Selling Domesticity Online

Curator's Note

Domesticity has for a long time been for sale. In Desire and Domestic Fiction, Nancy Armstrong describes (western) 18th century conduct books selling female readers a middle class home-life when one had yet to exist. Needlecraft magazines at the start of the 20th century persuaded downtrodden widows to hole up in their dens and darn socks for local college girls in order to earn extra money and secure an independent living that did not require them to venture outside the home. Today, these micro-narratives are woven together by the prolific nature of digital authorship, all of our online and mass media contributions coming together to form a sturdy fabric selling home economics, revised edition.

Whereas home economics — and the originating conduct literature of earlier centuries — taught women to manage a household provided for by the male public-figure, the narratives today hold up the possibility that, in fact, women can escape the Man altogether. Women can claim not only an independence of gender roles within marriage, not just an independence of womanhood without marriage, but also the idea that the velvet handcuffs can be refashioned into a becoming sash, headband or iPod case.

Etsy is a pioneering example of this discourse and its generation. Etsy is an online marketplace for handmade goods with $180M in sales in 2009 and 250,000 shop owners (and millions of buyers). As of a March 2010 survey of its membership, 97% of the online community is women. Etsy's blog publishes a weekly series that profiles shop owners who have quit their day jobs and are either supplementing their income or are working toward goals of supporting themselves financially by selling their crafts on the site. A December 2009 article in the NY Times confirms that a micro-narrative is gaining credence among many women engaged in an online craft community: specifically, that it is possible to “quit your day job,” and for some, to be quite successful. In spite of the critics and nay-sayers, this story has been writ large for the close-knit community of online crafters looking to make enough money to support their work full time or to use their craft to sustain their lifestyle.

In online craft culture, frequently the character of "handmade" and the setting of "local" is part of the sale. The seller’s persona matters. More often than not, the most successful online craft-sellers self-fashion their projected lifestyles as much as they fashion fabric or metal. Self-presentation is part of the package, and story surrounds items and shops and artists. Part of Etsy’s mission in fact is to reconnect buyers and sellers. Artists and crafters in the online marketplace therefore need storyspace, and the blog is serving this (new? old? refashioned?) need. The micro-narrative of an independent living is traveling then by way of the marketplace system itself.

Buyers and sellers alike are the reading public of the design and lifestyle blogs that point to shops selling the very items that sellers are living among and with. Desire is constructed through a crafter’s blog that showcases the home or studio, and the blogger satisfies that desire through an online shop. (Sometimes it happens in that order, sometimes not.) Desire is being constructed locally, socially and by individuals, in an online space that is predominantly generated by women. This new online domestic space — a private space made public — is part of a long history of an economics that is gendered female and situated firmly in the tradition of showcased domesticity. What makes it new (upcycled) is the sheer multitude of loose threads that ultimately comprise the fabric of this online community, its economics and its discourse.



This is an interesting post. I hadn’t known about Etsy, and appreciate your reading of it, especially your use of the term “upcycled” in the Curator’s Note. Your thoughtful account of how micronarratives of independent living become part of the marketing system is intriguing.

 I have to admit that I’m more interested in the project of selling vintage products, products that have to be at least 20 years old, than I am in the specific lifestyle choices of this couple. While I like the thought of a globe collection, I found myself taking some distance from, for example, the shelf of plastic reindeer above the bed. But that may be further evidence that I’m not part of the targeted demographic (as pointed out both in your Curator's Note, and in the Slate article to which you linked).

Thanks, Jennifer.

After reading your interesting commentary on the gendered public of Etsy sellers and consumers, I was surprised to see a woman AND a man in the video leading a tour of their shared living space.  Their discussion of their shared collecting sensibilities successfully communicates the aesthetic priorities they in turn hope to share with Etsy shoppers, and their well-appointed loft (if you like globes and plastic reindeer) serves as a virtual gallery or catalog. The agendas of this blog/commercial, however, seem to operate in tension with the image of the independent woman whose artisanal and entrepreneurial labors are so central to Etsy’s appeal. How does the man in the video fit within the genealogy of home economics and needlecraft that you cite?  Would his absence from the video transform it in significant ways? 

Thank you for introducing me to these blogs.  I’m looking forward to watching more. 


Thanks Lisa. I wondered about this too. The Etsy Man is, in spite of his low representation in numbers easily found on Etsy. In fact, Etsy promotes them at a proportionately higher rate, likely as a means to attract more men to the site and to anticipate complaints that men receive less 'Etsy love' (ie: administrative promotion). To argue this point: Etsy features a seller every 2-3 days (the 'featured seller' series), and they keep the archived list. Looking back over the last six months, only 78% of the featured shops (N=78 total shops featured) were female-owned; 9% were male-owned; and 13% were the Etsy couple (male/female). The Etsy Couple may be an even more interesting subject than the Etsy Man, and one that speaks to Somethings Hiding Here video shared here. It is an interesting character to add to the storyspace, and one that could arguably make the lifestyle even more desirable for women of the "target demographic". (The "target" demographic that is frequently cited in writing on Etsy doesn't sit perfectly well with me, being myself outside that demographic.) The numeric rarity of the male in these online craft spaces - including even larger non-market spaces like the online knit community (knit bloggers, Ravelry) - makes them standout. Having watched a number of these videos, the overarching discourse of showcase domesticity remains. But I think yes, the addition of a professional and creative partner who is also a (hetero) husband/lover/romantic partner sends all kinds of ripples through the story being told (and sold).

Thank you very much for this post.  Your insight that Etsy taps into and "upcycles" (I like the term, too) a familiar narrative helps me make sense of why the site has boomed and why provokes such strong reactions ("Etsy!") when it comes up in casual conversation.  I'd value your thoughts about how Regretsy's repurposing and lampooning of Etsy's products inflects your sense of how the site functions. 

I wonder if there's also a "backcycle" of sorts happening through the site: The way Shauna and Stephen have styled their place--each nook its own quirky display of identity--doesn't seem so very different from the way users of social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace, customize the components of their profiles and pages, such that my digital space becomes the method by which I make and showcase my material space.  

Regretsy (for those of you who haven't had the good fortune to find the site) is "where DIY meets WTF". The blogger (Helen Killer) has rocketed to Etsy fame, and already has a book deal. I liken Regretsy's author to the handful of programmers who are writing apps for Etsy sellers. For example, Craftopolis, which allows sellers to see if they've been 'featured' in an Etsy-supported promotions, or CraftCult, which among other things, allows sellers to easily track their views. Each of these sites has a readership, an audience, and a share of the market. (Regretsy sells products, raises money for charity; Craftopolis and CraftCult sell ad space.) Most (if not all) of these viewers/users are subsets of the larger Etsy audience. Etsy is the portal, and these outpost sites could not exist without the strength of the central Etsy community. I think rarely would community members access Etsy via these satellites. I'd love to know how / if they do.

Like the viewers of TruBlood who buy HBO's $12 soda as Lisa describes in her post today, Regretsy offers items that will allow its readers to claim publicly - in an 'extratextual' way - their participation in these textual spaces. You and Lisa together have made me think now of the intersections of fandom and fashion...

 Thanks, Jennifer, for a very provocative post.  As I was reading your historical reading of Etsy's business plan, I was struck by the strong fantasy of gendered empowerment that somebody is using to make money off of women's labor.  So of course I wondered who.  Following your links, I visited Etsy's about page and noticed a video featuring its founder, Robert Kalin, and his vision of making the market place into a global community (  Its representation of gender (and race) in Etsy management, production, and consumption might be very useful for your argument if you keep going with this research.

I also wanted to ask you about the representation of global capital in this video.  It features an artist-producer who suggests that Etsy offers a (capitalist) alternative to corporations that "are stifling everything America used to stand for."  I wonder if you have any thoughts on Etsy's relationship to international microfinance, its nationalist impulses (as represented by its choice to use this clip), or its fantasy of a "global village."

Thanks again!

Hi Caetlin. I think you would appreciate the great white fog now coming off Cayuga Lake.

Your comment references Etsy's young founder, Robert Kalin (aka rokali). An in media res post last month by Radhika Gajjala explores Etsy's integration of 'sustainability' and 'innovation' into their mission. In Gajjala's video post, Kalin explains Etsy's vision:

"Etsy’s vision is to create millions of local living economies around the world and restore a sense of community to the economy, which is something that used to be very, very important. You’d go to these marketplaces, and the marketplaces were at the crossroads of the world. And you’d go there and see things you’ve never seen and smell things you’ve never smelled, and meet people you’ve never met before. And I think that’s a really important part of an economy. So this is what we’re trying to do, but leveraging the power of the internet to do it, so you have a global audience, but you also have lots of local artists as well.”

There's certainly a lot of nostalgia in Kalin's vision (of the marketplace, of America). I was surprised by the nationalism - love of country really - presented in this clip. Etsy is a young, extremely successful Brooklyn-based company with a (presumably) of-the-chart net promoter score (pictured by Eric's description of the company coming up in conversation: "Etsy!"). Etsy became profitable in 2009, and opened its first international offices in Europe at the start of 2010. International microfinance and critical concepts of global capital is not my site of engagement, so I don't make much meaning out of these facts. I have stuck a stamp or two on an international package going to someone who bought a $20 pin cushion from my Etsy shop.

I think Etsy is a global marketplace. I can't really see how it's not. But I do think that most of its strongest stories are in the English language. Non-English language versions of qydj are a missing for me, though I have yet to look hard.

I should say that although the Etsy community might promote a feminst fantasy, it's not a corporate machination. It's, again, the weaving together of the narratives emerging from the Etsy community itself. In fact, when touching base with Etsy's blog editor and documentary film maker, Vanessa Bertozzi, she clarified my representation of Etsy's Quit Your Day Job [qrdj] series. She writes in an email that inaccurate perceptions of the series as promoting a FT salary off handmade work is what leads people to see it as disengenuous:

"...part of the controversy about the series stems from the fact that some featured sellers are not yet making a living - but for some, that is not their goal. Some their day jobs to be at home with the kids or ailing parent and supplement a partner's income. Some are laid off and decide to make a go of their Etsy shops but aren't supporting their families off this sole income. Some quit their day job and are sustaining themselves as artists but are using Etsy as well as other venues, both online and off. There are all sorts of stories...that's what I mean by a 'handmade life.' It's custom- tailored to each of us."




The moment in the short flm when Shauna says she loves plastic deer with missing antlers provides a great starting point for the issues of consumerism, style, and female identity that you're engaging here.  Your post provocatively raises questions about the relationship between entrepreneurial women's labor and the purchasing power behind an aesthetic sensibility that values the traditionally undervalued: the handmade, the repurposed, and the female.  Like the faux bois objects that Shauna and Stephen sell on their Etsy site, the plastic deer marked by time and use appear to evoke a playfully debased notion of history and value, which I find very appealing as an idea, and, admittedly, as a consumer.  Nevertheless, I was at first reluctant to buy the underlying suggestion here that stylish art-school makeovers could really rewrite the cultural status of women's handwork.  It's difficult for me to see the story of women leaving the (conventional) workforce to do piecework as progressive, however sassy that piecework may be.  Does refashioning the velvet handcuffs really make them any less handcuffs?

I think the one potential answer can be found in the way you have joined your comments with Tara Young's short film.  Young, who appears to have produced a number of short films for Etsy, is also an entreprenurial artist-producer whose work is supported by the Etsy economy.  Her work reflects the DIY aesthetic while emphasizing the widening scope of female entrepreneurial productivity.  I couldn't find any films or videos for sale on Etsy, but I would be very interested in seeing them expand the site to include these kinds of works as objects for sale. Though the site may be exhibiting these films in support of the micro-narratives about "quitting your day job" it is also employing that unusual commodity, the working female filmmaker, to sell the story.  As those working in film and media studies know, we are in an entrepreneurial moment, and it seems to me crucially important that we acknowledge and support venues that employ and showcase the work of women artist-producers, whatever their role, in this upcycled discourse and marketplace.

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