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American Women: Resources from the General Collections

Etiquette & Advice Books

William McKenzie Morrison, photographer Cissy Fitzgerald...1895. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Authors, female and male, have always relished telling women what to do. This plentiful advice literature prescribes proper behavior for women at every stage of their lives.

Nineteenth-century books on girlhood stress obedience and filial devotion as they point the way to the adult “woman's sphere” where

“Woman may be well assured that the surest pathway to the highest happiness and honor lies through the peaceful domain of wifehood and motherhood. . . . To the true woman home is her throne” (1878).

XX [sic] De La Banta, De la Banta's Advice to Ladies Concerning Beauty (Chicago: S. Junkin, 1878; RA778.D3), 288.

This proper place for women was not a matter of choice:

“The God who made them [the two sexes] knew the sphere in which each of them was designed to act, and he fitted them for it by their physical frames, by their intellectual susceptibilities, by their tastes and affections” (1848).

George Washington Burnap, The Sphere and Duties of Woman, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: J. Murphy, 1848; HQ1221.B92), 46.

How to Be a Good Wife

Combining the many subject headings for home, marriage, and wife with a broad range of call numbers, you can trace several centuries of advice to women on proper ways to behave toward a spouse. From the nineteenth-century Marriage and the Duties of the Marriage Relations, by G. W. Quinby (Cincinnati: J.A. & U.P. James, 1852; HQ734.Q7), to the modern Your 30-Day Journey to Being a Great Wife, by Patrick and Connie Lawrence (Nashville: Oliver Nelson, 1992; HQ759.L376 1992), writers explain the duties of each sex within marriage.

In The Young Husband's Book, the author states that in return for supporting his wife, a husband has

“a general and paramount claim to her obedience. The Scripture is so conclusive on this point that argument is unnecessary for establishing the doctrine” (1843).

The Young Husband's Book; A Manual of the Duties, Moral, Religious, and Domestic, Imposed by the Relations of Married Life (Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1843; HQ756.Y7 1843), 15.

A title such as Woman in Girlhood, Wifehood, Motherhood: Her Responsibilities and Her Duties at All Periods of Life; a Guide in the Maintenance of Her Own Health and That of Her Children, by Myer Solis-Cohen (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1906; RG121.S67), dictates in a single volume how a woman should function in each of the three traditional phases of her life.

In another grand compendium, The College of Life, or Practical Self=Educator [sic] a Manual of Self-Improvement for the Colored Race, articles on “The True Lady” and “The Model Wife” tell women to be “agreeable, modest, and dignified” and industrious (1895), showing that similar behavior was expected from both white and African American middle-class women.

From books such as these, scholars can learn how authors felt women and girls should act and also achieve a picture of ideal daily lives, concerns, and duties.

How to Be a Good Mother

Books on how to be a good mother are also plentiful.These works supply wonderful materials for investigating attitudes toward women, children, and family life over time. In Advice to a Mother on the Management of Her Children, the popular author Pye Henry Chavasse proclaimed in 1898 that a child “is the source of a mother's greatest and purest enjoyment, that he [sic] is the strongest bond of affection between her and her husband.” Many other works tout the joys of motherhood but then turn to practical matters such as care of a baby's teeth, constipation, and ways to keep children occupied.

How woman policeman would look making an arrest. [1909 September 23]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Male Advice Literature

Similar advice books exist for men and can be compared to those addressing women. From the differences in tone and language, topics covered, and behavior described as appropriate for each sex may come a perspective on attitudes that shape society and relations between the sexes. Frequently, men are told of their responsibilities toward the angel in the home yet warned of city haunts where

“woman presides as the priestess of ruin” (1865).

Daniel Clarke Eddy, The Young Man's Friend, New Series (Boston: Graves and Young, 1865; BJ1671.E2 1865), 93.

Male opinions of women are revealed in statements such as the 1948 comment on the college woman:

“She is in college for one of two basic reasons: (1) To trap an unwary male and lead him to the altar. (2) To prepare for a business or professional career.”

Norton Hughes Jonathan, Guide Book for the Young Man about Town (Philadelphia: J.C. Winston Co., 1948; BJ1855.J6 1948), 229.

Reality or Ficition?

What really occurs in women's lives, of course, may bear little relationship to the conduct recommended in these works. The purity of mind advocated for nineteenth-century girls may rarely have existed in real life. Information contained in prescriptive literature must always be examined carefully and compared to experiences recounted in women's own voices, with attention to class, age, race, and regional variations. Works proclaiming the delights of motherhood can be contrasted with the cry of a Pittsburgh housewife in 1965:

“I feel like a pie cut up in six pieces being served to a dinner party of ten!”

Jhan and June Robbins, “Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped,” in Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped, edited by Robert Stein (New York: Trident Press, 1965; HQ759.R45), 5.

If a period produces many titles on the proper behavior of women, does that imply that women behaved in the prescribed manner, or were they so flouting the standards of the day that society saw a need to publicize the word on correct demeanor? Only careful research will tell.

The two paths--What will the girl become. [1903]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Browsing by Subject Heading

Combining the many subject headings for home, marriage, and wife with a broad range of call numbers, you can trace several centuries of advice on proper ways to behave toward a spouse.

Below are some Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) that will lead to more resources through browse searches in the Library of Congress Online Catalog:

Library of Congress Call Numbers

The following Library of Congress Classification Numbers will lead to more items in the Library's online catalog, but can also be used in other library catalogs.

The subscription resources marked with a padlock  are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress.  If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.

The following print resources link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.  General resources are listed first, followed by more specific volumes listed by topic.

General Resources

How to Be a Good Wife

How to Be a Good Mother

Male Advice Literature

Reality or Ficition?