Household Gods

Winner of the Forkosch Prize of the American Historical Association, 2007
Co-winner of the North American Conference on British Studies’ Albion Prize, 2007
Short-listed for English PEN’s Hessell-Tiltman Prize, 2007

At what point did the British develop their mania for interiors, wallpaper, furniture, and decoration?  Why have the middle classes developed so passionate an attachment to the contents of their homes?  This absorbing book offers surprising answers to these questions, uncovering the roots of today's consumer society and investigating the forces that shape consumer desires.  Richly illustrated, Household Gods chronicles a hundred years of British interiors, focusing on class, choice, shopping, and possessions. 

Exploring a wealth of unusual records and archives Deborah Cohen locates the source of modern consumerism and materialism in early nineteenth-century religious fervor.  Over the course of the Victorian era, consumerism shed the taint of sin to become the pre-eminent means of expressing individuality.  The book ranges from musty antique shops to luxurious emporia, from suburban semi-detached houses to elegant city villas, from husbands fretting about mantelpieces to women appropriating home decoration as a feminist cause.  It uncovers a society of consumers whose identities have become entwined with the things they put in their houses.

Press Reviews

Reviewed by Richard Morrison

Saturday, October 17, 2009
The Times [London]
Richard Morrison

“[A] cracking social history”
Sometimes a book’s title belies its riches.  Deborah Cohen is ostensibly writing about Britain’s “love affair with the domestic interior” from the 1830s to the 1930s.  But her book isn’t only a chronicle of décor wars in the era when the British middle classes were the world’s most prosperous shoppers (rather than what we are now – the most incurable).  It’s also a cracking social history, all the more fascinating for approaching quintessential period figures such as Oscar Wilde or the Suffragettes through their furnishings – or their effect on other people’s.

The Relentless Rise of Coffee-Table Cults

Friday, March 16, 2007
The Times Higher Education Supplement
John Storey

Household Gods is engagingly written, well researched and beautifully illustrated.”
It is a commonplace to say we now live in an age of home makeover and do-it-yourself television programmes and at a time when more people go to DIY stores than go to church. Deborah Cohen's wonderful book begins by describing the effort by the Reverend Mark Rylands to reverse these trends. His strangely inappropriately titled "Get a Life" campaign aims to bring God back into our supposedly irreligious consumer culture.

By the Yard

Friday, February 9, 2007
The Times Literary Supplement
Paul Barker

“Deborah Cohen’s entertaining and scholarly thesis, in Household Gods, is that life is seldom how designers or architects plan it to be.”  

British Interiors

Sunday, January 14, 2007
The New York Times
Ligaya Mishan

[A] “witty and beguiling history of a hundred years of British domestic interiors”
“Nationality and class have been replaced by lifestyle,” a new manifesto declares. “People find their place in the world through intelligence and taste.” The author of this treatise is Ian Schrager, better known as a hotelier than as a political theorist — and, on closer inspection, his proclamation proves to be a sales brochure for a condominium project. One suspects that luxury apartments aren’t quite the solution to class struggle Marx had in mind.

Book of the Week

Wednesday, November 1, 2006
Time Out
John O’Connell

“Cohen writes with great wit and clarity.  She’s as perceptive on contemporary property programmes (covered in an epilogue) as she is on Henry Cole and fin de siècle orientalism.”


Lares et Penates

Sunday, October 1, 2006
Literary Review
Miranda Seymour

“[An] excellent book….what we’ve lost is the sense of fun that Deborah Cohen glowingly conveys.”  

‘No nation has identified itself more with the house,’ a German visitor remarked of earlier twentieth-century Britain.  Looking from the outside, this comment would seem only to apply to the lucky handful of people who have the money, and the requisite number of acres, to indulge their taste for idiosyncratic magnificence.  Deborah Cohen’s book looks in another, and more rewarding, direction.  It isn’t the splendours of aristocratic collections that interest her, but the rise of the middle class and, much slower, that of home-ownership.

How the British Discovered their House Style

Saturday, September 16, 2006
The Times [London]
Ben Macintyre

“[An] excellent new history of the British and their possessions... So much of what Cohen identifies in her insightful survey of Victorian and Edwardian consumerism seems to reflect upon our own age...”


At around midnight on a cold February evening last  year, 6,000 people converged on Edmonton, North London, for the opening of a new IKEA shop.  They jostled over the self-assembly bunk beds; they competed vigorously for the sofas; they snatched at the Mäkta global decorations and the Kvartil candle lanterns and the Brunkrissla pillowcases.  Then they stampeded.  Fights broke out.  Six people were injured and taken to hospital.