The roots of homesickness

Willy Lott's House Constable
Willy Lott’s House, John Constable (1811)

The word “homesick” first entered common parlance in the late 18th century. It accompanied a rising feeling of nostalgia for the home as it transitioned; no longer a place of residence or the locus of one’s business, it became a symbolic emblem of family, safety and love.

The age of industrialisation gave cause for rising urbanisation; work for those in large cities found it more convenient, and indeed – cheaper – to move into the metropolitan’s suburbs and commute to work. This was made more feasible as the transportation network grew tremendously in the first half of the 19th century.

Between omnibuses and the growing rail network, commuting daily into work became not only possible, but preferred. The era of conducting one’s work from home, especially for the middling-classes, was replaced by bifurcation. Work was conducted in the public sphere and the private sphere – the home – came to represent a safe haven from the business world. This business world was competitive, stressful, and – most significantly – worldly. The home, delegated to the woman’s sphere, was a safe haven from the public business world. The home was a safe, moral reprieve from the stresses of daily life which faced men, as the pressure to be the sole breadwinner was popularised.

Along with this view of the home as a haven, came the concept of “home-sickness”. This term was first used in the 1770s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was – for the first time – used to reference the longing one faced for the home and family. Indeed, by the mid 19th century the centrality of the home and the primacy of the domestic sphere to a happy life was widely felt. Hippolyte Taine, after a visit to England, commented as follows:

“Every Englishman has, in the matter of marriage, a romantic spot in his heart. He imagines a ‘home’, with the woman of his choice, the pair of them alone with their children. That is his own little universe, closed to the world.” Hippolyte Taine 1850

Literature and letters swelled with this concept throughout the early 19th century – the home, indeed, was the heart and hearth of romanticism, where sentimentality abounded, in its connection with family life. As with William Cowper’s poem below, this desire for home was often connected with the Romantic elevation of nature, as poetry often painted a picture of home as though it were located in a John Constable painting – a locus of peace and idealism. In 1794, Cowper comments on the idyllic home as it provides safety and comfort on a cold winter’s evening.

That sweeps the bolted shutter, summons home
The recollected powers; and snapping short
The glassy threads, with which the fancy weave
Her brittle toils, restores me to myself.
How calm is my recess; and how the frost,
Raging abroad, and the rough wind endear
The silence and the warmth enjoyed within!
(The Winter Evening)

The Home Monthly, in 1861, included a poem on homesickness, emphasising the author’s pain from being away too long:

Homesick for the waves’ low murmur by blue Erie’s pebbled shore
Homesick for the vines that clamber lovingly about my door
Homesick for familiar faces that will smile on me no more
(The Home Monthly, Devoted to Home, Education Literature)

The centrality of home was not exclusive to England, as it also penetrated the atmosphere of the Western World by the mid-19th century. In 1780, John Adams began a trip to Europe as a diplomatic representative from the U.S. Well-known for his letters written to his wife, Abigail Adams, he comments frequently on his longing for home. As he arrived to Spain in January 1780, he writes “Those at home are best off”. In February, upon arriving to France he expands on his desire to be at home once again:

“I am pretty sure, that if I return again safe to America, I shall be happy the remainder of my days, because I shall stay at home, and at home I must be to be happy. There is no improbability that I may be obliged to come home again soon, for want of means to stay here.”

Thus the concept of “home sweet home” which is well-known to us today is rooted in the happy idyllic domesticity found in the late 18th century. The home was elevated as a safe haven, separate from the rigorous, stressful, worldly sphere of the business world. With it came a strong sentimental connection with the home which resulted in the common use of a new word – homesick.


2 thoughts on “The roots of homesickness

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  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this post! Yes, indeed travelling probably did elicit many longings for home – besides the greater distance between home and work during this century, there was also rising colonisation – meaning many people would have been much further from ‘home’ than ever before – as they went on expeditions to explore the Americas, South Africa, Australia, etc.


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