When Priests Chose the Curtains

Nov 3 2006
The Guardian
Andrea Wulf

“If you want to understand the roots of Britain's peculiar taste for home improvement and today's obsession with DIY, IKEA shop openings, makeover and property TV programmes, Household Gods provides all the answers.”



Household Gods tells the story of how the British became obsessed with their homes and their possessions, tracing the development from the unlikely effect that the evangelical revival had on our domestic interior in the 1830s to the neutral decor of suburban houses a century later. In this riveting and revealing book, Deborah Cohen takes the reader on a journey through interiors cluttered with papier-mâché beds, fire screens set with stuffed birds, soup tureens shaped as boar's heads and baths decorated with shells.

Cohen's starting point is the evangelicals' belief in the omnipresence of sin. Man was born as a "corrupted creature", and only atonement paved the way to God. This notion of sin brought self-scrutiny and the rejection of worldly pleasure; for the home of the early 19th century it meant austerity, as luxuries were seen as frivolous and ungodly.

But as the British middle classes became more prosperous during the 1860s and 70s, the increased disposable income was regarded as "a sign of just rewards for a productive life". As wealth became a signifier for "goodness", so possessions - the more the better - became the visible proof of one's success and respectability.

Instead of investigating their own behaviour for their godliness, the Victorians now scrutinised their houses. Curtains, sofas or wallpapers, they believed, influenced one's character and therefore interior design had moral implications. To make sure that this was properly understood, clergymen preached that interior design was a religious matter of greatest importance. Instead of talking about the Bible they became the earliest home-decoration gurus, promising heavenly salvation from the "correct" earthly goods.

And so the middle classes became obsessed with shopping. "That well-fitted bathrooms propelled their users to heaven," Cohen writes, "undoubtedly provided new justification for consumer expenditure." Never before had there been so much choice: one company offered 7,000 varieties of bedsteads, while another furniture maker stocked 300 different sideboards, which ranged from gothic to Moorish styles.

By the end of the 19th century the meaning of interiors had changed once again, as they became an expression of personality rather than righteousness. This was the age of individuality, and nowhere was this more obvious than in the middle-class home. One spinster papered her bedroom with "black-bordered In Memoriam cards", Conservatives proudly displayed their political beliefs with furniture inlaid with the "Tory primrose", while the translator of Arabian Nights turned his Kilburn drawing room into a "sultan's chamber". At the same time celebrities opened the doors of their homes to photographers, for the Victorians adored magazine series such as "Celebrities at Home".

All this eccentricity was curtailed by the first world war, when luxuries were seen as unpatriotic and simplicity became a necessity. "Fitting in with one's neighbours" became the mantra, and with this a palette of beige held sway over suburbia. Caution and the fear of embarrassment fostered uniformity, and with this the home had become the expression of "common sense".

Cohen has scoured the archives of manufacturers and provincial retailers for stock books and customer correspondence, and this allows her to approach the subject through the eyes of the consumers. As a result, Household Gods bursts with details and new insights. Though Cohen discusses the usual coterie of Henry Cole, John Ruskin and AWN Pugin, she doesn't dwell on them. They might be the best-known design reformers, Cohen asserts, but they were not "necessarily the most influential". Instead her protagonists are the "foot soldiers" of the movement: home advisers, shopkeepers, clergymen and provincial artists.

Unlike most histories of interiors, Household Gods does not present the home as a gilded cage for middle-class women. Quite the opposite, in fact, as Cohen shows that women's liberation and home decoration had become intertwined by the late 19th century. One suffragette claimed, "the making of a true home is really our peculiar and inalienable right", while Emmeline Pankhurst even had several furniture shops - albeit unsuccessfully. Cohen digs up wonderful details such as this line from an article on furnishing that ran in 1911, in the journal Votes for Women, alongside reports on Pankhurst's militant campaigns: "No one is more keen about the home than the Suffragette."

Household Gods is an insightful and compelling approach to a well-trodden topic. Full of treasures, its quirky details range from hooves that function as doorstops to Oscar Wilde's lectures on interiors, in which he asserted that "colour-sense" was more important in the development of an individual than "a sense of right or wrong". Cohen writes of people who claimed to get physically ill in badly furnished rooms or sturdy Victorian men who became "awfully fidgety" about the colour of their carpets. If you want to understand the roots of Britain's peculiar taste for home improvement and today's obsession with DIY, IKEA shop openings, makeover and property TV programmes, Household Gods provides all the answers.


Andrea Wulf is the co-author of This Other Eden: Seven Great Gardens and 300 Years of English History, published by Little, Brown.