The resources at the British Library allowed me to explore home decor and domesticity in American women’s magazines at the turn of the Twentieth century, says Bianca Scoti, recipient of an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Award in North American Studies. These sources highlight the new and creative ways in which notions of luxury and gentility were negotiated and incorporated by the American middle class.
I feel fortunate to have been granted an Eccles Postgraduate Student Award, which gave me the opportunity to make use of resources at the British Library that are invaluable for my research. I am a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Glasgow carrying out a thesis on Persian rugs in American homes during the Gilded Age. Rugs and carpets played a central role in transforming houses into elegant yet comfortable homes. My findings at the British Library allowed me to explore discourses related to home decor and domesticity in American women’s magazines at the turn of the
Twentieth century such as The Ladies’ Homes Journal, Harper’s Weekly or Harper’s Bazar. Additionally, I consulted volumes on home decorating advice such as Edith Wharton’s The Decoration of Houses. These sources inform a section of my thesis that addresses the ways in which advice literature and home decorators wished to ‘educate’ Americans on incorporating the elegance of the ‘Orient’ into their homes.
Amongst numerous types of floor coverings, Oriental rugs, Persian in particular, have fascinated decorators, authors of advice books and American consumers as they were often regarded as the embodiment of the mystery and sophistication of the Orient. During my month long stay in London over the summer, I had the opportunity to further explore the American home as the site where Gilded Age middle-class home-makers expressed their taste and desires, what it meant for them to purchase Persian rugs and the ways in which these rugs informed issues of domesticity and comfort that were the building blocks of the American middle-class home. In particular, in the middle-class domestic space, Persian rugs can be read as a hybrid space where conflicting ideas about home and middle class life-style came together. I look at these objects, not only as material manifestations of refinement and cosmopolitanism, but as symbols of the strategies that the middle-class adopted to construct its identity through the appropriation of objects and ideas that were once prerogative of the elites.
Furthermore, I analyzed the advertisements of Persian, or more generally, Oriental rugs that featured in the magazines I researched. These sources will provide evidence for another section of my thesis that focuses on the imagined sites of consumption, such as novels, serialized novels in magazines, pictures and advertisements that inspired American home-makers when decorating their homes. This part of my research looks at the ways in which the advertising and manufacturing world tapped into ‘orientalist’ stereotypes that linked Persian rugs to the ideas of mystery and sophistication that were associated with the ‘Orient’.
Whilst tempting the readers with the allure of the exotic, these advertisements highlight another central theme in my research, the tension between authenticity and imitation. Persian and other Oriental rugs were at the centre of a debate amongst authors of domestic advice books and interior decorators: while some praised authentic Oriental rugs for their quality and durability, others advocated the purchase of imitation Oriental rugs manufactured in the United States because cheaper, therefore available to a wider number of families, but also because they lacked the ‘barbaric’ qualities of the items manufactures in the remote ‘Orient’.
These sources were augmented with the visual record of the images and photographs of home interiors that accompanied the articles in the early twentieth century American women’s magazines that I was able to find at the British Library. These have provided me with a wealth of material for my analysis of the American middle-class’ problematic relationship with notions of luxury and gentility but are also evidence of the new and creative ways in which these were negotiated and incorporated into the middle-class’ home and life style.
Bianca Scoti is a fourth year part-time doctoral candidate in American studies at the University of Glasgow and a member of BAAS and The Glasgow American Studies Postgraduate Research Group. With her research on Persian rugs in American homes during the Gilded Age, she investigates the meanings behind the purchase of this class of commodities. Ultimately, Scoti aims to illustrate how Persian rugs unveil the American middle-class’ tension between a quest for sophistication and the desire to express a class identity.