The roles of men and women during the nineteenth century were separate and for the most part clearly defined. Men were in the public sphere, in business and politics, while better-off women were in the domestic sphere and privacy of the home. Not actively engaging with public life, these women could channel their time and energy into decorating their homes and making things. As the keepers of the home, women were the taste setters and good taste became the marker of a woman’s refinement, knowledge, and management skills.
Women’s handicrafts were given new regard through the challenges to the art hierarchies brought about by the Arts and Crafts and the Aesthetic Movements. Needlework enjoyed new status and was considered a suitable occupation for women of leisure. There were, however, marked differences between needlework carried out in the domestic sphere and professional sewing and embroidery normally executed by working-class women or disadvantaged middle-class women, often working in dire conditions.
Embroidery reflected the feminine ideal and was associated with the virtues considered desirable in Victorian women: goodness, meekness, and obedience. Since a man’s status was reflected in the home through his wife, her embroidery, through the time taken for its execution gave evidence of his elevated economic status.
The numerous magazines and periodicals published during the nineteenth century were instrumental in defining femininity. Targeted at middle class women, as they were mostly cost prohibitive for working class women, they offered a wealth of advice on all matters pertaining to the home. They offered patterns for projects as well as advertisements that encouraged women to shop, driving the growing consumer culture. Aside from the requirements for the various projects, women also became collectors of textiles, ceramics, and other affordable objects. The parlor was a feminine space where the fruits of women’s labor were displayed, as well as these collections.