Heroines of Home Economics: Lydia Maria Child

Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) was a prolific writer and abolitionist. While there have been numerous scholarly biographies about Child’s political activities, the discussion of Child continues to have a hard time reconciling her role as a writer of domestic advice manuals, and her role as a political activist.

In 1828, at a time when the genres of sentimental fiction and the cookbook were enjoying enormous success, Lydia Maria Child published the first domestic-advice manual, The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those who are Not Ashamed of Economy. By 1832, the popular tract was already in its 12th edition. Thus began a long tradition of domestic advice manuals written by and for American women.

The American Frugal Housewife is a true gem of literary history, and I strongly encourage you to peruse it yourself on google books. The book, like a lot of the first domestic advice manuals, aims to teach women how to organize a home in the most efficient manner possible. Though I am not in the habit of eating Mutton, I especially enjoy this page, which explains, in simple terms, where various cuts of meat come from:

Butchering aside, Child’s analysis is that most young girls head into marriage ill-prepared for the realities of household life. They imagine married life will be all butterflies and romance, and then when confronted with the banality of everyday life find themselves sad and lonely. Lydia Maria Child’s advice is to stop exaggerating the importance of getting married, and teach young women to be useful. Life, she reminds us, is mostly unromantic, and the sooner we teach that to young women, the better.

My favorite section of this little book begins on page 89, and is titled “Hints to Persons of Moderate Fortune.” This section is written to the selection of Child’s audience who may have the money to consider which furniture to buy, or how to educate daughters. There, she writes:

That a mother should wish to see her daughters happily married, is natural and proper; that a young lady should be pleased with polite attentions is likewise natural and innocent; but this undue anxiety, this foolish excitement about showing off the attentions of somebody, no matter whom, is attended with consequences seriously injurious. It promotes envy and rivalship; it leads our young girls to spend their time between the public streets, the ball room, and the toilet; and, worst of all, it leads them to contract engagements, without any knowledge of their own hearts, merely for the sake of being married as soon as their companions. When married, they find themselves ignorant of the important duties of domestic life; and its quiet pleasures soon grow tiresome to minds worn out by frivolous excitements. If they remain unmarried, their disappointment and discontent are, of course, in proportion to their exaggerated idea of the éclat attendant upon having a lover. The evil increases in a startling ratio; for these girls so injudiciously educated, will, nine times out of ten, make injudicious mothers, aunts, and friends; thus follies will be accumulated unto the third and fourth generation. Young ladies should be taught that usefulness is happiness, and that all other things are but incidental. With regard to matrimonial speculations, they should be taught nothing! Leave the affectations to nature and to truth, and all will end well. (92)

Isn’t that a lovely bit of writing? When she talks about the injudicious mothers, and the accumulation of follies, all I see in my head is that perfectly depicted character, Mrs. Bennett, the mother about whom Jane Austen wrote those incredible first lines, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” And then it goes on

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, the truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice in 1813, so it’s possible that Lydia Maria Child was thinking of Mrs. Bennett when she wrote those lines about the silly mothers and daughters. But why, the question is, is any of this worth thinking about now. We twenty-first century women are not in need of advice books reminding us that “usefulness is happiness,” or are we?

I cannot speak for all people, but I know that for me, the heavy dose of New England thrift and prudence that is The American Frugal Housewife is quite welcome. It seems that I am not the only one. The amazon review page is full of praise for the way that Child discourages materialism, envy, and all of those negative emotions that define our consumer society.

But it is not simply Child’s practicality that appeals to me, it’s the fact that her persona, as domestic advisor, is one we still see represented today. She is the precursor to Ann Landers, Dear Abby, and most recently, Slate’s Dear Prudence. And like each of these other women, she embodies the contradictory role of domestic guru. It is easy to read someone like Lydia Maria Child as a simple enactment of eighteenth century values of domesticity, via the cult of true womanhood. But the historical record shows us that Child was both a domestic guru and a radical political thinker.

The example of Lydia Maria Child makes it clear that domesticity, the making of a home, and politics, the realm of the public sphere, are not mutually exclusive. For Child, the values one expresses in the home are indicative of the kind of world one is trying to build outside of the home. What’s more, Child sees these two spaces as constitutive of each other. She does not let us off the hook. What would she say to the liberated ladies of 2014? We can only guess. I think she would be happy to see that women had more educational opportunities than ever before, but I think she would be appalled at the value our society places on things, especially when so many people are just scraping by. Reading someone like Child challenges us to think about the household as a reflection of the world. She challenges us to live everyday life not in terms of aspiration, but in terms of usefulness. She doesn’t care what you want, but how you can make yourself useful. And that is a powerful thing.

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