Women at home in Victorian America A social history

Ellen M. Plante

Book - 1997

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New York : Facts on File, Inc. 1997.
Physical Description
242 p. : ill
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Main Author
Ellen M. Plante (-)
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A woman's world--from dollhouse to mourning dress--is cataloged in this practical overview of 19th-century American life. From the beginning, Victorian Homes columnist Plante stresses that every practice of a proper 19th-century middle- class American woman's life served a higher purpose: It answered society's call for her to be a `` `virtuous' being.'' Achieving this state required a combination of qualities such as religious devotion, industry, and good manners. When courting, it meant seeking a ``safe'' marriage that achieved balance between spouses of the same class. The home was to be a ``bastion of morality, comfort, and refinement,'' with clearly defined public and private spaces. Housework required planning, such as the system offered by the Beecher sisters in The American Woman's Home (Tuesday, washing; Wednesday, ironing; etc.). Virtuous dress meant wearing the colors appropriate to one's age (light for youth, somber for age); two years' mourning wear for widows; gloves at all times for outdoor voyages. While there's enjoyment in the sheer mass of facts gathered here, the most informative material comes from the many popular sources cited, such as Godey's Lady's Book, Hill's Manual, the Beechers' books, and the writings of Charles Eastlake and Lydia Maria Child. Not surprisingly, some advice is still relevant today, such as this rule for treating the aged, from The Voyage of Life: ``If you would make the aged happy, lead them to feel that there is still a place for them where they can be useful.'' Plante provides fun browsing, though those seeking an original thesis or keen scholarly approach should look elsewhere. And its journalistic style, though clear, lacks the verve of Daniel Pool's social portrait of 19th-century England. Nonetheless, a full compendium, ideal for inquisitive readers. (50 line drawings, not seen)

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