- Bad Girls of Good Housekeeping:Dominique Browning and Martha Stewart
Is your fantasy space an urban loft—long, clean sight lines and edgy textures? Or do your tastes run more quaintly to log cabins fronted by spills of wild roses? Either way, there is a decorating magazine for you. "Shelter magazines," as the industry calls this women's subgenre, originated in the US with the founding of House Beautiful in 1896.1
When we include those publications combining beautiful interiors with household instruction, we find an even longer tradition—one extending back to nineteenth-century American journals and books on domestic advice as well as interior design. Better Homes and Gardens, for example, has ties not only to other shelter magazines but also to traditional "service" magazines for women, a long-standing category focused on home maintenance.2 Shelter magazines typically circulate less widely and devote less space to running a household. Yet Martha Stewart Living, to take another example, juxtaposes photos of immaculate rooms with hints on everything from pies to plumbing, and shelter writing in general may be traced to such works as The Frugal Housewife (1829) by Lydia Maria Child.
The class and gender politics of shelter writing would seem to be self-evidently conservative. Rosalind Coward, in an early feminist analysis of women's magazines, rightly notes that images of the "ideal home," reflecting an elite aesthetic, are designed to "show off expensive objects to their greatest advantage" (69). Working-class arrangements of souvenirs and family photos, on the other hand—displaying memories rather than wealth—are [End Page 260] regarded by shelter publications as the epitome of "bad taste" (69). Coward is also skeptical of the way pristine rooms suppress the female labor behind them—along with marital conflicts over women's undue domestic burden (70–71). Clearly there is merit to both critiques. Despite Lydia Maria Child's model of frugality, writers on domestic techniques and decor have long urged "simplicity" while nevertheless offering to "improve" taste by touting Italian furniture, Oriental rugs, and other luxury items. The consumerist imperative has, of course, been especially pressing in the case of magazines, whose reliance on advertisers targeting female readers increased steadily beginning in the 1890s.3 The result is a tension in shelter magazines, reaching back to the nineteenth century and continuing to this day, between practical, cost-saving advice—including suggestions for clever do-it-yourself projects—and, on the contrary, depictions of exquisite objects and upscale spaces, which cater shamelessly to fantasies of wealth, status, and leisure.
Nor is there any point in denying that much early shelter writing reinforced sentimental views of women as selfless wives and mothers, content to nurture and labor for others within the domestic sphere. Twenty-first-century shelter magazines, too, though read by some men and well aware that most of its female readers work outside the home, still place women primarily within houses while tying houses primarily to women. Keeping in mind the conservative tendencies of my texts, I want nevertheless to argue that those who write and read about domestic interiors may do so in ways that challenge as well as reiterate traditional beliefs about women, marriage, families, and sexuality. The feminist imagination is, understandably, drawn to the open road, to restless women slamming the door on houses that have cramped and infantilized them. My project here, however, resonates with another feminist impulse—one that defiantly celebrates domestic spaces, practices, and concerns customarily feminized and, as a consequence, trivialized.4 Claiming a "private" sphere more often sentimentalized, separated from, and subordinated to the public, my study is premised on a complex, appreciative view of the home as a site of production as well as consumption, skilled labor as well as taste, utility as well as beauty. More than this, I am interested in representations of zealous domesticity—loving depictions of houses and house knowledge—pried apart from conventional gender arrangements.
Notwithstanding the reflexive linking of high domesticity to marriage and dutiful wifeliness, the two have never been inextricable. The protagonists of this essay—Dominique Browning, editor of House & Garden (1996–2007), and Martha Stewart, founder of [End Page 261] Martha Stewart Living...