, he eventually became quite prominent in New York financial circles. Among his lasting contributions, Edmonds played an important role in the founding of the New York Clearing House in 1853. Following a controversy regarding his role n the misappropriation of bank funds in 1855, he voluntarily resigned his positions in the world of finance and formed a new company with two partners to engrave bank notes.

The engraving business was an apt choice, for Edmonds was a talented artist influenced by early Dutch genre scenes. He first saw this art reproduced in books and later in person during an extended trip to Europe in 1841 following his first wife’s death and his own nervous breakdown. Taking inspiration from the Dutch masters, his paintings probe human relationships within a broader social context (Clark 1988). Edmonds’ lifetime artistic output was relatively small, but highly regarded, and his contemporaries commented very favorably on his accomplishments in the disparate fields of art and finance (Clark 1988; Mann 1977). He was also quite active in cultural and art organizations including the National Academy of Design, the Sketch Club, the Apollo Association, and the American Art-Union.

Edmonds painted several scenes related to buying and selling, most notably The Image Pedlar, c. 1844, The Speculator, 1852, and Bargaining (The Christmas Turkey), 1858 (see Witkowski 1996). Edmonds also produced images of courtshipCSparking, 1839, The City and the Country Beaux, c. 1839, and The Bashful Cousin, c. 1840Cand late in his career showed sensitivity to the labors of women in a minor work, Dame in the Kitchen, c. 1859. However, his painting most relevant to domesticity, gender, and consumption was The New Bonnet (Exhibit 2) completed in 1858. One of his most visually striking works, it attracted curiously little attention when it was first exhibited, although later it received favorable reviews in two journals (Clark 1988).













The New Bonnet tells a story of consumption with sharply defined characters on a carefully arranged stage. After being presented the bill of sale, a young woman’s parents give a horrified reaction to their daughter’s "extravagance." Edmonds plays down the broad humor in the situation in favor of carefully weighing the morality of luxury. The relatively simple dwelling and dress of the older couple are contrasted with their daughter’s more stylish appearance. The juxtaposition of the forlorn little delivery girl and the expensive new garment raises the issue of consumption inequality. Nevertheless, the bonnet remains the focal point of the picture and the young woman, in rapt admiration of her new acquisition, is oblivious to the activities around her. She has purchased something for herself, as an individual consumer, and her feminine taste is triumphant. This painting echoes concerns about unbridled female purchasing, but clearly shows some admiration for the object in hand. The balanced weighing of "evidence" in this painting shows Edmonds to be a fair and thoughtful artist. Edmonds did not need to sell his paintings for his livelihood and, thus, could express himself as he, not some patron, dictated.

In The New Bonnet, the daughter holds her purchase directly in front of a world map. Maps and globes had been used symbolically in 17th century Dutch paintings and, later, in William Hogarth’s "The Tavern Scene" (Exhibit 3). The map in the upper center of this engraving, one of eight views from A Rake’s Progress, has two figurative meanings: worldly knowledge and, unmistakably, worldly women (Clark 1988). A Rake’s Progress was itself a highly popular visual morality play about the dire consequences of inherited wealth, overspending, and debt. Note that Edmonds has placed a bottle of port or sherry and a small glass in front of the map in The New BonnetCa device suggesting that the father also indulges in his own form of luxury consumption.

The subject of a new bonnet was echoed in a roughly contemporary English painting of the same name (Exhibit 4) by James Collinson (1825-1881). Here, a young woman does her final primping before going off to the races with her beau, standing in the doorway and holding a day’s program in his right hand. This version shares Edmond’s thematic elements (using materialpossessions in a quest for style and distinction) and staging (the door to the left and open window to the right) and, again, shows the influence of 17th-century Dutch art. Missing, however, is Edmonds’ comment on the gap in values between the older and younger generations. Everyone in Collinson’s painting seems to be admiring the new bonnet, perhaps appreciating how it represents a status marker for the entire family.


Born in England of French parentage, Lilly Martin came to America in 1830, living first in New York City and then in Marietta, Ohio where her father held a teaching position. In 1841, she exhibited for the first time and, in 1844, married Benjamin Rush Spencer. The Spencers moved to New York City in 1848, to Newark in 1858, and to Highland, NY, in 1879. Working in a largely male line, Spencer was sometimes treated with condescension. Art critics, for example, rarely failed to describe her as a "female artist." The National Academy of Design would only let her study its drawings in the evenings and, in 1850, made her an honorary, but not a full member (Johns 1991). Nevertheless, she became one of the most popular artists of her day. Spencer painted portraits, pictures of children, and numerous scenes of family life, sometimes using herself, husband, and children as models. She gave an insider’s view of the domestic sphere.




Spencer’s work had fallen out of favor by the end of her career, but was "rediscovered" about 25 years ago (Bolton-Smith and Truettner 1973). For modern audiences, she has become a feminist exemplar since she supported her family financially while giving birth to thirteen children, seven of whom survived to maturity. Although her art may appear cloying and socially conservative today, in the mid-nineteenth century her sentimental, sometimes offbeat renderings subverted the traditional authority of the male. Her art "was an act of female instrumentality and agency, of antebellum women taking hold of the most effective weapon at their disposal, culture, and using it on their own behalf" (Lubin 1993, p. 143).

Much of Spencer’s art dealt with private, family life, but a few images are especially important for the history of domesticity and consumption. Shake Hands? (Exhibit 6), for which the Spencers’ cook posed, received critical acclaim and established Spencer’s reputation through exhibitions in several cities and two editions of popular prints (Bolton-Smith and Truettner 1973). The viewer’s eye-to-eye perspective and the woman’s good-natured, but forthright gesture signal equality. There is no question that in this kitchen, replete with foodstuffs, a woman runs the operation and a man might feel discomfort if he strays into her workplace. This painting, like much of Spencer’s work, has a subversive quality. It transgressed the time-honored convention that women in genre pictures should be demureCno grins, giggles, or laughsCand be the recipients of male action (Johns 1991; Lubin 1993).

The Young Husband: First Marketing (Exhibit 7) was one of a pair of paintings (the other, The Young Wife: First Stew is unlocated) that poked fun at newly wedded life. Here we see a well-dressed city man having difficulties managing the produce, eggs, and plucked chickens in his market basket while on the way home in rainy weather. Another man laughs derisively at his predicament. Critics disliked this painting both on aesthetic grounds (the head is oversized and the bodily positions awkward) and for political reasons (Johns 1991). Probably intended to amuse female viewers, this depiction of ineptitude and humiliation challenged commonly held notions of men’s confident and capable self-image. It is not known if men typically shopped for food in 1850’s New York City although, given the "autobiographical" nature of Spencer’s paintings (she, her husband, and her children often posd as models), one suspects that Spencer may actually have witnessed such a scene. Neither Young Husband nor its companion painting sold during their exhibition at the National Academy of Design.

In Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the #Lasses (Exhibit 8) the viewer’s gaze is directed toward the young woman’s figure. She is shapelier, better dressed, and more elaborately coiffed than the cook in Shake Hands? and ladling molasses is a more refined activity than stuffing poultry. The scene is again one of domestic abundance where baskets and bowls are overflowing with fruits and vegetables. The #Lasses in the title refers to the molasses which she threatens to fling at the presumably male viewer who might be tempted to steal a kiss. #Lasses also refers to young women and to a common expression of the time "lips as sweet as #lasses." Here the woman has been transformed into an object of desire associated with other objects of abundance and, looking through the open doorway to the well-appointed parlor, with Victorian domesticity. Now it is the woman who is to be consumed. Interestingly, this painting was commissioned and marketed by the Cosmopolitan Art Association, an organization explicitly devoted to women’s taste.








These images, painted by these two talented American artists, raise important issues not only relevant to the social construction of domestic consumption in the middle of the 19th century, but also to the ongoing discourse that continues until the present day.

Perhaps the most vivid theme is that of female independence in purchasing and in household management. In The New Bonnet, the young woman has to rely upon her parents to pay for her acquisition, but the fact that she could even order an expensive item without their first knowing its cost indicates a great deal of decision-making freedom. The women in Shake Hands? and Kiss Me are also in charge within their respective domestic spaces. The viewer will trifle with either of them at his peril. Edmonds raises questions about the proper exercise of female autonomy, about how women should behave in domestic space. Spending on luxurious garments needs to be examined in comparison with those, like the delivery girl, for whom even modest consumer goods are unattainable. He concedes that women have autonomy in consumption, but also seems to suggest that they must exercise self-control.

A concomitant theme is male passivity and ineptitude in the domestic sphere. Edmonds and Spencer have portrayed men who are anything but stern autocrats. In The New Bonnet the father meekly accepts the bill of sale, perhaps unwilling to deny his daughter her pleasures when he is likely to take his own as indicated by the bottle and glass on the mantle. The Young Husband shows a man unable to manage something as simple as a market basket. The common stereotype of the bumbling American husband and father, so common in the popular culture of the latter half of this century, was not at all common in the mid-19th century.

The paintings show rising standards of domestic consumptionChow relatively plain, middle-class interiors and their inhabitants were being transformed into something more stylish and refined. In The New Bonnet, the young woman’s finery stands out, but the gleaming stove set in the fireplace, the array of vegetables in the foreground, and the overall tidiness of the room also intimate a sense of comfort and ease. Kiss Me depicts even more fecundity, finer tablewares and equipment, and, in the parlor visible through the doorway, even more ornate furniture, floor covering, and wall decorations. Refinement as a desirable social value had emerged in the middle of the 18th century, perhaps as a largely gentlemanly pursuit (Bushman 1992). In the at of Edmonds and Spencer we see females as its agents and accomplices.

A final issue, most visible in Spencer’s paintings, is the eroticizing of women and consumption. Although European artists and their audiences were quite familiar with the theme of women’s sexuality, this topic was virtually forbidden in American visual arts and literature (Johns 1991). In The New Bonnet, Edmonds does not seem to use the wall map to symbolize women’s worldliness as did Hogarth in A Rake’s Progress, but Spencer certainly emphasizes sexuality in Kiss Me, something she also, but more subtly, did in her numerous paintings of children (Johns 1991). Even the healthy-looking cook in Shake Hands?, with her clean dress, neatly coiffed hair and delicate earrings, radiates a certain feminine sensuality. In the next century, the conflation of middle-class women, consumption, and sex would become a major cultural practice in the West.

Francis Edmonds and Lilly Spencer should not be seen as typical American genre artists of the period. Most of their contemporaries portrayed a distinctly male world where the body politic was organized according to the various activities and statuses of men (Johns 1991). Edmonds and Spencer explored another world, a world of domesticity and consumption where females exercised autonomy and males played a secondary role. What is remarkable is how perceptive was the vision of these two artists and how much it anticipated the world of the future. Yet, Edmonds and Spencer were not too avant-garde. With the exception of The Young Husband, these paintings received critical acclaim indicating that other people were reading American society in much the same way. Consumption and the domestic sphere were being gendered and that gender was female.


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Terrence H. Witkowski, California State University, Long Beach


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26 | 1999

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