Beyond Domesticity: U.S. Women Writers, 1770-1915


Introduction l True Womanhood l New Women l Growing Up Female l Political Women l Suffrage l Abolition l Women and War l Work Outside the Home l Cookery and Fancy-Work l Work Inside the Home l Mothering l Marriage l Marriage and Divorce l Regionalism l Travel l Bestsellers l Highlights l English 437: Students Research Rare Books


Five Little Peppers Phronsie Pepper


“America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women”
               – Nathaniel Hawthorne, in an 1855 letter to his publisher

The best selling book of the nineteenth century was the Bible. But Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (both displayed elsewhere in this exhibition) ranked second and third. Women dominated the U.S. literary scene at the midpoint of the nineteenth century, both as readers and as writers. And if this sometimes irritated less commercially successful authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, for the rest of us it is cause for celebration.

Lucretia Peabody Hale, 1820-1900.

The Peterkin Papers.
Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1880.

These stories first appeared in the nineteenth-century magazine, Our Young Folks, a wildly popular series that was avidly followed by U.S. children through its nine year duration. The series focuses on a hopelessly goofy family, the Peterkins, with each episode featuring their attempt to solve some improbable dilemma – like trying to remove salt from a cup of coffee (the local doctor suggests adding ammonia), or raising the ceiling because their Christmas tree is too tall. When collected in this volume in 1880, the Peterkins’ adventures became popular with a whole new generation of children.

Margaret Sidney, 1844-1924.

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.
Boston: D. Lothrop Company, 1880.
Five Little Peppers: Phronsie Pepper.
Boston: D. Lothrop Company, 1897.

Like the Peterkins, the Peppers enjoyed a long lifespan: the series extended for more than thirty-five years. The stories take the famous five siblings from poverty to wealth, from small town life to European adventure, from infancy to adulthood. Shown here are the first and fourth installments. Sidney wanted to end her series with the latter, but her loyal fans protested so vigorously that she was compelled to carry on for two more decades.

Martha Finlay, 1828-1909.

elsie dinsmoreElsie Dinsmore.
New York: Dodd, Mead, 1896.
Given in Memory of Mr. & Mrs. James Spencer Verner.

Elsie Dinsmore was to late nineteenth-century girls what Nancy Drew was to their twentieth-century counterparts, but with a great deal of religiosity added. The series extended from 1867 to 1905, comprising nearly thirty volumes. Like Nancy, Elsie had vast quantities of money at her disposal – having inherited the entirety of her grandfather’s fortune – and devotes her resources to good works. 

E.D.E.N. Southworth, 1819-1899.

hidden handThe Hidden Hand.
New York: Hurst, 1920.
capitola's peril, discarded daughter, ishmaelCapitola’s Peril, a sequel to “The Hidden Hand”.
New York: A.L. Burt, 19??.
The Discarded Daughter: or, The Children of the Isle.
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 19??.
Ishmael, or, In the Depths.
Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson & Brothers, 1876.
bride's ordealThe Bride’s Ordeal, a Novel.
New York: A.L. Burt Company, 1905.

Deserted by her husband with two children and no financial resources, Southworth turned to writing for her salvation and never looked back. In her forty-year career she sold more books than any other nineteenth-century U.S. author, producing nearly sixty novels. Southworth was known for her enterprising and self-sufficient heroines – the most famous of whom was “Capitola the Mad-Cap,” star of The Hidden Hand and its sequel, both shown here. Capitola encounters many adventures and withstands much danger, starring in sensational plots that some critics worried were too stimulating for delicate female readers. The mass public loved Capitola, however, and one Californian town still bears her name.

“Why could she not have been my daughter?” – Jack London

Kate Douglas Wiggin, 1856-1923.

rebecca of stonybrook farmRebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1903.

This iconic children’s book was an immediate bestseller that spawned many adaptations and sequels. It earned Wiggin the admiration of literary giants such as Mark Twain, who deemed the novel “beautiful, warm and satisfying,” and even, improbably, Jack London.

“The Native American’s Uncle Tom”

Helen Hunt Jackson, 1830-1885.

Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1884.
ramona novela americanaRamona: Novela Americana.
Spanish translation and introduction by José Martí.
Madrid: Biblioteca Libertad, 1929.

Jackson was a fervent advocate for Indian policy reform. She used her writing to educate the U.S. public about the many wrongs committed against native peoples by the Federal government. Her 1881 manifesto A Century of Dishonor documented her extensive research into the violent history of U.S.-native relations, and demanded reparation. But it took this fictional version of the story to generate the public outrage that Jackson sought. Credited with helping to bring about passage of the Dawes Act, Jackson’s novel is often criticized now for its assimilationist message. But its nineteenth-century popularity extended beyond the U.S – as this translation by the great Cuban revolutionary José Martí indicates.

Augusta Jane Evans, 1835-1909.

st elmoSt. Elmo.
New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1896.
From the Library of Sarah McEver Danner, gift of Carol Danner Benfield.

The pride of her hometown Mobile, Alabama, Evans wrote nine commercially successful novels. St. Elmo was her most famous by far, selling a million copies within four months of its publication in 1866 and making her the first American authoress to exceed $100,000 in earnings. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, St. Elmo was widely adapted for stage and screen, and became a widespread cultural phenomenon. Scores of children, towns, boats, and even cigars were named in honor of its characters.

Wightman Literary Society Pin, ca. 1855-1865.
wightman literary society pinCollection ofMcKissick Museum.

During the late 19th century, women’s colleges provided well-to-do white women with advanced educational opportunities. Though some female students later pursued careers outside the home, the majority fulfilled traditional domestic roles of wife and mother. Columbia College’s (SC) Wightman Literary Society engraved its motto on this membership pin, encouraging members to commit to learning in spite of domestic confinement: “Per Aspera Ad Astra,” or “Through hardship to the stars.” 




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