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The Persistence of the Open Flame: Work and Waste in the Healthy, Modern Home
Mid-Atlantic Popular Culture Conference (1999)
  • William Braham, University of Pennsylvania

Historical accounts of the modern house report the progressive elimination of work as the household evolved from a site of production to one of consumption. Ruth Cowan has explored the ironies of that development, demonstrating that women of the late twentieth century actually engage in “more work” than their predecessors despite such labor-saving tools as the vacuum cleaner, microwave, and automobile. In contrast to both claims, there are other versions of this tale that glorify the waste of time, labor or energy. The modern household contains numerous sites and occasions where the inefficient and laborious are specifically cultivated in the pursuit of virtues such as leisure, health, and luxury and as part of the nostalgia for pre-industrial conditions by which the American dream home is defined. Lighting candles at the dinner table, setting a log fire in a centrally heated home, using the jacuzzi instead of the water-efficient shower, and even the lengthy preparation of meals like Thanksgiving or the Passover Seder can be regarded as wasteful or laborious practices that nevertheless retain a somehow compelling place in the home. These practices offer a quotidian resistance to the instrumental paradigm in which concepts like efficiency and productivity were applied to the home by authors like Christine Frederick and the Home Economists. These same practices are promoted in the articles and product advertisements of contemporary shelter magazines and in home design manuals from Emily Post to Martha Stewart Living, which seek the gracious, charming, and good life.

The opposition is neither simple nor limited to the single criterion of work: it involves contemporary identity and gender politics, the search for authenticity that drives nostalgic practices of all kinds, and the elimination of waste central to modern environmentalism. But it is precisely because of that contentious cultural domain—equally active across the stylistic spectrum—that important lessons can be learned from a direct reading of these practices, their artifacts, and the goals and dreams with which they are pursued. This paper examines the use of candles and fireplaces as they have endured through numerous cultural and technological shifts. They each participates in an activity—dining and living—from which the rooms in the house receive their names and in which leisure time is spent.

In theories of work, productive activities that have a determined end are opposed to activities which do not. The opposite condition is called leisure, but it is not to be confused with the rest or inaction that merely serves as a preparation for more work. Leisure has its own ends, and it demands expenditures that can even exceed those of productive work: the energy and competitiveness displayed in recreational sports may only be rivaled by the endless construction, decoration, refinement, and maintenance of the home. It is the waste and labor of household leisure that forms the real object of this investigation. Directly examining the results of those luxurious expenditures provides a view beyond the explanations of taste and aesthetics, into the competing claims of nostalgia, comfort, health, and other shifting goals of modern living. Attention to such quotidian acts of resistance does not suggest that the dictates of work and commodification, of life lived according to the progressive and linear time of the clock, can be arrested merely by engaging in practices like the lighting of a open flames. It does suggest that the possibility of architecture, of building and living well in modern society, can only occur in situations that disrupt those dictates, where aesthetics and ethics are not so carefully separated.

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Citation Information
William Braham. "The Persistence of the Open Flame: Work and Waste in the Healthy, Modern Home" Mid-Atlantic Popular Culture Conference (1999)
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