a home and healthy family was a full time job for middle class women
in late nineteenth century America. Daniel Wise articulated the popular
sentiment when he proclaimed, "Home is woman's world, as well
as her empire".1
Cooking, cleaning, and child rearing were seen as women's work. To
some, "Comfort for her family is provided even at the expense
of many an exhausted nerve, and an aching heart".2
How did they handle the daunting work without the aid of microwave
ovens, vacuum cleaners and carpools? Wealthier women might rely on
servants while other matrons bore the brunt of work themselves. However,
to almost all, a comprehensive domestic guidebook could be indispensable.
books were primarily aimed at the middle and upper class female,
who saw keeping a healthy and happy home her role in life. Not only
did they detail the day-to-day activities of a homemaker, but also
prescribed the appropriate moral and religious outlooks. Titles
such as The Skillful Housewife's Book: or Complete Guide to Domestic
Cookery, Taste, Comfort and Economy allude to the detailed contents.
many books of the time, these works often have illustrations, colored
plates and highly decorative covers. From Civil War history to needlepoint,
they contained a wealth of information and were widely available.
Catharine Beecher became perhaps the best-known author. Sister to
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catharine published nearly a half dozen works
on the home. However, many men as well as women authored these types
topics of any volume might include cooking, and would contain a
deep index of vegetable uses, recipes, and menu suggestions. The
Housekeeper's Guide, of Smith and Swinney, boasts to contain
over "Five Hundred New and Valuable Recipes". Often, handbooks
would detail everything from butchering techniques to how to distill
your own alcohol. Those eager to seem sophisticated could even learn
"French Names of Dishes Used in Menus" from the editors
of Home Dissertations. Setting an elaborate table, laden
with china, stemware, glassware and silverware, was also well defined
by handbooks. On the other hand, women could also learn how to make
provisions for families on a budget.
the best-set table in the world would not make a successful dinner
party; therefore, manners were much-discussed topics. Chapters such
as "Table Talk" detailed appropriate dinner conversations.
Hill's Manual of Social and Business Forms contained sections
on the "Unclassified Laws of Etiquette" as well as "Etiquette
Among Neighbors". Etiquette would also determine the proper
place of a woman in society. The Woman's Book described acceptable
organizations and charity work in its chapter "Woman's Opportunities
in Town and Country".
chapters dedicated to home remedies and caring for the invalid and
elderly, a wife or mother would be well educated in nursing her
family. Food for the sick might include "gruel of boiled flour"
or "chicken jelly". Even lotions for leprosy can be found
within these volumes. Raising children required just as much instruction.
Domestic economy handbooks gave advice on maintaining the right
combination of discipline and affection in child rearing. They also
gave recommendations on diet, sleep and exercise for the little
and caring for the house took most of a middle class Victorian woman's
time. Consequently, time saving tips and articles on the most effective
housekeeping methods were detailed in domestic economy handbooks.
Whether she needed to remove resin from silk or concoct a fine polishing
powder for optical lenses, The Housekeeper's Guide had a
solution. Five Thousand Receipts in all Useful and Domestic Arts
even details metallurgy for the home. And since a lovely garden
was often a sign of a well kept home, women could also read up on
cultivation techniques and how to display their lovely blooms. Ladies
even kept up to date with architectural trends and costs through
chapters in their handy housekeeping guides.
typical Victorian woman enjoyed decorating herself and her home
as a popular hobby. Consequently, masses of articles are dedicated
to fabrics, chandeliers and interior design ideas. If the reader
found herself with a spare moment, she could learn a new needlepoint
pattern or fashion a lovely table caddy for baby's room. As styles
changed during the Victorian period, the most current trends in
stitching patterns and adornments would appear in books and periodicals.
great depth of information contained in these Victorian era handbooks
signifies not only the elaborate households of the era, but the
amount of knowledge women were expected to obtain. Though restricted
outside of her domestic sphere, within it she was brilliant. The
books helped in "preserving serenity of mind amid the trials
of domestic life".3
These volumes present not only interesting documents of women's
history, but also help us to observe changes in America's domestic
customs and traditions over the past few hundred years. The handbooks
of the late nineteenth century also leave behind a great legacy
in domestic economy guides, from Good Housekeeping to Martha
Smithsonian Institution Libraries hold many of these works from
throughout the nineteenth century. The libraries also hold a variety
of periodicals written for women during this time, including Godey's
Lady's Book and Harper's Bazaar. This online presentation
incorporates many examples from SIL, housed in both general and
Wise, The Young Ladies Counsellor: Or, Outlines and Illustrations
of the Sphere, the Duties, and Dangers of Young Women. New York
: Carlton and Porter, 1855. pg. 45.
2Abell, Mrs. L.G. Woman in her various relations.. New York: R.T.
Young, 1853. pg. 9.
3Abell, Mrs. L.G. Woman in her various relations. pg. 16.