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American Women: Resources from the Rare Book and Special Collections

Domestic Sphere

Your sex requires the utmost circumspection; what among men is reputed a venial fault, is an absolute crime with us. 
Advice from a Lady of Quality to her Children (Newbury-Port: John Mycall, 1789 Juv), 175.

Amelia Simmons. American cookery, or, The art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables: and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves: and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plumb to plain cake, adapted to this country, and all grades of life. Hartford: Printed by Hudson & Goodwin for the Author, 1796. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Women's limited role in the early days of the country is often described, encouraged, and reinforced in the literature of the time. The many early imprints written for and by American women held in the rare book collections offer a contemporary view of the images of women, an American woman's image of herself, and a look at how these changed over time.

Early works on women's role in society are classified in HQ1201 throughout the special collections. These include the first American printings of popular foreign titles like M. Antoine Léonard Thomas's Essay on the Character, Manners, and Genius of Women in Different Ages (Philadelphia: Robert Aitken, 1774; HQ1201.T5 Am Imp) and Thomas Gisborne's An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (Philadelphia: James Humphrey 1798; HQ1201.G6 1798 Carson Coll). Pierre Joseph Boudier de Villemert's The Ladies Friend (Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1771; HQ1201 .B74 1771 Am Imp) encourages women to study the arts, literature, and history, and The Lady's Pocket Library (Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1792; HQ1201.L22 1792 Am Imp) is a compilation of advice to young ladies on friendship, love, and marriage.

Amelia Simmons's American Cookery (Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin, 1796; TX703.S5 1796 Am Imp) is the first cookbook written by an American and published in the United States. Numerous recipes adapting traditional dishes by substituting native American ingredients like corn meal and squash are printed here for the first time, including “Indian Slapjack,” “Johny Cake,” and “Pompkin Pudding.”

Susannah Carter. The frugal housewife, or complete woman cook. 1772]. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

More often, American households relied on local reproduction of popular English works such as the first American printings of Susannah Carter's The Frugal Housewife, or, Complete Woman Cook (Boston, 1772; TX705.C32 Am Imp) and Richard Briggs's The New Art of Cookery . . . being a Complete Guide to all Housekeepers (Philadelphia, 1792; TX703.B7 Bitting Coll) .

Early manuscript recipe books written by women include Mary Coates's Book (RS125.C55 1740 Carson Coll), a book of home remedies and cookery, and several eighteenth-century cookbooks in the Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collection. Pre-1801 works on cooking are found at classifications TX703 and TX715. Recipes and household hints sometimes accompany tips on kitchen gardening in almanacs, as exemplified by Caroline Gilman's Lady's Annual Register and Housewife's Memorandum-Book (Boston, 1838-43; AY201.B7 L333 Am Almanac).


John Norman, engraver. [Child birth]. 1786. Two images of childbirth: plate 23 (left) shows child in womb with umbilical cord and plate 24 (right) shows forceps being used to deliver child. Joseph Meredith Toner Collection. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Early midwifery and obstetrics gather in class RG93 and include works like Charles White's A Treatise on the Management of Pregnant and Lying in Women . . . (Worcester, Mass.: Isaiah Thomas, 1793; RG93.W5 1793 Toner Coll) .

The first American edition of William Smellie's An Abridgement of the Practice of Midwifery (Boston: J. Norman, 1786; RG93.S63 Toner Coll) contains thirty-nine engravings of the birth process and eighteenth-century obstetrical equipment.

Outlines of Theory and Practice of Midwifery and A Treatise on the Management of Female Complaints by the Scottish doctor Alexander Hamilton are also in the collections in many U.S. editions.

In the Library of Congress Online Catalog, use the following subject heading to browse the catalog for works related to this topic:

Most of such early medical books are in the Joseph Meredith Toner Collection. A Washington physician and a medical historian, Dr. Toner gave his extensive collection to the Library in 1882. His collection includes books on early gynecology, obstetrics, midwifery, women's hospitals, and advice to new mothers.


Thackara & Vallance, engraver. [Frontispiece and title page from "The Lady's magazine, and repository of entertaining knowledge" showing the "Genius of the Ladies magazine" presenting the figure of Liberty with a copy of Mary Wollstoncraft's "Vindication of the rights of women"]. 1792. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Magazines and newspapers designed for a female audience in the nineteenth century give today's reader insight into the concerns and expectations of women at that time. For the most part, the primary audience for these publications was middle-class white women. The Rare Book and Special Collections Division holds a sampling of these publications with titles ranging from the Domestic Monthly to the Revolution .

Traditional women's magazines in the collection include the first of this genre published in the United States, the Lady's Magazine, and Repository of Entertaining Knowledge (Philadelphia, 1792-93; AP2.A2 L2) .

A sampling of early nineteenth-century titles includes the Ladies' Weekly Museum , or, Polite Repository of Amusement and Instruction (New York: J. Oram, 1814-18; AP2.L22), the Ladies Garland (Harper's Ferry, Va., 1824-26; AP2.L13), the Ladies Companion (New York: W. W. Snowden, 1834-44; AP2.L11), and the Bower of Taste (Boston, 1828-30; AP2.B842) , which was edited by Katharine Augusta Ware (1797-1843). Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), who did not support the women's rights movement but was a strong advocate for the education of women and for women joining the teaching profession, edited the American Ladies' Magazine (Boston: Putnam & Hunt, 1828-36; AP2.A343) and, later, Godey's Lady's Book (Philadelphia, 1830-98; AP2.G56).

For the most part, these publications reinforced the domestic sphere as the world for women. They offered advice, covered fashion news, instructed in child care, and promoted etiquette. They included book reviews, human interest news, and short stories and serial fiction, generally of an uplifting, edifying nature.

[Advertisements from "Godey's lady's book and magazine" for bicycles, corsets, cigarettes, elastic stockings, and other products]. [1893]. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The advertisements in such periodicals can be as enlightening as the text. The products that were available and how they were pitched to readers offer strong indications about self-image, ongoing concerns, and the everyday lives of the readership. An advertisement in Godey's Lady's Book for March 1893 advises: “You should smoke not poisonous tobacco but Marshall's prepared cubeb cigarettes. The most pleasant and sure remedy ever offered [for] catarrh, hay fever, cold in the head, asthma, etc.” In the same issue an advertisement for “Doctor” Warner's corsets asserts that “the Coraline we use is superior to whalebone and absolutely unbreakable.”

Advice and Etiquette Books

Emily Thornwell. The Lady's Guide to Perfect Gentility in Manners, Dress, and Conversation ... Also a Useful Instructor in Letter Writing, Toilet Preparations, Fancy Needlework, Millinery, Dressmaking, Care of Wardrobe, the Hair, Teeth, Hands, Lips, Complexion, Etc.. 1857. Joseph Meredith Toner Collection. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Advice to girls and young ladies has been a part of literature for children for many years. With the Juvenile Collection and complementary parts of the Carson Collection and the rare book classified collection, it is possible to trace development and changes in this genre.

The eighteenth-century author of Advice from a Lady of Quality to Her Children (Newbury-Port: John Mycall, 1789; LC262.A3) advises, “The books you read should be as pure as your heart, and be reduced within a narrow compass. It is a mistake to pretend that our sex ought to STUDY” (p. 181).

In A Mirror for the Female Sex, Historical Beauties for Young Ladies (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1799; HQ1229.P58) , Mary Hopkins Pilkington declares, “. . . it does not appear to me that a woman will be rendered less acceptable in the world, or worse qualified to perform any part of her duty in it, by having employed her time from 6 to 16 in the cultivation of her understanding”( p. 58).

By the mid-nineteenth century Lydia Howard Sigourney (1791-1865), a retired teacher, wrote in The Book for Girls . . . (New York: Turner & Hayden, 1844; PZ6.S578 Bo) , “No female should consider herself educated, until she is mistress of some employment or accomplishment, by which she might gain a livelihood, should she be reduced to the necessity of supporting herself ” (p.117).

More works offering advice to young women in the classified rare book collection, as in the General Collections, can be found under HQ1229, for example, Eliza Farrar's Young Lady's Friend (Boston, 1837; HQ1229.F22) and an American reprint of British author John Ruskin's Letters and Advice to Young Girls and Young Ladies (New York: J. Wiley, 1879; HQ1229.R9) . Emily Thornwell's Lady's Guide to Perfect Gentility (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1857; BJ1856.T5 Toner) was so popular that it was reissued ten times between 1857 and 1890.

Children's Literature

Kate Greenway. A Apple Pie. [1900]. Katherine Golden Bitting Collection. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

A survey of children's literature offers a glimpse of what impressionable youngsters were reading and learning, and what their parents and teachers wished to impress upon them. When investigating children's reading matter, however, it is important to remember that, early in our history, books were expensive and generally available only to the well-to-do.

The Juvenile Collection contains nearly 15,000 children's books, chiefly American. Most of the collection is arranged chronologically. The earliest book, A Course of Sermons on Early Piety . . . by Increase Mather (Boston: S. Kneeland, 1721; BX7233.A1 C6 Juv) was printed in 1721. Significant selections from each year continue through the twentieth century.  

A section arranged alphabetically by author and title contains the work of thirty-six American authors considered significant, of which fourteen are women. The collection includes many books and serials written for children of both sexes by women authors, fiction written specifically for girls, and instructional and advice books for girls and young women.

Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) edited the Juvenile Miscellany (Boston, 1826-34; AP200.J7) , the first American magazine for children, and penned many monographic works. Sarah Josepha Hale's “Mary Had a Little Lamb” first appeared in Juvenile Miscellany. Other early magazines for children grew out of the Sunday School Movement, including the Children's Magazine (New York: General Protestant Episcopal Sunday School Union, 1829-40, 1871-74; AP200.C5) , the Encourager [Methodist] (New York, vol. 1, 1846; AP200.E6) , the Catholic Youth Magazine (Baltimore: Murphy, 1858-61; AP200.C3) , and the Juvenile Instructor [Mormon] (Salt Lake City: Cannon, 1866-73, AP201.J7) . Later Mary Mapes Dodge (1831-1905) edited St. Nicholas (New York: Scribner, 1873-1919; AP201.S3) , which focused more on entertainment than instruction.

The late Louisa May Alcott. 1888. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Susan Warner (1819-1885), under the pseudonym Elizabeth Wetherell, wrote many domestic stories for girls, featuring pious, earnest young women such as Ellen Montgomery, the orphan heroine of Wide, Wide World (New York: George Putnam, 1851; PS3155.W6 Juv), Warner's first and most popular novel. The first edition of Little Women (Boston: Roberts Bros., 1868; PZ7.A335 Li Juv) by Louisa May Alcott was published in 1868, introducing more believable and natural girl characters. Also in the collection are the first works published under Alcott's name, Flower Fables (Boston: Briggs, 1855; PS1017.F6 Juv) and her rare Nelly's Hospital (U.S. Sanitary Commission [1865]; E621.A35 Juv) , which was written after she returned from volunteering at a military hospital.

Isabella M. Alden (1841-1930), who used the pseudonym Pansy, and Martha Finley (1828- 1909), who wrote under the pseudonym Martha Farquharson, were prolific and popular nineteenth-century authors whose stories often featured girls and their adventures. Harriet Mulford Stone Lothrop (1844-1924) wrote the Five Little Pepper books and many others under the pseudonym Margaret Sidney.

The collection also holds many first editions by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), with illustrations by Helen Sewell. Other women authors of children's books include Rebecca Sophia Clarke, Mary A. Denison, Theodosia Maria Foster, Frances Griswold, Clara Guernsey, Augusta Larned, Johanna Matthews, Julia Mathews, and Sarah Stuart Robbins.

Finding Rare Children's Books

To search for a specific title in the Juvenile Collection, a reader needs to check three separate places.

  1. Search the Library of Congress Online Catalog first. Bibliographic information about all children's books cataloged after 1982 will be discoverable using this catalog.
  2. Use the card file located in the Rare Book Reading Room.  This catalog covers titles cataloged between 1974 and 1982.
  3. Most of the collection, however, is described in this two-volume guide, arranged by author and date of publication:

Marian Carson Collection

Marmaduke Multiply. [1862]. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Collector Marian S. Carson's interest in children's literature brought to the Library of Congress many rare and fragile children's books and several early American toys and games.

Dame Partlet's Farm (Philadelphia: Johnson and Warner, 1810; PZ6.D178 1810 Carson Coll) celebrates the ability of a widow to use her outstanding reading skills and her industry to provide for her children and share with the poor.

In charming verse and delightful engravings, Disastrous Events which Attended Joe Dobson (Philadelphia: William Charles, 1813; PZ6.D57 1813 Carson Coll) recounts the results of a husband's bet that he can do more household work in one day than his wife can do in two. Switching roles for a day, Joe Dobson suffers hilarious calamities while milking, spinning, cooking, and washing, whereas his wife successfully completes her work at the plow and the mill and returns to cook dinner as well.

The Little Girl's Own Book by Lydia Maria Child (Boston: Carter, Hendee, 1835; GV1204.998 C55 1835 Carson Coll) describes games and amusements specifically for girls.

The Diligent Girl as Lady of the House (Germany: 187-?; GV1203.C235, box 3, no.1 Carson Coll) is a game, printed in English, Italian, French, and German. It encourages domesticity in girls as well as language proficiency.

The American Toilet by Hannah Lindley Murray (New York: Imbert's Lithographic, 1827; BJ1531.M86 1827 Carson Coll), is directed at the moral training of modest young ladies. Each page is illustrated with an item on a lady's dressing table, part of which is actually a hinged paper flap. Each instrument of vanity lifts to reveal a virtue, such as the breast pin that opens to reveal “charity.” “Virtues—Juvenile literature” and “Toy and movable books—Specimens” will help the reader find books on this subject and genre.

Board Games

Two board games, Mansion of Happiness: an Instructive Moral and Entertaining Amusement (Salem, Mass.: W. & S.B. Ives, c1843; BJ1631.M36 1843 Carson Coll) and Office Boy (Salem, Mass: Parker Bros., c1889; Carson portfolio 2, no. 6), reflect the priorities and ideals of their times. The games are very similar in that a player moves his marker forward and backward along the circular path, according to the rules, with the hope of arriving in the center before his fellow players and thereby winning the game.

A close look at the differences between the games, and to whom they are directed, can tell us a great deal about changing attitudes in 19th century America.

In Mansion of Happiness the player moves ahead if he lands on a virtue and loses ground if he lands on a vice.  Landing on “Piety” or “Honesty” lets the player move ahead six spaces, but if his marker arrives at “Idleness” he must retreat to “Poverty,” and a “Sabbath breaker” is sent to the “Whipping post.”  The lucky winner arrives in the center, the “Mansion of Happiness,” having achieved spiritual and moral success.

In Office Boy, success has been redefined. In 1889 it is hard work, integrity, and salesmanship that moves the player forward, and the winner’s success is worldly and financial; he becomes “The Head of the Firm.” A player who lands on “Integrity, advance to Jr. Partner,” moves him closer to success. Landing on “Negligence, go back to stock boy,” keeps him away.

It is interesting to note that Mansion of Happiness appears to be directed at both boys and girls, while Office Boy, and its promises of worldly success, is designed to appeal to boys.

B.W. Thayer & Co., lithographer. The mansion of happiness: an instructive moral and entertaining amusement. c1843. Marian S. Carson Collection. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Parker Brothers. The Office Boy. c1889. Marian S. Carson Collection. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.