Friday, July 29, 2011

Reading List Part Two: So You Want to Learn Some History

Tiny babies with giant bread!
These are the sources I turn to in my quest to learn more about domestic history.  This is an incredibly incomplete list and contains no truly academic writings, journals, theoretical texts, etc.  There are even some TV shows.  I know, I know, they should take my grad student card away.


Susannah at CargoCultCraft spent a year on her Fashion on the Ration project, buying and making clothes within the constraints that British families faced in 1941.  She's collected both the original government restrictions and information on how home seamstresses managed, from paring down patterns to take up less fabric to remaking worn-out men's clothes into women's.  This is one of those things that I was terribly curious about and elated to find out that someone else had already done the research (literally!)!

Shelley at New Vintage Lady makes vintage garments with a focus on drafting or altering plus-size patterns!  Her blog has lots of tutorials, and the 'foundation garments' and 'sleepwear' sections of her website contain some very useful information on making these overlooked items (not to mention her blog, which is a veritable wealth of inspiration for the "stout" figure).

History Books:

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, by Jane Ziegelman, does just what it says on the tin.  It's highly readable and entertaining, does a wonderful job of evoking late-19th-and-early-20th-century urban immigrant life, and even includes historical recipes and newspaper clippings on domestic concerns.  Reading this book makes me want to put on my wool skirt and apron and cook some kind of stew.

Everyday Fashions of the Thirties as Pictured in Sears Catalogs and its companion piece, Everyday Fashions of the Forties as Pictured in Sears Catalogs, are great visual inspiration for vintage dressmaking.  It's also very educational to see how clothes were advertised at the time; washability was a big deal, for one, and the fabric and notions are usually described much more fully than modern clothes ever are.

Make It Yourself: Home Sewing, Gender, and Culture, 1890-1930, by a very erudite woman named Sarah A. Gordon, is, brilliantly, available in full through the Gutenberg project, and well worth reading.  This book chronicles the intersection between home sewing and the following things: feminism; class inequality; economic shifts at the turn of the century; transportation technology; the advertising industry; women in the workplace; racial stereotypes; eighth-grade graduations; and so forth.  There are quite a few in-line pictures, both of period patterns or advertisements and of surviving garments.  It's thoughtfully written and incredibly engaging.


The "____ House" series, produced by Channel 4 in the UK and rerun on PBS here in the states, is both a fascinating source of historical trivia and a guilty pleasure (are Kenny and Ellen going to get caught making out in the scullery?!). There are tons to track down (we're still trying to find Coal House, set in a Welsh mining town in the 1920s), not all of them terribly good, but I can recommend the following:
  • The 1900 House, the first of the series, is structured more like a documentary than a reality show, and I couldn't sit through more than two episodes.  The whole first episode is about finding, stocking, and decorating the house, which was super interesting--it takes them ages to find the right stove, for example, and adapt the chimney to dispose of the smoke properly--but once the family moved in the show lost its appeal somewhat.  It did really make me want a gig as the prop guy for a show like this, though.
  • Manor House (Edwardian Country House in the UK) gives one family the job of being 'masters' and a bunch of unrelated people the job of being 'servants' in a manor house equipped as it would have been in the Edwardian period. The masters are really boring and get super entitled over the course of the series ("I don't think I'm the servant type," Sir John says at one point, and that is probably the least condescending sentence to come out of his mouth), but the servants are hilarious and awesome. The show seems to know this, because it spends much more time on them--and therefore on the household duties, which is exciting for a history nerd like me. Period homemade dishwashing liquid! Old-school sanitary belts! All manner of disgusting, cream-doused Edwardian food, cooked on a coal stove!
  • 1940s House puts a three-generation family through the rigors of the Blitz. They are such darling, adorable, scrappy people--they all seem to be in it to understand British history and honor the sacrifice of the people who lived through WWII. They get frustrated and shout at each other--the grandmother memorably graffitis "wot, no bubble bath?" on the bathroom wall after the eldest grandson, given the job of fuel warden, vetoes baths with more than five inches of water--but they pull together so sweetly, it warms your heart. The fashion is fun too--housedresses, kerchiefs, WVS uniforms, sweater vests and bowl cuts on the boys.
  • Regency House Party is billed as a dating show--the PBS version of the DVD has this really irritating voice-over introduction that sounds more appropriate to The Bachelorette or something--but is mostly interesting in the way its premise ultimately fails.  As in previous shows, the participants accept restrictions on their social interactions, curtailment of physical comforts, and isolation from the outside world; but they won't (and probably can't) abide by the romantic priorities of the Regency era.  There's no real incentive for them to consent to fake 19th-century marriage matches, and the men and women are so effectively separated that 21st-century relationships just can't form (the most enduring connection is between one of the young gentleman and an older chaperone).  It's worth watching, if you can ignore one of the whinier young ladies and her (inexplicably multiple) suitors.
The "_____ Farm" series has a similar premise--sending its subjects back in time to live day-to-day as a previous generation would have--but this time it's historians instead of regular folk.  Think more educational documentary than reality TV (i.e. this is BBC Two, not Channel 4).  Each series spans "a full calendar year," over which time the historians do every conceivable kind of farm work.  They're really oddly compelling.  (I've linked to the Wikipedia pages rather than Amazon, as most of these are only available to buy on region 2 DVD--if you're in the UK, that's awesome--if not--you know where to look.)

  • Tales from the Green Valley is the first in the series, set on a Stuart-era (early 17th century) Welsh farm.  Watch this show if you like doublets and men wrestling sheep and women beating their laundry by the riverside and cute archaeology students building privies.
  • On Victorian Farm, three of the experts from Tales from the Green Valley--historian Ruth Goodman and archaeology students Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn--sign on to spend yet another year in the past, but this time it's the 1880s instead.  At first, it's weird how excited Alex and Peter get about the Victorian farming technology, which from our point of view look like clumsy, inefficient iron torture devises--but once you've watched Tales from the Green Valley and seen how much work 17th century farming is, it makes total sense.  This is probably my favorite of the series--Ruth's teenage daughters show up on occasion to help her boil Christmas puddings or sew woolen underwear for the boys, and Peter gets all mushy-eyed over newborn piglets--it's pretty great.  There's even a three-episode Christmas special!
  • Edwardian Farm gets into the social and economic changes at the start of the 20th century, as Ruth, Alex, and Peter try not only farm work but a wide variety of the minor industries that rural people were forced to diversify into in order to supplement their farming income (lacemaking, market gardening, tin and copper mining, fish hatcheries, etc.).  I have it on strong authority that Peter is especially dashing in this series.  
  • And finally, Victorian Pharmacy has a slightly different setup: Ruth, along with two pharmaceutical experts, opens and runs a period pharmacy in one of those historical reenactment village places.  It's really cute.  Over the four episodes, they pass through the Victorian era: from largely herbal remedies based on traditional recipes to scientific chemical distillations newly invented by imaginative pharmacists.  You should probably just watch it.


  1. Thank you for this list! I can't wait to check some of these things out, especially 97 Ochard... :)

  2. It's really good. I picked it up for a course called Notions of Whiteness that I dropped shortly afterward--the book is about immigrant identity through the lens of cooking and domestic work. It's brilliant. :)

  3. I got it from the library! I love it so far :)

  4. My favorite part is the excerpt from a turn-of-the-century article about Italian food--it's so skeptical about the concept of spaghetti. :)