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Reviewed by:
  • From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice, and: Three Faces of Beauty: Casablanca, Paris, Cairo
  • Neva Jean Specht (bio)
From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice by Sarah A. Leavitt. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002, 250 pp., $49.95 hardcover, $18.05 paper.
Three Faces of Beauty: Casablanca, Paris, Cairo by Susan Ossman. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002, 204 pp., $54.95 hardcover, $18.95 paper.

As the scholarship on the history of women and gender has progressed, the phrases "Cult of Domesticity" and "True Womanhood" seem to fall further out of favor. No longer content to define the past into two neatly separated spheres of public (male) and private (female), or to narrowly focus on only white, middle- and upper-class New England women and their place in the home, scholars have widened their lens to other groups of women and other locales. It is that breadth and depth of scholarship that has made room for the two studies under consideration. Both books return us to the concept of women's sphere, yet both of these multidimensional studies come to that concept with a much greater understanding of the complexities of that sphere than the earliest work on women.

Historian Sarah A. Leavitt revisits the domestic advice manuals that a previous generation of historians of women gleaned for their studies of the Cult of Domesticity. Leavitt, however, sees these advice manuals in a much larger context than past historians and uses the manuals, as she explains, "to examine what those books and their authors can teach us about the way in which the home is a place where national ideologies of class, race, and gender are expressed in things, such as bric-a-brac and wicker chairs" (206). In her study, she takes on the argument about whether advice manuals and their authors limited or expanded women's role.

In Three Faces of Beauty, anthropologist Susan Ossman explores the feminine world of the ubiquitous beauty salon. Her ethnography based on her own observations and interviews, as well as her research of advertisements and magazines, sets out to understand the way women and men create, understand, and seek to change the definition of beauty. By exploring the nature of beauty in three cities, Casablanca, Paris, and Cairo, Ossman seeks to understand the process by which "difference works to create sameness" in an increasingly globalized and modern world (162).

Leavitt's work had been published when corporate scandals and security fraud placed the best-known domestic diva, Martha Stewart, into the media hot seat. With a perverse fascination, the public has followed the case of Stewart's alleged inside trading scandal and her continued denials of any wrongdoing. The irony perhaps is that Stewart's previous celebrity [End Page 217] was squarely rooted in the domestic sphere where she offered advice on everything from choosing the right comforter, to planting azaleas, to refinishing Aunt Blanche's antique table. As Leavitt points out, Stewart's celebrity (even before the recent scandal) was a marked departure from earlier domestic advisors, but her place in the public domain was not. Earlier domestic advisors moved in the public domain as they focused their advice to reflect issues of social welfare, science and health, modernization, and nationalism throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Leavitt's book traces the continuity of domestic advice from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. She shows that Martha Stewart's success can best be measured when seen in the larger spectrum of the history of domestic advice and their authors.

In each chapter, Leavitt explores how domestic advice reflected the dominant social and culture of the time. The earliest advice manuals focused on how women's homes should reflect and shape women's moral virtue. This chapter reflects the earlier scholarship on women's domestic sphere, but it also sets up an important point Leavitt argues throughout the book. The earliest advice manuals established for white middle-class women "a common vocabulary and a place to begin" the journey of home and moral improvement (39). With that common vocabulary in...