Glaciers are great things…. but they are vague, vague.—Mark Twain
Perhaps no issue has been more influential in shaping and expanding the scope of women's history in recent years than consumerism and what some scholars have dubbed consumer culture studies.1 Female activities once seen as mildly interesting, or even disturbing, have rapidly become sites of imaginative inquiry for feminist historians whose work has come to define much of what has actually "turned" in the pitching wake of cultural studies. Pushing ever further into the subjective worlds of women and into the multiple meanings and political operations of consumer goods and practices, historians have steadily redrawn the terrain of women's history making it increasingly difficult to conceive of female agency outside the mediating webs of commodity production and the consumerist culture it spawned. Taking aim at leisure, pleasure, and home entertainment, scholars have shown that "just watching," "reading," "playing," and "talking" are as filled with meaning and social life as the much-maligned homemaker whose position as "just a housewife" once rendered her historically invisible and politically mute. In the ordinary and mundane, it is now clear, culture gets to work; the vagueness of power comes to ground.
Consider the yawn-inspiring parlor games Sinclair Lewis once dismissed as "pretentious, self-interested, and hopelessly insular," even in Gopher Prairie where alternative forms of sociability, Lewis admitted, were "as exciting as comas." What historical good could come from such a moribund [End Page 128] set of domestic activities? In her wonderfully researched and carefully crafted study of nineteenth-century home entertainment, Melanie Dawson provides a number of suggestive answers, explaining in the process why moderns like Lewis became so vexed by them in the first place: simply put, because in its twentieth-century reincarnation home entertainment upheld social conventionality and predictability, becoming a "cliché of middle class life" rather than a vehicle through which people questioned genteel class conventions and championed individual skills (164). As entertainment, in other words, moved outside the home—into commercialized establishments but also into clubs, churches, and schools—publishers and reformers increasingly characterized the once dynamic and socially irreverent parlor games of mid-century as relics of a generalized "old timey" past: benign amusements more appropriate for young people than for modern adults who, after all, staked their claims to modernity in their very distance from the insularity of the parlor and all that it represented. "A parlor is a place," Gertrude Stein quipped in 1931; "Who knows why they feel that they had rather not gather there." Increasingly understood as a cultural relic, "as stifling as the parlor's staid accoutrements," home entertainment sparked neither the "vital conversations and competitions" of earlier parlor games nor the individual skills and social desires they once so critically helped to shape (172). By the 1880s, Dawson explains, the social efficacy once associated with entertainment skills, especially in fictional and pictorial renderings of women, waned in the conspicuous consumption of the Gilded Age where, as Lily Bart learned, "skills are displaced by a lifestyle rewarding purchasers rather than inventors" (157).
Dawson's story, then, is a critical investigation into the world of home entertainment that helps explain not only its many forms and meanings but how the popularity and cultural usefulness of parlor games rose and fell in relation to the shifting pleasures and tensions of belonging...