The Making of  Homemaker
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Sustaining 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.

These 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.

Like 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 of books.

Main 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.

However, 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".

With 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 ones.

Cleaning 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.

The 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.

The 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 Stewart.

The 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 special collections.

1Daniel 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.

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