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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Between soul and stuff, 22 Jun. 2009
Deborah Cohen has provided the reader with a fascinating book on the relation of Britons with their belongings at home.

"Material Good" analyizes the ways in which purchasing furniture, and shopping could become a worthy pursuit with its assimilation to moral values, on a backgorund of evangelical self-restraint.

"Cathedrals to Commerce" focuses on the business side of furniture provision, shops, stores, traders and suppliers.

"Art at home" scrutinizes the way interior decoration and furnishing could become the British contribution to arts in everyday life, alongside the fine arts.

"In possession" accounts for the progressive shift in responsibility for interior furnishing from men to women towards the end of the 19th century.

"Home as a stage" surveys the wild diversity of decoration which developed in stores and houses when the mantra became the expression of individuality thanks to specific styles, colours and accessories.

"Designs on the past" focuses on the crave for antique objects as a protest against and refusal of manufactured objects, and as an expression of self-restraint. Old objects were also fascinating for the life of their own they were meant to have, charged with history and spirits from the past.

"Modern Living" tells about the developments of furniture design and interior decoration in the aftermath of WWI, in the 1920s and 1930s, with the difficulties encountered by supporters of modernism in the house, to propagate radical ideas in terms of style and materials.

The "Epilogue" tries to understand the contemporary fad for house magazines and property TV programmes, as possible renewed attempts to teach the masses, and amidst fears of others' gaze on one's interior, and threats of 'blandification'.

Cohen provides a very interesting and pleasant reading, acknowledging cultural, financial and moral changes between the 1830s and 1930s. The author also underlines relevant connections between this period and our contemporary world anytime it is possible, for instance in terms of gender involvement in decoration, or expressing one's own personality within their interior.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Victorian possessions and their owners, 4 Sept. 2007
MarkK (Phoenix, AZ, USA) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
Deborah Cohen's book is a fascinating study on a number of levels. From its starting point as a history of the domestic interior of middle class homes from the Victorian era into the early twentieth century, it serves as a lens for examining the history of the period on a number of different levels. What emerges is an entertaining account of the democratization of taste that accompanied the growth of consumerism in the nineteenth century, one that reflected and presaged broader changes taking place in British society.

Cohen starts with a quote from a modern-day reverend bemoaning Britain's current obsession with do-it-yourself stores which she sets up as an ironic counterpoint to the past, as in many ways the modern obsession with home decoration can be traced to the Evangelical movement of the nineteenth century. Prior to then, taste was the domain of the upper classes, inherent and exclusive to them. As the middle class prospered, however, its Evangelical members wrestled with the impact of the growing consumerism upon their souls. Their ingenious solution was not to reject materialism but to embrace it by stressing the moral impact goods made, and to channel consumption towards embodying godly virtues.

Though the impact of Evangelism faded as the century wore on, the passion for decoration only grew. The middle class increasingly sought to define themselves by their household possessions, taking advantage of both their increasing wealth and the diminishing cost of household goods. Cohen charts the many trends that emerged from this, such as the development of home-furnishing stores (many of which gradually divested themselves from their additional earlier role as undertakers), the growing embrace of the 'artistic' as an ability for self-expression, and the gradual shift in the responsibility for decorating the home from men to women. She also describes the reaction from the traditional class of wealthier consumers, who began collecting older furniture, creating a market for 'antiques' that allowed them to maintain class distinctions and distinguish themselves from the broader consuming public.

Engagingly written and supported by numerous illustrations, Cohen's book is an excellent study of its subject. From her analysis of household goods and interior decoration, Cohen provides insight into the cultural, social, and economic developments of the era, making this a must read study for anyone interested in the Victorian era and the modern world that emerged from it.
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Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions
Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions by Deborah Cohen (Paperback - 10 July 2009)
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