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

Work Inside the Home

soapine trade cards
Enoch Morgan Son's Company Advertisement

Those women who did work primarily in their own homes – as the majority of middle and upper-class women did – often found that, in the words of an old song, “a woman’s work is never done.” The time-consuming task of maintaining a home prior to modern conveniences largely fell to women, married or single, often assisted by hired help or, in the South, slaves. This section contains numerous manuals and other works on housekeeping in general (see the previous case on Cookery and Fancy Work for additional, more specific sources), but it also features works by Abby Morton Diaz and Charlotte Perkins Gilman highly critical of the stultifying, “soul-destroying” effects of housework.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1860-1935.

Soapine Trade Cards, 1876-1882.
soapine trade cardsIn the early 1880s, not long after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, the young Charlotte Perkins designed these cards and others in an attempt to earn money and pay bills through her demonstrable skills as an artist. Though talented, she eventually rejected art as a potential career because she felt it to be a poor conduit to reform. Trade cards were a fairly common way for merchants to sell their products, and cards advertising soap and other cleaning products were among the most common.

Louisa May Alcott, 1832-1888.

Autograph letter, signed, to Mrs. Parker, 1873.
Joel Myerson Collection of Nineteenth-Century American Literature.
alcott letter to parker
In this hurried note, Alcott suggests that household duties are keeping her from pursuing other pleasures. She writes that she couldn’t use the ticket to the fair Mrs. Parker had sent her since she “was prevented by much work as we were shutting up the house for the winter.” She notes in a subsequent paragraph that her father had gone West and that she and her mother were going to try boarding for a few months to save money.



Photographs of Orchard House, Concord, Massachusetts, and an Alcott Composite.
alcott homealcott home
These two souvenir photographs, ca. 1880, depict Louisa May and Bronson Alcott along with Orchard House, their home inConcord, and the Concord School of Philosophy building on the grounds.
Joel Myerson Collection of Nineteenth-Century American Literature.


Celia Thaxter’s Library.

Stoddard, Richard Henry.

Poets’ Homes. Pen and Pencil Sketches of Poets in Their Homes.
Boston: D. Lothrop and Company, 1879.
celia thaxter library
This picture of the poet Celia Thaxter’s library serves as a reminder that writing, of course, was for virtually all the authors exhibited here a domestic activity which they had to juggle alongside other household responsibilities.



“the deplorable sufferings of multitudes of young wives and mothers”

Catharine E. Beecher, 1800-1878.

A Treatise on Domestic Economy, For the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and at School.
Boston: T.H. Webb, 1842.

Beecher’s treatise is considered the first complete housekeeping guide published in America. It was reprinted approximately once every year from the time of its original publication in 1842 until the early 1870s. An educator and author, Catharine Beecher later collaborated with her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe on another domestic manual (see the adjacent The American Woman’s Home). Among her many other achievements, Catherine ran her sister’s household while Harriet finished writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.




“To the women of America, in whose hands rest the real destinies of the republic”

Catharine E. Beecher, 1800-1878, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811-1896.

american woman's homeThe American Woman’s Home: or Principles of Domestic Science;Being a Guide to the Formation and Maintenance ofeconomical, healthful, beautiful, and Christianamerican woman's home
New York: J.B. Ford; Boston, H.A. Brown, 1869.

Through their chapters on such topics as manners, decoration, healthful food, clothing, care of both servants and children, and the decoration, maintenance, and organization of rooms, the two sisters strive to convince their readers that the home really was the cradle of civilization.

Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, 1788-1879.

Keeping House and House Keeping: A Story of Domestic Life.
New York: Harper, 1845.

Hale became a prominent literary figure both through her novels and aseditor of the influential Godey’s Lady’s Book, where she raised the circulation from 25,000 to 150,000 during her nearly fifty year reign. This 1845 novel fictionalizes the domestic advice Hale disseminated in other mediums. It also dramatizes some of the class and racial tensions associated with what was then widely known as “the servant problem.” For instance, a character quits her domestic position after a black waiter is retained to serve at a dinner party because she “wouldn’t live with a negro.”

“a subject which is, or ought to be, important to every American female”

Eliza Leslie, 1787-1858.

miss leslie's lady's house-bookMiss Leslie’s Lady’s House-Book; A Manual of Domestic Economy.
Philadelphia: A. Hart, late Carey & Hart, 1850. 12th Edition, enlarged.
Gift of Wylma Wates in memory of James Tillar Wates ’19.

Originally published under the title The House Book, this widely used and well-thumbed guidebook went through numerous editions, as did Leslie’s receipt (or recipe) books. Though she also published stories in children’s books and women’s magazines, the woman her readers knew as “Miss Leslie” earned most of her income through her books on domestic management.

“Our problem is this: How may woman enjoy the delights of culture, and at the same time fulfil her duties to family and household?”

Abby Morton Diaz, 1821-1904.

domestic problemsDomestic Problems. Work and Culture in the Household, and The Schoolmaster’s Trunk, containing Papers on Home Life in Tweenit.
Boston: D. Lothrop and Company, 1884.

Author and activist Diaz became an advocate for working women after realizing that the women she organized to sew for the Union troops were “grossly underpaid.” In this volume, originally published in 1875, Diaz argues that housework is “woman-killing” and that men “should share household tasks, so that they may appreciate the difficulty of women’s work.”

“Shall the home be our world . . . or the world our home?”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1860-1935.

The Home: Its Work and Influence.
New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1903.

Gilman described The Home as “the most heretical—and the most amusing” of any work she had written. The book debunks nearly all the domestic myths, demonstrating that the home was not necessarily an economical nor a private nor a holy nor even a feminine space. A domestic life is no substitute for a public life, Gilman insisted, but such had been woman’s lot, and the costs to both to her and her family had been excessive.

“A house does not need a wife any more than it needs a husband”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1860-1935.

the housewife“The Housewife.”
The Forerunner, Volume I, September 1910, p. 19.

This satirical poem, featured in a magazine Gilman wrote, edited and published herself for over seven years, lampoons the hallowed “Angel in the House” along with the domestic ideology Gilman’s great-aunts, Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, had propounded in their domestic manuals.

Enoch Morgan Son’s Company Advertisement, ca. 1890.
enoch morgan advertiseementCollection of McKissick Museum.

This advertisement for Sapolio soap reveals important racial and class divides among nineteenth century women. Even as new innovations promised to make women’s lives easier, working-class women still performed difficult, menial labor for little pay. The advertisement’s suggestion of household magic ignores the African-American woman’s work that makes clean floors possible. 

Medicine Chest, ca. 1844-1875.
medicine chestCollection of McKissick Museum.

This medicine chest originally contained twenty vials of Doctor Humphreys’ Specific Homeopathic Remedies. Homeopathic theory proposes that individuals can be cured of common ailments, like whooping cough, by ingesting small amounts of the disease itself. Mothers often kept such supplies at home to care for family members’ minor and serious illnesses.

Rebecca at the Well Teapot, ca. 1858-1862.
rebecca at the well teapotCollection of McKissick Museum, gift of Fay Stevenson and sisters.

This Rockingham teapot embodies Victorian ideals of marriage and femininity. In Genesis 24, Abraham’s servant approaches Rebecca at the well, and she instantly accepts God’s will and agrees to marry Isaac. This commonly-reproduced Victorian image portrays marriage as divinely ordained. The teapot symbolizes woman’s service to her husband to honor God. 

Spinning Wheel, ca. 1830-1840.
spinning wheelNewberry County, South Carolina.
Collection of McKissick Museum.

Making cloth was an arduous and time-consuming process in the nineteenth century. After gathering cotton, wool, and other fibers, female workers used this spinning wheel to spin fibers into yarn. Workers then wove the yarn into cloth to make clothes, bedding, and items for home and trade. 

Homespun Dress, ca. 1840-1860.
homespun dressAlamance County, North Carolina.
Collection of McKissick Museum, gift of O. Holt Allen.

A woman invested a great deal of time and energy to produce this homespun cotton dress. After gathering cotton, spinning yarn, and weaving cloth, she then sewed the garment by hand. This labor was so time-consuming that many women owned only a few, simple items of clothing. 

Sewing Machine, ca. 1856-1875.
Grover & Baker Sewing Machine Company of Boston, Mass.
Collection of McKissick Museum.

Hand-operated sewing machines transformed home life in the mid-nineteenth century. With a machine’s help, women could create garments quickly, freeing their time for other pursuits. Large textile factories used the same technology, creating new jobs for men, women, and children outside the home. 

Machine-Made Dress, ca. 1860-1880.
machine-made dressCollection of McKissick Museum, gift of O. Holt Allen.

Machine-made clothing, like this cotton dress, created new opportunities and challenges for women. Sewing machines reduced the amount of labor needed to produce a garment, granting women time for other pursuits. Many women and children sought employment outside the home in textile factories. This work often required long hours in unsafe conditions. 



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