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Producing Domesticity: a bioarchaeology of domestic labor in Irish immigrants, 19th-century New York City
November 17, 2022 @ 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm EST
College of Charleston
CHARLESTON, SC 29424 United States
Sponsored by: AIA-South Carolina (Charleston) Society
AIA Society: South Carolina (Charleston)
A lecture by Dr. Alanna Warner-Smith, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.
The rise of industrial capitalism not only restructured labor and class, but also reconfigured the intimate spaces of the home and everyday life. As the workplace moved out of the home, the home was idealized as private and separate from the market. As part of this shift, the role of women came to be defined as moral guardians who created domestic spaces that promoted middle-class ideals of respectability, which included self-discipline, etiquette, cleanliness, and order. Historical archaeologists have examined the “cult of domesticity” by largely highlighting how women exercised agency as consumers, purchasing tablewares, tea sets, and decorative elements that reinforced these ideals and middle-class families’ social status. However, less attention has been paid to the physical labor required to produce these domestic spaces. Far from being separate from the market, the home was, in fact, a place of work. Middle- and upper-class families hired waged domestic servants to perform the physical housework, which took a toll on those who did it—many of whom were immigrant women.
In this talk, Dr. Warner-Smith draws upon the archival and physical remains of Irish immigrants who died in various public institutions and hospitals in New York City at the turn of the century. She highlights the ways this labor shaped the bones of these women, looking at the breakdown of joint surfaces, changes to muscle attachment sites, and long bone morphology. Recovering evidence of this labor is important because even as they completed the work necessary for middle-class families to achieve the ideals of domesticity, these women were alienated from notions of respectability and femininity. Moreover, occupational hazards in domestic labor continue to be less visible today, as private homes are not often considered to be workplaces. This talk sheds light on past immigrant experiences while connecting them to contemporary issues in labor rights.