Last updated: January 25, 2018
The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1984, by Jack Larkin. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Jack Larkin’s The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840, describes the daily life of Americans in the first decades of the new nation and how their lives were transformed during a period of massive change in the nation’s politics, society and economy. Many Americans experienced new standards of abundance, comfort and refinement in their daily lives, while others had a much smaller share of these changes.
The book portrays how Americans worked: how the rhythms of marriage, birth, sickness and death shaped their lives. The book discusses how they built, furnished and lived in their houses; how they sang and made music; how they came to be a restless and far-traveling people. It also tells what their food, clothing and hygiene were like.
A brief passage regarding a simple parlor carpet illuminates the emerging importance of creature comforts: “The parlor carpet, adding a soft texture to a previously hard, bare floor, became, along with the sofa, a crucial symbol of genteel comfort, and aspiring families often looked for substitutes. Olive Walkley completed the transformation of her farmhouse in 1831 by weaving a “rag carpet” as a stand-in for the expensive real thing, and other families bought painted canvas floor cloths, or even painted their parlor floors with carpet stripes.”
The author describes the often gritty texture of life as these Americans experienced it. In chapter after chapter, he brings to life the underlying patterns of historical change that are embedded in the details of their social and material lives. The end result is a rich and complicated tapestry of American history during a unique transitional period.