Domestic Manuals


Even before a contrast can be drawn between the contents, the reader going from an architectural plan-book like Downing's to a contemporary domestic manual is struck by the difference in tone. While both are didactic (and at times condescending), the manual was addressed to a distinctly female audience. Often the reader was included in the title: The American Woman's Home, The Young Lady's Home. Some, like Catharine E. Beecher's A Treatise on Domestic Economy, were inscribed to Women (in this case, "To American Mothers.") Most often the preface had an explanation of the author's motives; Eliza Leslie was typical in proclaiming her design in writing The House Book (1840) to be "to impart to novices in house-keeping some information on a subject which is, or ought to be, important to every American female." [Leslie, 3.]

Behind this maternal ambition to help the novice housekeeper was a desire to establish in the minds of women the notion that the work of the home was not only essential, but in its own way, glorious. In order to succeed , a reform movement as broad as this one must appeal not only to the moral and practical sense of she who would implement it, but to the stirrings of pride, honor, and duty in her heart. Beecher opened her second chapter of A Treatise with this idea; "In the preceding chapter, were presented those views, which are calculated to inspire American women with a sense of their high responsibilities to their Country, and to the world; and of the excellence and grandeur of the object to which their energies may be consecrated." [Beecher, 38.]

Although it can be argued that in the end the domestic manuals hurt rather than helped the cause of women by restricting them to the household, it is clear that the authors ("authoresses") felt that their work empowered their sex. They are a claim to ownership of the home, and through it, a claim to a place in a turbulent society. None makes her claim more strongly than Catharine E. Beecher, alone in her Treatise on Domestic Economy, and with Harriet Beecher Stowe in The American Woman's Home.

A Treatise on Domestic Economy
Catharine E. Beecher (1841)

The American Woman's Home
Catharine E. Beecher &
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869)
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