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Alison Blunt and Eleanor John

Eleanor John is Head of

Collections and Exhibitions at the
Geffrye Museum and co-director
of the Centre for Studies of
Home. She manages the exhibition
program, producing a wide range
of exhibitions engaging with
home. Her research interests
concentrate on the homes of
Londons middling sorts in the
seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries and she is Co-director of
the Centre for Studies of Home.


Alison Blunt is Professor of

Geography at Queen Mary,
University of London and
co-director of the Centre for
Studies of Home. Her research
interests span geographies of
home, empire, migration, and
diaspora, including research on
imperial domesticity in British India,
Anglo-Indian women and the spatial
politics of home, and the city as
home for people living in diaspora.

Historical Sources
and Methods

HOME CULTURES DOI: 10.2752/175174214X14035295691391

Domestic Practice
in the Past





The study of domestic practice is methodologically challenging, both in historical and contemporary contexts. How
is it possible to analyze what people do in their homes,
when domestic spaces and practices often remain hidden from view?
How is it possible to recover past domestic practices, which cannot
be studied by ethnographic observation, home tours, interviews, or
participatory visual methods? Whilst the home and domestic practice
have inspired a wide range of methodological innovation in contemporary research, what historical sources and methods can be used to
understand domestic practice in the past? What are the wider implications in relation to the methodological distinctiveness of studying
both home and practice?
The articles in this special issue address a wide range of sources
and methods for studying domestic practice in the past. Four of them
were presented at a one-day conference on Domestic Methodologies
in June 2012, convened by the Centre for Studies of Home, which is a
partnership between the Geffrye Museum and Queen Mary, University
of London. The theme of the conference emerged from significant
recent interest across the humanities and social sciences in developing distinctive methodologies for studying home. Papers focused on
the challenges involved in identifying and analyzing different sources
about domestic life; the development of different methods to study
home across a range of time periods, places, and contexts; the ways
in which private and often hidden domestic subjects can be made
visible; and the ethical issues involved in researching home.
The special issue is situated within broader debates about practice,
both in relation to methodology and domesticity. Key theoretical foundations include Bourdieus work on practice and the habitus and de
Certeaus work on the practice of everyday urban life, alongside more
recent approaches inspired by non-representational theory (Bourdieu
1977; de Certeau 1984; Thrift 2007). The so-called practice turn
across the humanities and social sciences is wide-ranging in conceptual, methodological, and empirical terms (see, for example, Hitchings
2012; Jacobs and Merriman 2011; Schatzki et al. 2001; Simonsen
2007; and see Harrison 2009 on the limits of an ontologisation of
practice). A central theme revolves around an emphasis upon doings, on actions and practices, insofar as they are understood to be the
origin rather than the effect of signification and meaning (Harrison
2009: 987). Research on practice is well established in relation to
such doings at home. As Baxter and Brickell show in the special
issue of Home Cultures (11(2), July 2014) on home unmaking, a
long tradition of research on home has focused on home-making,
analyzing the often routine practices of everyday domestic life and
work. Some of the most innovative methodological work on home
focuses on domestic practice, including research on the home rules
underpinning everyday domestic life and the use of domestic objects
(Wood et al. 1994), ethnographic observation and other participatory


methods at home (Hochschild 1989; Longhurst et al. 2009), and the

use of video and other interviews alongside domestic tours (Hitchings
2004; Pink 2012; Tolia-Kelly 2004).
Whilst studying domestic practice in the present poses methodological challenges and inspires methodological innovation, so too
does research on domestic practice in the past. How can archival and
other sources provide evidence of past domestic practice? How can
material objects within the home be understood in terms of their use
as well as design? How is it possible to understand past domestic
practices when many remain largely undocumented and hidden
from view? To what extent can historical sources and methods reveal
domestic practice for different classes, for men and women, and for
individuals and households?
The articles in the current issue add to a growing literature which
throws light on historical domestic practice and which draws on a wide
range of sources. Court records have proved to be a rich source for
researching the early modern period, used for example in Jennifer
Melvilles ground-breaking study of the use and organization of domestic space in late seventeenth-century London, by Tim Meldrum to
reveal master-servant relations, significantly, from the servants point
of view, Laura Gowing to explore the power relations involved in the
practices concerning womens bodies, and Amanda Flather to examine the gendering of space (Flather 2007; Gowing 2003; Meldrum
2000; Melville 1999). In this special issue, Gowing draws on the
testimony relating to beds found in legal depositions from 1500 to
1700. Acknowledging the depositions connections to well-worn narratives, the detail of shared and understood practices involving beds,
which were often sociable spaces, are revealed, illuminating their
social and emotional meanings. Vicky Holmes also uses legal records
in her article, mining a previously untapped source for the study of
nineteenth-century domestic practice: coroners inquests into fatal
household accidents. Through these records, Holmes gains insights
into the homes of the urban and rural laboring poor, homes that otherwise are particularly difficult to access through the historical record.
Inventories have also been widely used: Sara Pennell combined
them with multiple other sourcesartifacts, culinary texts and other
documentary evidence such as diaries, accounts, and legal records
to explore the material culture of food in early modern England
(Pennell 1997). She employed material culture approaches drawn
from archaeology and anthropology, which have also influenced
Lesley Hoskins use of inventories in this issue. Overton et al. analyzed over 8,000 inventories to establish broad changes in domestic
production and consumption in Cornish and Kent households, 1600
to 1750 (Overton et al. 2004). The use of household inventories without corroborating evidence to investigate domestic practices relating
to room use and privacy has been critiqued by Meldrum (2000: 77).
Lesley Hoskins present article demonstrates how inventory evidence






can be used successfully, the lists of rooms and furnishings aggregated to produce practiced or real-world norms against which
individual cases can be compared, or allowing the degree to which
advice literature was followed to be assessed. An intensive imaginative reading of a single inventory supported by as much evidence as
possible about the household from other sources, and compared to
the norms, can suggest rich stories of intention and choice. Hoskins
work draws on nineteenth-century inventories, which, with the exception of Jane Hamletts work (2010), have been little used in the study
of nineteenth-century homes, largely due to the fact that they were
thought not to have survived in sufficient quantities.
Whilst court records and inventories present the home at particular moments in timewhen a crime has taken place, an accident has
happened, or the owner has diedAlice Dolans article looks in detail
at the everyday workings of one household over an extended period of
time. Through her analysis of the account book of Richard Latham, a
plebeian farmer from Lancashire, Dolan presents a new methodology
to explore aspects of the seasonal and life-cycle temporalities of the
household through references to the provisioning and care of linen.
Whilst Laura Gowing focuses on the significance of the bed for domestic practice over time, Alice Dolan concentrates on linen to explore
the seasonal and other temporalities of domestic work within one
household. As both articles show, a focus on particular objects within
the home can reveal much about past domestic practice for families
and other members of a household.
Advice literature is a commonly used source in much research into
domestic practice. Karen Harveys article, while recognizing, as stated
by Fletcher, that neither husbands or wives were able or willing simply to match their behaviour to the rules of prescription suggests a
way to move beyond what she identifies as a too-common distinction
between prescription and practice (Fletcher 1995: 154, 172). Tracing
the ideas and practices of oeconomy through the cultural sound box
of both the prescriptive literature and manuscript sources such as
letters, diaries, and account books, provides a more rounded view of
experience. These sources have also been successfully employed in
other studies. Ben Hellers work, for example, on leisure in the second
half of the eighteenth century has used the evidence from diaries
to examine the nature of social interaction in the domestic sphere,
presenting a useful sample of detailed diaries and a methodology
for analyzing them (Heller 2009). Amanda Vickery has shown how a
study of the diaries, letters, and account books of women from gentry,
commercial, and professional families in Lancashire in the eighteenth
century reveals the detail of their engagement in domestic management and refutes the idea that elite women declined into indolence
and luxury during this period (Vickery 1998). She has used an even
wider range of sources in her investigation into Georgian homesaccount books, ledgers, inventories, surviving furniture, and textilesto


see, as she has put it, if she could wrest a narrative from numbers,
bare details and inanimate objects1 (Vickery 2009).
Through their focus on new methodologies, sources, and ideas,
the articles in this special issue address the relationships between
materiality and practice, domestic practice by individuals and households, and the spatiality and temporality of domestic practice. The
articles show ways in which past domestic practices on the ground
can be revealed, and then understood through their wider cultural

1. See (accessed May
28, 2014).


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and Work in the London Household. Edinburgh: Pearson Education.
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