Beautifying the Home

Beautifying the Home


The Victorian era (1837-1901) ushered in a virtual explosion of interest in hand-made decorative arts, not only in England but also in America.  It was a time of social and economic changes for many, and, in particular, a period that heralded changing roles for women. 

Right: Valance, drawn thread embroidery

The Industrial Revolution, along with the overall economic development and expansion in America, were factors that precipitated burgeoning middle and upper classes with increased wealth and disposable income. 


In addition to their role as keepers of virtue and morals within the familial structure, women also became the primary managers of household obligations.  Aided by the ability to hire help for household chores, women often faced for the first time a new challenge: leisure time.                                                         


Leisure time for the Victorian woman meant something quite different than its equivalent today.  With it came certain responsibilities and obligations.  The prevailing moral code cautioned that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  For a young woman to earn the mantle of respectability, she needed to demonstrate certain abilities or “accomplishments.” 


Not to be confused with higher education–a feminine achievement rarely condoned in the early Victorian era–“accomplishments” included development of musical or artistic talents, as well as the ability to hand-craft beautiful objects.  The creation of “fancywork,” “household elegancies,” and “artistic trifles” became a popular means for entertainment in situations devoid of alternative opportunities and provided a personal sense of accomplishment without compromising an individual’s respectable status. 

Right: Netted Lace Table Cover (Doily)

In addition, women who gathered for social interchange could deflect accusations of using leisure time for idle gossip if their purpose was produce objects to be later sold for charitable purposes at the bazaars and ladies’ fairs that were growing in popularity.


Beautiful, and sometimes curious, objects also played an important role within a home environment. “Embellishment” became the ubiquitous watchword and a primary element of the Victorian aesthetic for household adornment.  The parlor, the room where visitors were received and entertained, was center stage for showcasing a plethora of furnishings and objects often purchased at considerable cost, collected from exotic locations, or cleverly made by hand.  These elements served as icons of upward mobility; and, of course, “more is more” was a guiding principle.


Objects of embellishment created for the American Victorian home were as diverse in shape, form and technique as the multitudes who created them.  The great fairs–particularly the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia and the1893 Columbian in Chicago–introduced thousands to spectacular examples of hand-made objects from around the world which Victorians endeavored to emulate and showcase in their homes. 


Periodicals targeting women readers increased in regularity, as did their readership, during the second half of the 19th century and often included instructions on home arts techniques as well as suggestions for creating the “latest rage”. 

Right: Lace Curtain Patterns

In addition, publications specifically devoted to fancywork offered page after page of directions and patterns, though instructions were often incomplete, incorrect, obtuse, and insufficiently illustrated, requiring the intended readers to call upon their own sense of invention to successfully complete projects.

Soft Furnishings

Scattered throughout this exhibition are various examples of textiles, both functional and purely decorative, created to embellish the home environment. They include bed coverings, window treatments, rugs, pillows, and furniture covers. Objects such as these retained their popularity throughout the 19th century and into the next, though materials, techniques, designs, and the degree of embellishment changed as new styles in home decoration emerged. 

Right: Haskin's Stenciled Bed Cover, ca. 1825

Soft furnishings acquired or created during this period represent more than decorative trifles. These objects of material culture reflect the contemporary societal expectations imposed on women, regardless of their economic standing.

Moral Obligation

The pressure to beautify one’s home was considered, to some degree, a moral obligation as well.


Although the 1900 stereo view card image above was meant to be humorous, it hints at how seriously women of the late 19th and early 20th century embraced their responsibility for creating soft furnishings. Entitled “Popping the Question,” the image shows a young man in the process of proposing marriage. During the auspicious moment that may forever change her life, however, his intended never diverts her gaze from the “fancywork” she is creating.


These expectations were sometimes explicitly voiced.  Chicago area author Addie E. Heron (1854–1918) published her substantial book Dainty Work for Pleasure and Profit * as an instructional guide for creating soft furnishings and other home arts. She made her intentions clear in the book’s introduction:


We have tried in the following pages to inculcate a love for home beautifying; to show how every home in this broad land can be rendered beautiful, according to the surrounding circumstances and the financial ability of the owners; to make use of the homely, every-day articles, transforming them from unsightly objects into things beautiful to behold...[so that] no household, however humble, need be without the refining influences of dainty environments.


She continues by directly addressing the home-maker:

It is certainly the first duty of a wife and mother to make home the pleasantest and happiest spot on earth for the members of her family, and to do this requires more than order, system, immaculate cleanliness, more than the purchase of expensive carpets and pieces of heavy furniture.  It requires the home-making, home-beautifying talent.  It needs the exercise of an ingenious mind and nimble fingers in fashioning dainty accessories in the shape of mantel drapes, screens, wall-pockets, toilet sets, dainty table linen, cushions, photograph holders and all the numberless odds and ends that go to make up the pretty home comfort of a room.

Right: Embroidered Piano Cover

Dear Reader

Heron continues her appeal, moving from making suggestions to admonishing readers on a personal level:


And now, dear reader, right here let me say a few words directly and individually to you.  Do not wait to build a fine residence before you begin to make a home, in the only sense in which the word should ever be used.  Do not let your children grow up amid uncouth and unlovely surroundings, while you are waiting for the dollars to grow.  Remember, the young will seek for beauty elsewhere, if it is denied them at home...  Now, do not say you cannot afford it; you can afford it, because it is one of the necessities and not a luxury of life.

Right: Hand-painted and Stenciled Backsplash


In her book, Heron provides instructions for making many soft furnishings that, by today’s decorating standards, seem superfluous, even obsessive. The dining table linens alone include an extensive number of pieces, including lunch cloths; center pieces and table runners; tray and carving cloths; vegetable mats; fruit and finger bowl doyleys; mats for oil and vinegar cruets; mats for water service; doyleys for fish, corn, baked potatoes and hot rolls; butter and cheese place mats; lunch sets, consisting of a centerpiece, cup doyleys and plate doyleys, with individual doyleys for the different dishes, such as salads, cold meats, and so forth.


* Addie E. Heron’s book was published in several editions between 1890 and 1914 with the alternate titles Ladies’ Work for Pleasure and Profit and Fancy Work for Pleasure and Profit. She was also the editor and publisher of Home Art, self-proclaimed as “the authority on fancy work.”