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Moral Order and Moral Ordering in Public Advice about American Children’s Rooms, 1876-1909

In : Renonciat Annie (ed.). Proceedings from the international conference The child’s room as a cultural microcosm. Space, Pedagogy and Consumption  at the National museum of Education–CNDP/CANOPÉ, Rouen, 7-10 apr. 2013.
Daniel Thomas Cook


The study is an initial, preliminary effort toward examining the development of children’s domestic spaces in US American middle class culture, focusing particularly on the years 1876 to 1909. The inquiry centers on how writers of public advice in newspapers and magazines understood and framed the contents, purpose and context of “children’s rooms” as a way of assessing how the child’s room arose as a cultural object to be negotiated and shaped through moral discourses about childhood and training. It is argued that the materiality of the child’s room, especially that designated for the girl, stood in tension with classed based notions of taste and character that parents and advice givers attempted to impart.

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I express my thanks to Brandi Venable and Eva Lupold of Rutgers University for their valuable research assistance on this project.

1Children’s place in relation to the domestic home arose as a growing item of discussion and a question of concern in US American public discourse during the latter 1800s and continued into the early 1900s. Over this time, writers and readers of periodical magazines and newspapers addressed and commented on the existence and provenance of rooms specifically intended for children within the house, including articulations regarding the appropriate contents, decoration, use and upkeep of these spaces. In enunciating the material and spatial details of these rooms, writers also proffered visions of proper childhoods – i.e., proper girlhoods and boyhoods – as found in and prescribed by the materiality and material ordering of these rooms. The order of things in children’s rooms acquired a moral cast in the way it was thought to both reflect and create (or teach) the kind of personal character that was consistent with the social class aspirations of the readers and parents. One also finds concerns about the impending, if subtle, creep of mass produced, commercial goods woven throughout the progression of these discourses, informing their counsel and assessment by writers.

2This paper is a first and preliminary effort toward examining the development of children’s domestic spaces in US American middle-class culture, here focusing particularly in the years 1876 (immediately after the US Civil War) to the first decade of the 1900s. At issue in this study is how writers of public advice in newspapers and magazines understood and framed the contents, purpose and context of “children’s rooms.” The study draws upon these materials as a way of assessing how the child’s room arose as a cultural object to be negotiated and shaped through discourse as well as through paint, rugs, objects and design.

3It is evident that advice published in magazines and journals does not determine the social practices discussed and neither does it reflect them without various forms and levels of contortion. At the same time, the framing, expressed concerns, issues addressed and the terms of the discussions arise from and speak to social worlds and communities of discourse which the publications in some way represent. Any individual article written on a topic may reflect more or less the particular view of the author and publication at any given time; a collection or set of such publications written over time and published in different venues perhaps can offer something of an indication of some ongoing or recurring area of concern for readers – i.e., the child’s room – which itself may represent different kinds of questions or problems.

The Absence of Children in US Home Design

4An examination of articles and house plans in a number of US architectural periodicals (Architectural Digest, Home Builder, etc.) from the 1870s onward into the early 1900s reveals that children were little accounted for in the design of homes, be they estates, country homes or the new, smaller family homes being built in the late 1800s. McMurray (1997) notes the existence of some house plans for farmhouses in the 1830s where children’s rooms are designated as separate spaces (p.181), although discussion of children rooms as being specialized or having a specialized function did not come into prominence until the 1870s (p.181). In 1905, House &Garden magazine (September) published a brief feature of a horse stable which was converted into a home (p. 55). The floor plan is the only indication that children were a consideration (ill. 1).

1. Floor plan for converted stable showing child’s room on the second floor.

House & Garden, September 1905, p. 55.

5In a September 1907 issue of House & Garden, children’s rooms were specified in the plans of new, and affordable home ($4500 US, p. 110; ill. 2). It is doubtful that these are the first ever instances in the US of rooms being designed specifically for children and with children in mind; the rarity in which such plans and discussions occur up to this point, however, offers a window into the attempts to “make” rooms for children discursively over the preceding years.

2. Floor plan from newly built home showing child’s room on the second floor.

House & Garden, September 1907, p. 111.

6The near permanence of some key structural elements of a home – e.g., the foundation, weight-bearing walls, number of storeys – renders them difficult and costly to change. Specific functionality, as found in kitchens and toilets, also discourages significant reuse or restructuring for other functions. Sleeping quarters, on the other hand, can be set up in most any room with the inclusion of a sleeping surface and perhaps space to store clothing. Many rooms in a house, then, can be given over to specific uses, persons or categories of persons (i.e., “guest room”) through the act of semantic designation. When, as apparently is the case here in this study, specific rooms in the home had not regularly been assigned to children, boys or girls specifically, then one is in a position to observe an ongoing process of social definition of spaces, of children and childhoods, and of their intersection and interaction.

7The re-definitions and re-designations one confronts on the pages of these publications do not confine themselves to the spaces in question or to a specific child in question. Rather, they enunciate interconnectivities – i.e., interconnectivities of children, the “child,” and childhoods with social class, taste, gender, moral order and the material-spatial world at hand. Writers on the topic in this period often self-consciously remarked upon and positioned themselves against an imagined, but no less real, “old” view of childhood, seeking to encourage their readers into novel understandings of who children are, what they ”need” and “want”, and how their rooms will articulate (and often enable) a presumed or wished for life course trajectory for the child. In brief, children’s rooms reside in narratives – narratives which entangle childhood, itself narratively construed, with social class, taste, gender, beauty, education and unnamed racial and ethnic identities. Collectively and over time, one gleans something of convergence of narratives about children’s rooms, even as there remain divergent and contradictory strands.

8Available published materials indicate that public discussion about children’s rooms was rare until about the 1860s in the US. Prior to this time, published writing appeared to concentrate on the furniture in and make up of school rooms (American Annals of Education, June 1837, p. 246) and on the importance of ventilating rooms where children sleep (The Youth’s Companion, June 1865, p. 8), a practice believed at the time would reduce the incidence of infectious disease. Ventilation, in addition to adequate sunshine, remained routine aspects of the prescriptions for rooms for young persons throughout the century, but would recede in stated importance as issues of design, taste and moral regard came to the fore. Young persons in these papers and magazines were referred to by gender, where a “boy” or “girl” often indicated someone anywhere from about 11 or 12 years of age through 16 or 18 (i.e., the beginnings of work life or college). Sometimes texts referred to the “child” or “children” without specifying gender, usually indicating someone in the early school years and aged in the range of about 6 to 10 years old, with babies comprising the lowest aged category. In the 1870s and 1880s, most attention was paid to rooms for the girl or boy; in the 1890s increased focus came to babies and nurseries and, by the turn of the century, rooms for the “child,” in general, were being discussed in some detail. This paper focuses only on boy and girl “children,” leaving discussion of spaces for nurseries and other young persons for another occasion.

Materialities and Moralities of Taste and Gender

9After about 1860, the underlying issue that comes to organize the narratives of and proscriptions for children’s rooms centers on finding or creating a place for a young person in the home. Rooms, be they intended be for boys or girls, often were recovered spaces – e.g., an old unused loft, a room in the house that had been used for storage. Girls, it seems, most often were reported as recipients of the more promising areas of the home. Giving such spaces over to children would not require much, if any, change for the rest of the family in terms of living arrangements. Suggestions to readers tended to downplay the financial expense or physical effort – or the need for expense or much effort – to carve our a space for a boy or girl. Regularly, writers laid emphasis on the importance of the fact that the boy or girl would have his or her own space for which to care.

10The details of decoration, of the contents and, importantly, of their arrangement turned several functions, including both a training in and a revealing of class-infused notions of taste and character. Taste and social class took distinctly gendered forms. The gendering of rooms at this time and in these depictions arises less as a matter of content, e.g., color or decoration, and more as a differentiated disposition toward things and the order of things. For boys, their rooms were said provide an opportunity for them to appreciate and care for things that they may otherwise lack. One writer in the Ohio Farmer in 1875 (“The Boy’s Room”, p. 283), which was reprinted from Scribner’s (a national magazine) relates a story of how some boys “claimed” an old loft over the farm’s woodhouse, offering the view that parents should give “over to boys as soon as they turn 12-14 a room, not a sleeping chamber, which they will take reasonable care” (p. 283). It should be decorated and furnished plainly “according to the boys’ own fancy; if the taste is bad, they will be interested after awhile in correcting it.” (p. 283). Parents and sisters should refrain from entering the room except “as guests.”

11A narrative of the favored daughter-neglected son arose repeatedly during this period (Potter 1891; Reynolds 1890; Early 1899; “A Boy’s Own Room” 1895). In effect, it attempted to be a corrective to the gender presumption of female curation of family and class taste by allowing boys into the word of aesthetics and material appreciation. Writers challenged the presumption that boys are “naturally” inclined against attending to things domestic. A September 1881 opinion from a reader in the Ohio Farmer called for “fair play” when it comes to boys’ rooms (“Fix Up the Boy’s Room” p. 210). Neglected and dismissed as “careless” and as “only boys,” the author made the case that the way to teach boys to be “neat and particular” is to allow them their own rooms. Boys “of course” are “naturally careless,” the writer continues, but this makes sense when they have only a “forlorn quilt.” Compromises could be made as it is not practicable to keep white spreads on the bed on a farm, but “it is reasonable at least to have neat whole furniture carpets, curtains, mirror, combs and brushes so the boys will feel somewhat civilized, and look so too” (p. 210). Here, as elsewhere, the kinds of things that surround a child (boy or girl) are made to be consequential to the fabrication of their character.

12The belief in the self-correcting nature of “taste” expressed here recurs throughout these writings during this period and can be found informing prescriptions for both girls and boys, albeit usually in a different register for each. For girls of this age, according to one writer, rooms and their decoration serve as expressions of an inner disposition. Rooms inform if the girl is “neat or unneat,” “orderly or disorderly” and give a sense of her “disposition” as “sunny or gloomy” (H.H. 1876, p. 486). The care of these rooms and the sense of taste, beauty and disposition they reveal, the writer continues, does not come from the amount of money one spends for furnishings and decorations. Indeed, it is at this age – i.e., young girls still living at home with their parents – when she will expect to come to have a “new standard of values in the matter of spending money, as soon as she begins to want to buy things to make rooms pretty” (ibid., p. 486). The enemy in this scenario is ugliness borne of an untrained or unmotivated sense of beauty and aesthetic “fit.” The writer pleads: “No! It is not a question of money; it is a question of taste; it is a question of choosing between good and beautiful things which last for years, and do you good every hours of every day, as often as you look at them, and things which are gone in an hour or a few days, and even for the few days or the hours do harm rather than good” (ibid., p. 486).

13Monetary cost is raised, it seems, as if to dismiss it as irrelevant to the ability to make a place beautiful. The existence of the room itself teaches about responsibility and taste, but it also reveals character, which is supposedly independent of wealth of financial standing. From an 1891 article in Harper’s Bazaar: “A young girl’s room may be as full of costly articles as wealth can make it, or it may be the result of taste and ingenuity with but trifling expense, but the one who looks on it can, if choosing to take the pains to do so, tell at once the character of the occupant by the mere arrangement or disarrangement of the place” ("A Young Girl’s Room”, p. 826). The gaze of the judgmental observer inhabits this discourse and coaxes the female reader into the same critical perspective – toward her daughter and thus toward herself. The intended reader for this advice surely is not the girl herself but her mother, the housewife, who is told, in effect, that one cannot buy one’s way out of bad taste or inferior character and that such flaws are on display as conspicuously as an imperfectly hidden blemish on one’s face. The room is to be for the girl, but it will never be only hers as it reveals something much wider than individual preference.

14The revelation of character and taste enacted through the girl’s room makes the process of furnishing and decorating it consequential for the girl’s social and mental "development” as well as for future social standing and happiness. Providing a young girl with a room of her own is to give her a place to “be alone with herself sometimes; where she may sleep and wake and think, and resolve, and dream and work; where in short she may go through all those mental phases inseparable from a girls’ life,” states a writer in an 1888 article from Godey’s Lady’s Book (“Far and Near Club”, p. 375). At the same time, having and making one’s own room is an “important lesson for the future woman to learn how to furnish and arrange a bedroom which shall combine the principles for health, comfort and beauty” (ibid., p. 375).

15The lessons thus imparted by things derive not simply from the things themselves—the wallpaper, the furniture, the carpet , etc. – but significantly from their placement in relation to one another. A writer in Arthur’s Home Magazine (p. 470), acclaiming the girls’ room to be “her little kingdom where she reigns supreme,” notes that the room tells the “story” of a girl’s character and perhaps gives “a stronger clue” of “its occupant than in the study of her handwriting” (p. 470). The syntax of this “story” or narrative of girls’ character, taste and class standing, again, cannot be located in the amount of money spent but in the arrangement of things :

“Let the furniture be the most costly and luxurious that can be purchased, or consist only of the most meagre requirements of the bedroom, the owner’s individuality is there, and something of her character is stamped upon what those four walls enclose. Little screws of hair combings left on the dressing-table, burnt matches on the pretty mantle border, and a litter of papers about the grate are suggestive of something more than untidiness—a want of appreciation of the artistic fitness of things that cannot be counterbalanced by any talent in music, painting or sculpture…but the girl who can make her room expressive of the harmony in her life, which recognizes that order and neatness must go hand-in-hand with artistic grace and beauty, will have invested it with a charm which is not dependent on the actual furniture and fittings.” (Arthur’s Home Magazine, 1895, p. 470)

16This writer makes explicit for girls that which is implied in similar tracts for boys’ and children’s rooms of this time; namely, rooms and their making are integral to a training in taste through a soft pedagogy of appropriate things and of their proper arrangement.

17The idea that “things teach” and that one’s physical/material surroundings can significantly guide the development of character (or soul) often are associated with non-Western religious beliefs (see Miller 2005). In the late Victorian era, among the well-to-do and gentry classes in the US, however, there appears to have existed a kindred notion about the power of things – and about materiality itself – which takes on a particularly moral cast when children and childhood are at issue. Old, inherited objects no longer stood as the unambiguous signs of intergenerational wealth they once did (McCracken 1990) for this class fraction, due in part to the mass manufacture of things and to the class ascension of some which was made possible by new sources of wealth during industrialization. Consequently, how these things are handled and how they may or may not be consequential to the making of the self and of character unsurprisingly arise particularly for the young of the family, and particularly for girls.

18Peter Stonely (2003) argues that the figure of the girl in 19th century literature served to mark and articulate fears about social change while also evincing a sense of optimism, particularly with regard to the problems of abundance wrought by large-scale material, industrial production. As the emerging cultural center of an increasingly materially rich industrial society, women, and females generally, in the late 19th century become pivotal figures in early consumer capitalism as shoppers, housewives, tastemakers and carriers of class practices. As those who served as primary mode of transaction between the household and larger economy, middle-class women consumers took liberties previously unavailable to them by appearing alone in public, commanding the family budget in the store and thus the attention of retail personnel within (Leach 1984; Benson 1986). These women thereby became the prime audience/market for many the new magazines and publications made with them in mind (Scanlon 1995). The discussion on the pages of these magazine and journals, then, are best conceptualized as public conversations between domestic cultural brokers – i.e., as ways of prescribing and negotiating social change though a discourse on things, spaces and order.

19Order arises a nodal term in the way it allows a distance from the consumer practices and tastes – the distinction of things in Bourdieu’s sense – and focuses on the girl’s (or boy’s) ability to make something out of manufactured things. The clash between the moral order implied by a consumer culture and with the moral order of class tastes becomes resolved in the seemingly agentive ordering of things in the child’s rooms. Arrangement becomes here a way to counter the debasing aspects of consumerism and to render “civilization” present in the lives of these children. The “civilizing process,” for sociologist Norbert Elias (1969), was not seen, in European society, as a linear narrative about arising from savagery. Rather, “civilization” becomes that balance between barbarism, on the one hand, and hedonism, on the other. That is to say, what debases civilization is both an inattention to distinction and an overwrought attraction to pleasure. In the discourses encountered, boys were presumed to have a penchant for the former, the girls for the latter. The solution, in both cases, centered on the materiality of their rooms and on what and how things could “teach” of them.

20Writing in 1906, an author in Harper’s Bazaar (Cutler 1906) relates that when a girl gets a room of her own it is a “proud and triumphant day” as it is the culmination of a long-awaited time when her needs are deemed “worthy of consideration” (p. 935). Made from the typical “cast off pieces of furniture” and embellished with a “pot of paint” (p. 936) and inherited “cheap things,” a formerly unused attic transforms into a place that a girl wisely leaves “uncluttered” so that she may become an “embryo artist” her room (p. 935-936). But, the very world created and the very needs that were worthy of consideration can also breed discord :

“The young girl’s greatest temptation lies in a mistaken sense of individuality which induces her to cover her walls with innumerable small pictures and large posts , all utterly lacking in beauty; to fill her mirror and hand her gas jet full of dance programmes; to cover every available space on a dressing table desk and bookcase with personal photographs; to crowd in too much furniture; and to produce, as a whole, a confused impression in which all artistic effects are lost.” (Cutler 1906, p. 940)

21Anthropologist Mary Douglas famously noted that dirt is matter out of place: it is, essentially, disorder (1966, p. 2). In this way, this imagined, wonderfully bourgeois girl’s room has the potential to evince moral cleanliness or moral grime.

22The children’s room, as it was made and remade on the pages of these publications, resides in its spatiality and materiality – as place within the home, a container for possessions and an educational world. At the same time, the child’s room – in particular the room for girls – stands in tension with its own material and spatial existence to the extent that these threaten to contravene the very lessons that the designation of the space would impart. The cultural ownership of the space and objects therein was proposed by observers to serve not simply in the training of tastes but in the inculcation of moral order through the care and placement of objects. At this time, it appears, the child’s room was imagined in terms of taste not money, of arrangement and not of simple content.

23Materiality – i.e., the prominence of things and their properties – here takes on a particularly moral cast when children and childhood are the focus. In and through advice and discussion about ways in which to conceptualize, arrange and decorate children’s rooms, childhood itself arises as the moral project at issue. It becomes a moral project in terms of training both about the beauty and the ugliness of things, about their simultaneous promise of uplift and of the threat they may pose by stifling “proper” character development. In the attempt to balance a cultivation in taste and avoid its debasement, these pieces of advice perhaps also speak to a sense among the more vocal and public in this social class of, as Warren Susman (1984) might put it, the decay of “character” and the rise of “personality” as dominant modes or models of the self. These selves, as these writers in the late 1800s seem to grasp, would come to be in interaction with the things around them and in a space dedicated to them, and thus would be consequentially shaped thereby and therein. (Susman, 1984, p. 940)

24The discourses of this time appear to interweave material, architectural and educational concerns united by an effort to define or redefine a moral order of a larger social life through the moral ordering of the space and contents of the room. The focus on order and sparseness, it appears, speaks to concerns about the mixing and confusion of value, in both the economic and moral senses. These discussions reveal also ways in which certain childhoods were coming to be regarded as antithetical to mundane consumption.

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Anonymous, 1837. Furniture of School Rooms. American Annals of Education, June, p. 246.

Anonymous, 1865. Ventilate Your Children’s Room. The Youth’s Companion, June, p. 8.

Anonymous, 1875. The Boys’ Room. Ohio Farmer, October 30, p. 283.

Anonymous, 1881. Fix Up the Boys’ Room. Ohio Farmer, September 24, p. 210.

Anonymous, 1881. A Young Girl’s Room. Harper’s Bazaar, October 13, p. 826.

Anonymous, 1888. Far and Near Club: A Girls’ Room. Godey’s Lady’s Book, April, p. 375.

Anonymous, 1895. A Boy’s Own Room. Harper’s Bazaar, March 16, p. 212.

Anonymous, 1895. Arthur’s Home Magazine. May, p. 470.

Crabtree, Walter 1907. A House Built for $4500. House & Garden, September, p. 110-111.

Cutler, Martha, 1906. Girls’ Rooms. Harper’s Bazaar, October, p. 935.

Douglas, Mary, 1966. Purity and Danger, London: Ark Paperbacks.

Early, Mary, 1899. The Boys’ Room. Southern Planter, June, p. 304.

H. H., 1876. The Expression of Rooms. St Nicholas, June, p. 486-488.

Potter, Clara, 1886. My Boy’s Room: A True Story. Ladies’ Home Journal, April, p. 7.

Reynolds, Rena 1890. A Boys’ Room. Arthur’s Home Magazine, May, p. 443.

Stuyvesant, Jared, 1905. A House Built From a Stable. House & Garden, September, p. 54-55.


Benson, Susan Porter, 1986. Counter Cultures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Elias, Norbert, 1969. The Civilizing Process. Oxford: Blackwell.

Leach, William, 1984. Transformations in a Culture of Consumption: Women and Department Stores, 1890-1925. Journal of American History, 71:2 (September), p. 319-342.

McCracken, Grant 1990. Culture and Consumption. Bloomington: Indiana University press.

McMurray, Sally. 1997 Families and Farmhouses in Nineteenth-century America. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Miller, Daniel 2005. Materiality. Durham: Duke University Press.

Scanlon, Jennifer, 1995. Inarticulate Longings: The Ladies’ Home Journal, Gender, and the Promises of Consumer Culture. New York: Routledge.

Stonely, Peter, 2003. Consumerism and American Girls’ Literature, 1860-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Susman, Warren, 1984. ‘Personality’ and the Making of Twentieth-Century Culture. Culture as History. New York, Pantheon, p. 271-275.

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Table des illustrations

Légende 1. Floor plan for converted stable showing child’s room on the second floor.
Crédits House & Garden, September 1905, p. 55.
Fichier image/jpeg, 380k
Légende 2. Floor plan from newly built home showing child’s room on the second floor.
Crédits House & Garden, September 1907, p. 111.
Fichier image/jpeg, 563k
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Daniel Thomas Cook, « Moral Order and Moral Ordering in Public Advice about American Children’s Rooms, 1876-1909 »Strenæ [En ligne], 7 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 21 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Daniel Thomas Cook

Rutgers University, Camden, New Jersey, USA.

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