ADVICE LITERATURE IN AMERICA
Part 1: The Schlesinger Collection of Etiquette and Advice Books from the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
"Manners not only make the man but, to a surprising degree, also a people."
Arthur Schlesinger, writing in Learning How to Behave,
A Historical Study of American Etiquette Books
How does American Advice Literature differ from its European counterparts? What was seen as the proper place of man and woman in the new Republic? What variations existed between the South, the industrial North and the frontier? These questions, and many more, can be explored in this new microfilm collection of prescriptive literature for both sexes from the Schlesinger Collection of Etiquette and Advice Books at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.
The collection was formed by Arthur Schlesinger who used it as the basis for his historical study of American etiquette books. In his book, Learning How to Behave, he traced the evolution of manners in America from colonial times to the 1940's. Schlesinger noted the influence of the original New England settlers whose religious beliefs were directly translated into rules for proper behaviour, deportment and relations between the sexes. He also noted the adoption of English, French and Italian models of behaviour by southern planters.
The influence of French and English ideals was still obvious when George Washington compiled his set of 110 precepts in 1747, but after the Revolution and the War of 1812, a new range of works began to appear by American authors. These works addressed the change in manners dictated by the creation of a democratic society with no monarchy or aristocracy, which brought together people from many different countries. What part did deference have to play in the new Republic? Was there still an implicit class structure? Where did slaves and servants fit in? How were different traditions accommodated? All of these questions can be explored with the sources provided here.
Important early works featured in this collection include The American Lady's Preceptor (1813), J B M de Bellegarde's Politeness of Manners and Behaviour in Fashionable Society (1821), John Abbott's The Mother at home (1833), The Family Book (1835) and A Treatise on the Education of Daughters by Francois Fénelon (1821).
The economic boom that followed the Civil War raised further issues for the writers of advice manuals. New York society took over from Washington D C as the model to copy. The newly wealthy entrepreneurs sought out guidance on how they could fit in to polite society and thus assume their position amongst the elite. Chesterfield's dictum that manners were important, not in themselves, but as a way to get on in society, seemed to be proven right.
Mrs James Parton, better known by her nom de plume of Fanny Fern and a prominent author in the field of etiquette and advice, urged her readers to:
"Always keep callers waiting, till they have had time to notice the outlay of money in your parlors."
The era of conspicuous consumption had truly begun.
One of the most prolific writers of advice literature was William A Alcott, second cousin of Louisa May Alcott, and he is well represented by The Young Wife (1837), The Young Mother (1838), The Young Husband (1840), The Young Man's Guide (1849),and The Young Woman's Guide to Excellence (1852). These works express the age-old worry that the moral fibre of the nation is in a state of decay. The Young Man's Guide went through at least sixteen editions and aimed "to aid in forming the character of young men for time and eternity." It ranged widely over education and self-improvement, marriage and amusements. The Young Wife treats subjects such as Submission, Kindness, Cheerfulness, Confidence, Sympathy, Friendship, Love, Delicacy and Modesty, Love of Home, Self Respect, Domestic Economy, Domestic Reform, Sobriety, Scolding, Forbearance, Dress, Health, Intellectual Improvement, Moral Influence on the Husband,and Social Improvement. The Young Mother similarly treats with a wide range of issues including "injudicious modes of inflicting corporal punishment" on children. How do these models of behaviour contrast with the examples of contemporary fiction such as Little Women?
The domestic sphere is further explored in Catherine E Beecher's Miss Beecher's Housekeeper and Healthkeeper (1873) and two further works - The American Woman's Home (1869) and The New Housekeeper's Manual (1874) - co-written with her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Miss Beecher's Housekeeper and Healthkeeper is divided into two sections. The first contains numerous practical recipes and instructions for setting tables, preserving food and cleaning the house. The second emphasises the training required for a woman to run the home as her own domain, with sections on building and construction, watching expenses, health, exercise, nutrition, care of the aged, care of animals, and comfort for a discouraged housewife.
There are also offerings from novelists such as T S Arthur - Advice to Young Men on Their Duties and Conduct in Life (1848), The Lady at Home (1856) and Our Homes, Their Cares and Duties, Joys and Sorrows (1859).
Metropolitan culture is detailed in volumes such as the The Bazar Book of Decorum, the Care of the Person, Manners, Etiquette and Ceremonials (1870), Social Etiquette of New York (1888), Social Life (1889), and Good Manners (Metrpolitan Culture Series) (1889).
For those interested in domestic geography and the gendered zones of activity and influence much can be gleaned from works such as: Louis Henry Gibson's Convenient houses, with fifty plans for the housekeeper (providing a journey through the house with fifty convenient house plans and notes on practical house building for the owner) (1889); Samuel Burrage Reed's House-plans for everybody for village and country residences, costing from $250 to $8000; including full descriptions and estimates in detail of materials, labor, and cost, with many practical suggestions, and 175 illustrations. 2nd ed. (1878); and Gervase Wheeler's Rural home; or sketches of houses suited to American county life with original plans, designs, etc (1853).
Further titles include:
- Galateo; or, a treatise on politeness and delicacy of manners (1811)
Philosophy of Common Sense: Practical Rules for the Promotion of Domestic Happiness by Mathew Carey (1838)
- Woman in her Various Relations by Mrs L G Abell (1851)
- The American Gentleman's Guide to Politeness and Fashion by Margaret C Conkling (1859)
- The Gentleman by George Henry Calvert (1863)
- The Laws of Health in Relation to the Human Form by D G Brinton (1869)
- The Art of Dining and Attaining High Health (1874) by Abraham Hayway
- Sensible Etiquette of the Best Society by Clara Jessup Bloomfield-Moore (1878)
- The American Code of Manners (1880) by Wesley R Andrews
- Success in Society by Lydia E White (1889)
- The New Century Home Book: A Mentor for Home LIfe in All Its Phases; a Chronicle of the Progress of America and the World; a Compendium of the Nation's Greatest City; and a Guide to the Great Army of Home-Builders (1900)
Some of the issues touched upon in these works are education, physical exercise, health, courtship, the choice of a partner, the choice of a home, marriage, sex, moving away from parents, childbirth and child rearing, the value of grandparents, duty, honorable employments, decision making in the home, sacrifice in relationships, letter writing,
Social historians and scholars of gender will enjoy exploring these works that provide a rich seam of evidence on the development of American society, masculinity, the changing role and status of women, and the emergence of a distinctive American culture.