Among the most common types of literature found on home bookshelves, over the past three hundred years, has been the advice or conduct book. Since the publication of Gervase Markham's The English-Housewife in 1615, advice books for women have incorporated both philosophical and practical guidance. These works not only taught the skills of household management, cooking, gardening, etiquette, childcare, and family medical care, but they also conveyed the appropriate role of a woman in society. Intended for the inexperienced young woman, the books defined an ethical, Christian-based code of behavior, with strict gender role definitions.
Prior to the nineteenth century, religious doctrine was the major force for defining the "proper" roles for the sexes and for assuring that individuals did not stray from their appointed behavior. Early conduct literature was often written from the point of view of a minister, a mother, or a father, giving its words authority beyond the written text. A title such as Advice from a Lady of Quality to her Children; In the Last Stage of a Lingering Illness (1778) conveys a moral authority for the author's views. To emphasize the educational nature of the material, the books often incorporated a dialog format with questions and answers, or used narrative with a cast of characters whose very names "Mrs. Kindheart," or "Mrs. Newly Rich" were emblematic.
Although much of the early English conduct writing was aimed at aristocratic readers, most of the later works, particularly in America, were aimed at the middle-class woman. In addition, these later works addressed the change in manners dictated by the creation of a democratic society with no monarchy or aristocracy and included people from different cultures. Many books such as How to Behave: A Pocket Manual of Republican Etiquette (1857) made a point of distinguishing themselves from the European model. Similarly, many books on domestic management were available to the woman who did not have a staff of servants. Books such as Sarah Josepha Hale's Mrs. Hale's Receipts for the Million (1857),a virtual encyclopedia of domestic arts, contained over four thousand recipes, household hints, and famous quotations.
As America changed from a predominantly agricultural society to an industrialized one, writers of advice saw both opportunities and dangers. As young people more frequently moved away from the protection and moral influence of their families, conduct writers warned of the temptations to which young women would be exposed to in the large cities. Not only was their virtue at risk, but they could also be swayed from their primary duty to become wife and mother. Books such as The Operative's Friend, and Defence: or, Hints to Young Ladies, who are Dependent on their own Exertions (1850) were aimed at young women working in textile factories.
After the Civil War, influenced by the beginnings of the women's suffrage movement, some advice books moved from maintaining the image of women as frail angelic creatures to promoting a more independent outgoing woman. These included books on self-sufficiency, physical fitness, broader educational choices, and dress reform. Popular magazines such as Harper's Weekly highlighted active healthy-looking girls enjoying skating and other sports. Although the writings were not feminist in the modern sense, as they still prescribed a woman's sphere which focused on the home, they advocated a more active, pragmatic approach to family life.
A small number of authors wrote from a more overtly-feminist perspective. The writer and social reformer Harriet Martineau wrote Our Farm of Two Acres (1865), showing how a woman could be succeed at subsistence farming. How Women Can Make Money, Married or Single (1870) and What Can a Woman Do; or, Her Position in the Business and Literary World (1893) discussed not only jobs open to women but also working conditions and health concerns. Advice on women's health and contraception was published, although it was not easily available to most women. Marie Carmichael Stopes and Margaret Sanger overcame great odds to make birth control information available.
As the early twentieth century brought the vote and other freedoms to women, advice books continued to change with the times. Etiquette experts such as Emily Post used a more light-hearted approach with titles like How to Behave--Though a Débutante (1928) illustrated with images of "flappers" by John Held, Jr. A few works, such as the National Capital Code of Etiquette (1920), were written for the well-to-do woman of color. Twentieth century media produced a number of "superstars" of advice literature, from Amy Vanderbilt and Dear Abby to Miss Manners and Martha Stewart. While incorporating the modern issues of working mothers and cell phone etiquette, they often continued the conservative bias toward White European models of behavior and the promise of social mobility through "correct" behavior.
"Defining Her Life", which is entirely drawn from the holding of the University of Delaware Library, provides a picture of women's daily lives. It reminds the viewer of the ways in which women's lives have changed, as well as the ways they have remained the same.
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