Childrearing numbered among the many tasks that invariably fell to women during this period. As the nineteenth-century progressed, a sterner and more punitive mode of parenting, heavily reliant on corporal punishment and informed by such precepts as “spare the rod and spoil the child” and “children should be seen and not heard,” gave way to what one critic has called “disciplinary intimacy,” a process of raising morally responsible children that relied on a combination of love and shame. The works collected here offer advice to mothers on how to properly raise children, advice that alters over time as understandings of both women and children shifted substantially.
“Those whose early influence is what it should be, will find their children easy to manage, as they grow older."
Lydia Maria Child, 1802-1880.The Mother’s Book.
Boston: Carter and Hendee, 1832.
Child’s numerous, influential publications include several historical novels, abolitionist writings, and advice books such as the oft-reprinted The Frugal Housewife. She also edited the country’s first children’s magazine, the bimonthly Juvenile Miscellany. The Mother’s Book, like her The Little Girl’s Own Book published the same year, offers practical and humane advice for raising children, especially daughters, and stresses the importance of sex education.
Catharine Maria Sedgwick, 1789-1867.Boston; Cambridge: James Munroe, 1835.
Home: No. III in the Series Scenes and Characters illustrating Christian Truth. By the Author of “Redwood” “Hope Leslie,” &c.
This work by a prominent New England author of fiction and nonfiction alike depicts the joys and sorrows of one loving married couple and offers insight into the conventional wisdom about marriage and parenting during the Jacksonian era. Early on, the fictional protagonist, William, tells his beloved Anne that she “could make the happiness of any home to me,” and she goes on to prove him right. However, in the passages on display, Anne and William find their faith tested (if only momentarily) when they lose their first-born child, a fairly common occurrence in an era when the child mortality rate was by one estimate roughly one in four.
Louisa May Alcott, 1832-1888.Autograph letter, signed, to Mrs. Livermore, April 1886.
Joel Myerson Collection of Nineteenth Century American Literature.
In this hasty note, written two years before her death, Alcott suggests that she and the “two babies she was caring for were faring too ‘poorly’” to leave the house. One of those babies was Lulu, the daughter of her deceased sister May whom Alcott was raising, but the other’s identity is in doubt; it may, as Joel Myerson has suggested, have been her novel Jo’s Boys, published in July of that same year. The letter reminds us that even single women who never bore children often wound up with childrearing responsibilities. It also suggests how commonplace it was for women writers of this era to compare laboring on a book to the labor associated with bearing or caring for a child.
“There is no substitute for a genuine, free, serene, healthy, bread-and-butter childhood. A fine manhood or womanhood can be built on no other foundation.”
Kate Douglas Wiggin, 1856-1923.Children’s Rights: A Book of Nursery Logic.
Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1892.
This work by the well-known children’s author (Wiggin’s works include The Birds’ Christmas Carol and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) collects essays printed in leading magazines as well as three chapters written expressly for the book by Wiggin’s sister, Miss Nora Smith. Wiggin’s chapters all began, as she mentions in her note of introduction, as "talks given before members of societies interested in the training of children."
“Unless the child is a more advanced specimen than his father and mother, there is no racial improvement.”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1860-1935.Concerning Children.
Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1901.
Gilman dedicates this book advocating rational parenting to the daughter whom many accused her of abandoning and whom she claims in the dedication “taught me much of what is written here.” Whereas her great-aunt Catharine Beecher had insisted that “children can be very early taught, that their happiness, both now and hereafter, depends on the formation of habits of submission, self-denial, and benevolence,” Gilman felt that these virtues would be better utilized in the larger world than in the narrow confines of the home.
“The Angels Whisper.”
The Diadem for 1847: A Present for all Seasons.
Philadelphia: Cary and Hart, 1847.
This ambiguous plate likely evoked conflicting connotations for readers of this Philadelphia literary annual. The whispering angels might be blessing the sanctity of the mother and child bond, or they might be luring the child to sever that bond and follow them to heaven. Given the reverence with which mothering was regarded at mid-century and the simultaneous prevalence of infant death, it is likely that the plate conjured up both these meanings for viewers.
“The Empty Cradle.”
Mezzotint, Godey’s Lady’s Book, Vol. XXXIV, January 1847.
In this plate, the mother’s downcast eyes as she sits by the vacant cradle, presumably staring at a keepsake case memorializing her lost child, convey the sorrow felt by the many mothers who lost children during an era when such loss was common.
Mourning Locket, ca. 1800-1820.
Collection of McKissick Museum.
The etched design of this ivory mourning locket depicts a grieving couple at a child’s gravesite. This sentimental keepsake commemorates the death of James Cuthhert Heyward, aged 13 months and 12 days, and belonged to Daniel Heyward and his wife, of Heyward Hall, Beaufort County, SC. Heyward’s wealthy, white parents were not immune to the common tragedy of the loss of a child.
Daguerreotype, ca. 1840-1870.
Collection of McKissick Museum, gift of Roger Mortimer.
Daguerreotype technology spread across the United States during the 1840s, granting Americans access to clear, inexpensive portraits. Consumers believed these realistic likenesses revealed the subject’s true essence. The pictured woman is forever captured in her primary role, as mother.
Stella Scott Gilman.Mothers in Council.
New York: Harper and Brothers, 1884.
One of two books written by Stella Gilman concerning the role of women, this work gives an example of an advice book of the time period. Gilman attended a mothers’ club and wrote about the discussions which had occurred throughout these meetings about different domestic duties. She discusses the importance of experience over education in the role of a mother in an attempt to give advice to other women, and covers topics from child obedience to bathing a family, as in this example.
Label: Callen Ring.