Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Master of Arts




McKellar, Shelley


This thesis considers the implementation of domestic aesthetics and activities in the insane asylum at the end of the nineteenth century. Doctors sought to bring elements of the Victorian home into the asylum as part of a modern, humane regime of mental healthcare, which I call “institutional domesticity.” I argue that this process was fraught with challenges. While implementation of domesticity was relatively successful in regard to asylum activities, like labour and employment, domesticity reached its limitations in the physical asylum space. Ultimately, this thesis demonstrates the ways in which all asylum actors, including patients, staff, community members, and the state, were able to interact with, respond to, and challenge domesticity in the asylum.

Summary for Lay Audience

Insane asylums have long been haunted by images of cruelty and poor conditions for patients. This thesis examines a moment in history where doctors became aware of the poor reputation of asylums and began to experiment with ways to make the asylum more comfortable, including through the use of home-like decoration and activities (domesticity). This thesis considers the way doctors attempted to reform their institutions, as well as the ways that other individuals were able to influence this reform, especially patients. This thesis assesses the success of these new forms of treatment, which included implementing cultural recreation (like theatre, music, and writing) and labour (like gardening and cleaning). This thesis also examines the way that domesticity was implemented into the physical space of the asylum, through redecoration and the construction of new asylum buildings.