WELCOME TO Mothers in Uncle Tom's America.
This site is an effort to recreate, at least in part, the mid-nineteenth century maternal ideal as it was understood by Harriet Beecher Stowe and her readers. The materials collected herein are a small sample of the representations of mothers and motherhood circulating in the popular press of the day. They span forty years - 1830 to 1870 - roughly two decades on either side of the 1852 publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Created by MAUREEN E. RIEDY,
American Studies at the University of Virginia, August 1997.



Mothers in Uncle Tom's America is divided into three main parts. You are now in the "Welcome" section, which offers some background information and tips for navigating through the site. The other two main headings, "Harriet Beecher Stowe" and "Uncle Tom's America," are what you are here for. Synopses are given below. I hope that getting around in them is relatively straightforward, although to preserve the aesthetic there are a few hidden "doors."

  • When in any of the major heading pages, click the image-text at the top right for a brief essay on the particular item. For example, clicking on the "Mother's Influence" sign at the top of that page will bring you to some words on the theory of influence.

  • Any page with notes has a link to my bibliography page. Clicking on the divider between the main text and the notes will bring you to the top of Sources and Further Reading.

    brings you to the title page. returns you to this "Welcome" page.
    is a link to the Harriet Beecher Stowe section. is a link to the "Uncle Tom's America" section.


This section of the site looks at Stowe as both author and woman of her times. It is an examination of Stowe's most famous novel in light of one of the most significant icons of the mid-nineteenth century: the ideal mother. With a "portrait gallery" of mothers from the text, I have attempted to pull out most of the mother figures and present them on their own. Portions of the chapter "Separation of Families" from The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin show Stowe's disdain for critics who claimed that slave families were not in fact separated. Several of Stowe's letters give a glimpse of her life as a mother.


This area deals with the maternal ideal in the United States at mid-century. To be more specific, this is a look at what the word "Mother" conjured up for the average middle-class, popular-literature-reading individual. I have divided the Mother concept (basically as represented in the literature of the time) in four: her love, her influence, her child, and the pain of separating a mother from her child. These are themes I noted recurring in the contemporary literature I read, and I believe these bear strongly on Stowe's story and on her readers' experience of that story. The longest section is "Mother's Influence;" it was everywhere in the writings I studied, and frankly is the subcategory I find most compelling.


    | The Cult of Domesticity | As the early republic developed into an industrial rather than an agricultural nation, Americans' perception of the home changed significantly. Once the center of production for most commodities, the home became, instead of the place of work, a haven from work. The change manifested itself in the literature of the day, and eventually in a housing reform movement beginning in the early 1840's. For a look at domesticity and Uncle Tom's Cabin, please see one of my earlier projects, Uncle Tom's Houses the American domestic ideal 1840 to 1870.

    | "True Womanhood" | In 1966 historian Barbara Welter published an essay which has in some ways become a cornerstone for modern understanding of the middle class woman's place in Victorian America. In "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-70" Welter asserts that there were four attributes seen as pillars of True Womanhood - piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. According to Welter, "Put them all together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife - woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power." (p. 152)

    | Cult of Motherhood | Ann Douglas, in The Feminization of American Culture, writes, "The cult of motherhood was nearly as sacred in mid-nineteenth-century America as the belief in some version of democracy."(p. 74) In "Stowe's Dream of the Mother-Savior," Elizabeth Ammons claims that Stowe "heartily embraced the Victorian idealization of motherhood." (p. 159) Of the particulars of the "idolatry of motherhood" in UTC, Stephen Railton writes in Authorship and Audience, "They are the first principles of her [Stowe's] cultural faith." (p. 77)

    Of course a definition for the nineteenth-century "Cult of Motherhood" is my central goal in creating this web site. Historians have carefully explored the "why" of the development and perpetuation of this concept; I hope that by dividing it as I have, into Mother's Love, Mother's Influence, Adulation of the Child, and the Pain of mother-child Separation, I have begun to answer the "how."

    | America | Throughout this site, I have used the terms "America" and "the United States" interchangeably. While I recognize that they are not synonyms, I find U.S.-specific versions, especially of the word "American," too cumbersome for use, particularly in a medium where brevity is a virtue.

    | The Industrial Revolution | I use this term to mean the enormous shift in the U.S. economic power-base that took place in the years surrounding, especially the years after, the turn of the nineteenth century. For a good synopsis of the course of events and their effect on home manufacture, see Douglas's The Feminization of American Culture, pp. 50-1.


  • Mothers --- in choosing to focus on what motherhood meant to Stowe and her readers I have ignored the vast majority of Americans, and American mothers, who did not belong to the novel-reading middle class. American mothers were involved in the struggles inherent in immigration, in voluntary or forced migration west, in bondage. I have not forgotten these mothers but only left them for another day.

  • Illustrations --- my argument could easily have been made based entirely on nineteenth-century illustrations. Even a site dedicated to representations of mothers strictly within various editions of Uncle Tom's Cabin would be worthwhile and fascinating. My work is admittedly text-heavy; they are here simply because they drew me in.

  • The title page image and the vine border on the opening page are from an 1853 children's book called Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom's Cabin. These and most of the images I've used are here thanks to Felicia Johnson and everyone else at UVA's Special Collections Department.

  • Special thanks also to David Seaman and The Electronic Text Center for making the etext of UTC a priority and getting it online as quickly as they did.