Learning to Look: Built Environments as Sources of Insight on Women’s Work

Historic American Buildings Survey Arthur C. Haskell, Photographer Aug. 5, 1935,Huntington House, State Route 47, Hadley, Hampshire County, MA
Historic American Buildings Survey Arthur C. Haskell, Photographer Aug. 5, 1935,Huntington House, State Route 47, Hadley, Hampshire County, MA

An Irish immigrant passes along the plastered stone walls and tiny windows of her New York employer’s basement kitchen and ascends the stairs. One flight takes her to the family’s main living spaces and another to the halls outside their bedrooms before she opens the door to the winding, steep and narrow set of tower stairs that offer the only access to the attic, and the three adjoining servants’ rooms there.  A row of pegs on the plaster walls suggest that no chests of drawers sit on the room’s pine floors, but her modest wardrobe would scarcely require one. She reaches toward a shelf mounted high on the wall and lights a candle, the only flame in this hearthless room.  Soot drifts across the whitewash.

Today, domestic servants like this woman often languish in what curator Patricia West has called “documentary obscurity.”[1]  The Irish women who once labored in and around Lindenwald–the Kinderhook, New York, home of retired U.S. President Martin Van Buren [1782-1862]–rarely appear in the archival record apart from the occasional passing reference in family correspondence, census records and other fragmentary mentions.  The carbon shadow still visible on the wall today is among the few physical traces that remain of these women’s lives on Van Buren’s estate.    

Historic American Buildings Survey Arthur C. Haskell, Photographer Aug. 5, 1935, side & ell, looking northerly, Huntington House, State Route 47, Hadley, Hampshire County, MA
Historic American Buildings Survey Arthur C. Haskell, Photographer Aug. 5, 1935, side & ell, looking northerly, Huntington House, State Route 47, Hadley, Hampshire County, MA

Moving further back in time only compounds the problem.  The likelihood that working people achieved some level of literacy diminishes, and the probability that any record is preserved declines.  At the site I have studied most, the 1752 Porter Phelps Huntington House in Hadley, Massachusetts (Forty Acres), it is a darkened baseboard that sends shivers down my spine, a sense not unlike that when I first glimpsed the stain on Lindenwald’s attic wall.  The discolored woodwork, an architectural conservator explained to me, was an artifact of the frequent moppings the space required when the family stored products of their active cheesemaking operation there. It is among the only tangible evidence I have from the hands of the women whose lives I study.

Tactile, multivalent sites like these are powerful avenues into the past.  Today, a museum docent and a museum visitor walk together through the spaces of the historic house museum, a workplace for one while a site of leisure for the other.  The museum rooms that are simultaneously places of employment and of recreation today were of course no different in the past: sites of labor and production for some were venues of consumption and genteel display for others. In the last half of the eighteenth century, three female members of the family (representing three generations) lived at Forty Acres: for another sixty women during those decades—young and old; white, black and native; enslaved and free—this was a workplace.[2] Archival sources and visual culture can tell us a great deal about how working men and women navigated these spaces, but the physical fabric of the past itself is more rarely engaged. How can historians more deeply engage these extant work environments as sources of scholarly insight?

Such research demands that we become our most interdisciplinary selves. We must read widely across the field of material culture; befriend architectural conservators, state historic preservation officers, and other keepers of the built past; and learn to read historic structures, and also historic structures reports.[3]

But there are some obvious questions to bring to any historic environment:

Floorplans:  The arrangement of spaces tells us a tremendous amount of the social relations of work. Where are sites of production in relation to sites of leisure?  How do landscapes proximate to dwellings (farmyards, streetscapes) connect to, or create distances from, interiors?  Which spaces are porous, and which protected?

Alterations:  Renovations are a fruitful source of insight into changing expectations.  In 1752, seventy-four feet separated the formal and service entrances of the house; after 1771, that distance increased to ninety-six feet, and by 1800, fully one hundred and thirty two feet divided the two.  What does this suggest about patterns of movement?  Levels of effort?  Changing priorities?

Barriers:  Both the presence and absence of locks, and the quality of the material of which they are made (iron? brass?) are valuable pieces of evidence.  Which spaces were locked, and which were open?  How was access controlled?  What might the quality of chosen materials imply?

Embellishment:  The level of investment evident in the embellishment accorded any space or feature is a clear sign of the status of those intended to occupy a space.  The presence or absence of paneling and the quality thereof (e.g. feather-edged vertical board partitioning v. raised paneling), wall finishes (paints, whitewashes, papers) or other treatments (as well as how often they change, and/or keep up with changing fashion) says much about such expectations.  At Highland (the home of the fifth U.S. president, James Monroe [1758-1831]), for instance the observation of blind nailed flooring—an expensive technique reserved for display, not dependency, rooms—helped staff reinterpret the building’s history and better track the evolution of spaces dedicated to family members relative to those dedicated to servants.

Wear:  The soot stain and baseboard are examples of the above.  At the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, the recent restoration of the poet’s bedroom revealed wear patterns on the floor, illuminating the paths most frequently walked, and so the arrangement of furniture there.  Close examination of floorboards, window sills, door jambs, baseboards, handles, cupboards and other architectural features can be richly revealing.

Archaeology:  Reports from archaeological excavations can offer evidence of work habits unrecorded elsewhere.  For instance, the archaeologist Mary Beaudry notes that the detritus of needlework—pins, thimbles and the like—too often get lumped together in field reports as “small finds,” yet noting that such items are often found near the location of windows, for instance (important sources of light), tells us which spaces in the house were deemed appropriate for these tasks.[4]

Lastly, the aims and omissions of historic preservation documents the evolution of thinking about the history of work.  When descendant James Lincoln Huntington converted his family home at Forty Acres into a house museum in the 1960s, he purposefully removed architectural evidence of the farm’s working life.  Down went sheds, barns and outbuildings.  The built environment preserved and interpreted the memory of the well-to-do family that lived there, and—as is true at many historic sites—spaces associated with hired labor were converted to staff uses.  The museum itself is an artifact of a moment in time when preservationists celebrated genealogies of gentility and marginalized memory of early American workers.  Lucky for me, those darkened baseboards survived, preserved by neglect in the bottom of a storage closet.




Marla R. Miller is completing a book project tentatively titled Knowing Your Place: Landscapes of Labor in a Massachusetts Town for the Johns Hopkins University Press series Studies in Early American Economy and Society.  The Hadley examples are taken from that study, which examines how social relations of women’s work and gender divisions of labor evolved and overlapped in the decades following the American Revolution; the ways in which women’s labor both curbed and accelerated the development of what would become the rural middle class; and how “place” is a product of this web of ever-shifting social relations, its tangible and intangible manifestations constantly and mutually constitutive.






[1] Patricia West, “Irish Immigrant Workers in Antebellum New York: The Experience of Domestic Servants at Van Buren’s Lindenwald,”The Hudson Valley Regional Review: A Journal of Regional Studies, Volume 9, Number 2 (September 1992), http://www.nps.gov/mava/learn/historyculture/upload/Lindenwald%20Servants.pdf.  For the historic structure reports and other documents, see the entries under Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in the Park Reports/Studies section of the NPS History page, at http://www.npshistory.com/park_histories.htm#m

[2] Information about the house is drawn from Greg Clancey, Historic Structures Report, Adams and Roy, Inc. of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in late 1987 and early 1988. A copy of the report can be found in Box 178, Porter Phelps Huntington Family Papers, Amherst College Special Collections and Archives.

[3] See Leora Auslaners, Amy Bently, Leor Halevi, H. Otto Sibum, and Christopher Witmore, “Conversation: Historians and the Study of Material Culture”  American Historical Review https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/scmsAdmin/uploads/005/083/AHR%20conversations.pdf

[4] Mary C. Beaudry, Findings: The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing (Yale, 2007).


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