This post was written by Jon M. Sexton, Reference Assistant for the Crystal Bridges Library and Archives.
From now through September 19, Crystal Bridges features the temporary exhibition American Made: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. An eclectic mix of art and embellishments of common household items, the exhibition also illustrates the division of gender roles and ideas of decorum of nineteenth-century America.
Housekeeping was considered an art in its own right, coalescing beauty and practicality into one form, with the woman of the house as the nucleus. Education in the arts—and sometimes the natural sciences—was encouraged for upper-class women for the purpose of beautifying the home. For instance, decorating the outside of her home with flowers or vines would require a woman to have a knowledge of botany. Women also often functioned as the family’s first line of medical response in the home, compounding herbal medicines from recipes in common formularies, which required a grasp of reading, mathematics, and scientific concepts.
From The Complete Home, 1881, by Mrs. Julia McNair Wright:
“Housekeeping is a fine art, it grasps with one hand beauty and the other utility; it has its harmonies like music, and its order like the stars in their courses. I fear really good housekeeping, which exhibits itself not in occasional entertainments, or a handsome parlor, but the good housekeeping which extends form the attic to the cellar, and through every hour in the year, is far from common.
So, after religious principle as underlying rock, after love as a corner-stone, after health as a foundation, I say, let us begin to lay up the walls of your home with really good housekeeping on the wife’s part.”
“Housekeeping embraces a very large part of our home duties, and we should all feel that nothing is too good and beautiful to be laid on the altar of home. Scholarship produces logical thought, correct taste, order, sound judgment; and all these are needful to good housekeeping.”
Women’s influence in greater society through their handiwork was diffused through their social circles. Even women who were unlearned found a way to voice their opinions and leave their mark through production and ornamenting of basic household items.
To hear more advice given to women on decorum and see vintage nineteenth-century housekeeping manuals from the Crystal Bridges Library’s rare books collection, attend the upcoming Great Reveal on August 18.
Some of the secondary source works consulted for this blog post can be found in the Crystal Bridges Library, including:
Quilting Together: Shared Threads by Jacqueline Marx Atkins
Mississippi Homespun: Nineteenth-Century Textiles and the Women Who Made Them.