Jacksonian Miscellanies, #21: June 17, 1997

Topic: Home Economics and the Millennium

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

Jacksonian Miscellanies is a weekly (biweekly in the summer) email newsletter which presents short (typically chapter-length) documents from the United States' Jacksonian Era, with a minimum of commentary. Anyone can receive it for free by sending to hal@panix.com a message with

as either the subject line, or as the *only* line in the message body. If you want to make a comment or query, please send a separate message to hal@panix.com.

Jacksonian Miscellanies can also be read at http://www.panix.com/~hal/jmisc. The WWW version is augmented with much biographical, bibliographical, and other information.

Please direct responses to hal@panix.com, even though you may receive Jacksonian Miscellanies by way of a mailing list. That way I am more certain to read them, and perhaps, with your permission, post useful excerpts in a later issue.

NOTE: Jacksonian Miscellanies will be bi-weekly until the end of summer. It will be weekly again starting in September.

Catharine Beecher's Domestic Economy,     or










This text comes from the 1855 edition of the book, originally published in 1841 or 1842. The publisher: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 329 and 331 Pearl Street, New York.

Based on the Library of Congress catalogue, it has been reprinted once in the 20th century (1970, Source Book Press c1841 -- apparently a facsimile of the 1st edition). It was also extensively revised about 1860 by Catharine and her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe., and this has been reprinted by Arno Press in 1971.

Catharine, or Catherine (the name appears both ways in respectable sources) Beecher, did much to strengthen women's role in the middle and late 19th century, although she was at odds with true feminists of her time.

The early 19th century was, according to some historians at least, a kind of low water mark for women in America. Aside from modern secondary sources, Frances Trollope and Harriet Martineau speak of American women as having dismal lives in this period (Beecher, below, berates Martineau on a vulnerable aspect of her critique of women's lives in America). At least in the urban life, a good case can be made that women were losing their traditional role in an integrated family unit, as business was carried out, increasingly outside of the household.

Starting in the late 1820s, a demand for a truly equal role for women was made by Frances Wright, a character startlingly ahead of her time. It was not until ten years later that a succession of women -- many closely connected with abolitionism, began to form into a "movement". Angelina Grimke might be called the "thin end of the wedge" of the enduring woman's rights movement that began around 1840.

Meanwhile, a tendency grew, to make women the undisputed shapers of minds and morals, in the home and in the classroom, all the way to adulthood.

Catharine Beecher's life work was devoted to shaping this role for women; Domestic Economy represents the purely domestic half of the picture.

The other half was her work towards making women the primary educators of young people (once the work of young male scholars, as diverse as Emerson, Stephen A. Douglas, Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston before they entered their real life's work). Beecher promoted, and helped establish, special "normal schools" for training teachers.

Unfortunately, she also busied herself combatting other views of progress for women -- i.e. as in her two years debate in print with Angelina Grimke.

The following, from Notable American Women, 1607-1950 (Cambridge, 1971) Beecher's view, with its strengths and flaws, of woman's role:

Catharine Beecher had an enormous influence in moving American women away from the marginal role the early 19th century, and into the central, though circumscribed role of the middle and late 19th century. An excellent portrait of her life and work is Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher, A Study in American Domesticity (W.W. Norton, 1973).

Chapter I of Domestic Economy, "The Peculiar Responsibilities of American Women", shows the ideological drive behind her work. In an age when grammars and spellers were apt to have fervent ideological introductions, this chapter is still extraordinary.

Beecher begins by putting a remarkable "spin" on the doctrine that 'all men are created equal', and "equally entitled to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'". Perhaps it is a peculiarly New England point of view, that it

Beecher had already, by this time, clashed with "natural rights" feminists, who would extend "all men" to include women. She soon seques into:

[My take on this: The glory of the American system is that, though bound to be subordinate, we can all choose our masters.]

This is followed by a long quote from Alexis de Tocqueville to the effect that "as Nature has appointed such wide differences between the physical and moral constitutions of man and woman, her manifest design was, to give a distinct employment to their various faculties", and that "In no country has such constant care been taken, as in America, to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes, and to make them keep pace one with the other, but in two pathways which are always different."

After quoting Tocqueville, she glorifies the role of women, ordained by the Disposer of events, while praising the Frenchman's wisdom in seeing it (apparently, it was the United States, not France that stood for "viva la difference").

And now for the millennium: Beecher begins moving towards it by finally addressing the imperfections of her place and era "with reference to women":

There is nothing reasonable, which American women would unite in asking, that would not readily be bestowed!

Be reasonable, and unite, and we will sweep all before us ... but ask, don't demand.

And now, beginning with another long quote from Tocqueville, we get a real taste of the millennium; the crescendo of history, which the Disposer of events is ushering in. She quotes her good authority, who tells that signs of its approach are everywhere; that "all have been blind instruments in the hands of God"; i.e. everyone, whether for or against democracy, has been moved by God to forward it this movement "possesses all the characteristics of a Divine decree".

Tocqueville sees an inexorable movement that has been going on for centuries, which is "already accomplished, or on the eve of its accomplishment"; in America, "its development has been the most peaceful and the most complete... in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself ... to learn what we have to fear, or to hope, from its progress.

To Catharine Beecher, this is all proof that "the sublime ... anticipations [of] of the religious world, have become so far developed, the philosophers and statesmen are perceiving the signs, and are predicting the approach, of the same grand consummation." Even these generally impious and cynical folks see it coming, whether they really recognize what it is or not,

What will we do with this responsibility? What, specifically about "the part to be enacted by American women"?

Educate a woman, and the interests of a whole family are secured!

Here is Catharine Beecher's declared mission, and the "success of democratic institutions" hangs in the balance.

and shame on her who would misuse this opportunity. There is a job to do, and

and finally, as if to make Daniel Webster look tame,

So much for dull Home Economics! Of course this isn't just any Home Economics teacher, but the inventor of Home Economics.

After putting the field in its glorious context, she gets down to the business of conveying all the practical knowledge that Woman needs.

There are diagrams and descriptions of the skeletal, circulatory, muscular, and digestive systems; the anatomy of skin, and its relation to clothing.

There is a chapter on "The Construction of Houses", with 21 floor plans and other figures, and much discussion of what is practical, and why, and what is merely the fashion. In an age when "indoor plumbing" was unheard of, there were instructions on how to connect your pump to a reservoir, and from it, run pipes into the house.

And besides the knowledge to direct her husband in the building of houses and privies, there was much knowledge for the woman herself to exercise, such as what to do if her child swallows poison; how to remove stains using "beefs gall" gotten from the butcher -- presumably from cows' gall bladders; and how to produce a pink, olive, salmon color, or buff dye, using leaves, flowers, and chemicals gotten from the pharmacy.


THERE are some reasons, why American women should feel an interest in the support of the democratic institutions of their Country, which it is important that they should consider. The great maxim, which is the basis of all our civil and political institutions, is, that "all men are created equal," and that they are equally entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

But it can readily be seen, that this is only another mode of expressing the fundamental principle which the Great Ruler of the Universe has established, as the law of His eternal government. "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself;" and "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them," are the Scripture forms, by which the Supreme Lawgiver requires that each individual of our race shall regard the happiness of others, as of the same value as his own; and which forbid any institution, in private or civil life, which secures advantages to one class, by sacrificing the interests of another.

The principles of democracy, then, are identical with the principles of Christianity.

But, in order that each individual may pursue and secure the highest degree of happiness within his reach, unimpeded by the selfish interests of others, a system of laws must be established, which sustain certain relations and dependencies in social and civil life. What these relations and their attending obligations shall be, are to be determined, not with reference to the wishes and interests of a few, but solely with reference to the general good of all; so that each individual shall have his own interest, as well as the public benefit, secured by them.

For this purpose, it is needful that certain relations be sustained, which involve the duties of subordination. There must be the magistrate and the subject, one of whom is the superior, and the other the inferior. There must be the relations of husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and pupil, employer and employed, each involving the relative duties of subordination. The superior, in certain particulars, is to direct, and the inferior is to yield obedience. Society could never go forward, harmoniously, nor could any craft or profession be successfully pursued, unless these superior and subordinate relations be instituted and sustained.

But who shall take the higher, and who the subordinate, stations in social and civil life? This matter, in the case of parents and children, is decided by the Creator. He has given children to the control of parents, as their superiors, and to them they remain subordinate, to a certain age, or so long as they are members of their household. And parents can delegate such a portion of their authority to teachers and employers, as the interests of their children require.

In most other cases, in a truly democratic state, each individual is allowed to choose for himself, who shall take the position of his superior. No woman is forced to obey any husband but the one she chooses for herself; nor is she obliged to take a husband, if she prefers to remain single. So every domestic, and every artisan or laborer, after passing from parental control, can choose the employer to whom he is to accord obedience, or, if he prefers to relinquish certain advantages, he can remain without taking a subordinate place to any employer.

Each subject, also, has equal power with every other to decide who shall be his superior as a ruler. The weakest, the poorest, the most illiterate, has the same opportunity to determine this question, as the richest the most learned. and the most exalted.

And the various privileges that wealth secures, are equally open to all classes. Every man may aim at riches, unimpeded by any law or institution which secures peculiar privileges to a favored class, at the expense of another. Every law, and every institution, is tested by examining whether it secures equal advantages to all; and, if the people become convinced that any regulation sacrifices the good of the majority to the interests of the smaller number, they have power to abolish it.

The institutions of monarchical and aristocratic nations are based on precisely opposite principles. They secure, to certain small and favored classes, advantages, which can be maintained, only by sacrificing the interests of the great mass of the people. Thus, the throne and aristocracy of England are supported by laws and customs, which burden the lower classes with taxes, so enormous, as to deprive them of all the luxuries, and of most of the comforts, of life. Poor dwellings, scanty food, unhealthy employments, excessive labor, and en tire destitution of the means and time for education, are appointed for the lower classes, that a few may live in palaces, and riot in every indulgence.

The tendencies of democratic institutions, in reference to the rights and interests of the female sex, have been fully developed in the United States; and it is in this aspect, that the subject is one of peculiar interest to American women. In this Country, it is established, both by opinion and by practice, that woman has an equal interest in all social and civil concerns; and that no domestic, civil, or political, institution, is right, which sacrifices her interest to promote that of the other sex. But in order to secure her the more firmly in all these privileges, it is decided, that, in the domestic relation, she take a subordinate station, and that, in civil and political concerns, her interests be untrusted to the other sex, without her taking any part in voting, or in making and administering laws The result of this order of things has been fairly tested. and is thus portrayed by M. De Tocqueville, a writer, who. for intelligence, fidelity, and ability, ranks second to none.

This testimony of a foreigner, who has had abundant opportunities of making a comparison. is sanctioned by the assent of all candid and intelligent men, who have enjoyed similar opportunities.

It appears then, that it is in America, alone, that women are raised to an equality with the other sex and that, both in theory and practice, their interests are regarded as of equal value. They are made subordinate in station, only where a regard to their best interests demands it, while, as if in compensation for this, by custom and courtesy, they are always treated as superiors. Universally, in this Country, through every class of society, precedence is given to woman, in all the comforts, conveniences, and courtesies, of life.

In civil and political affairs, American women take no interest or concern, except so far as they sympathize with their family and personal friends; but in all cases, in which they do feel a concern, their opinions and feelings have a consideration, equal, or even superior, to that of the other sex.

In matters pertaining to the education of their children, in the selection and support of a clergyman, in all benevolent enterprises, and in all questions relating to morals or manners, they have a superior influence. In such concerns, it would be impossible to carry a point, contrary to their judgment and feelings; while an enterprise, sustained by them, will seldom fail of success.

If those who are bewailing themselves over the fancied wrongs and injuries of women in this Nation, could only see things as they are, they would know, that, whatever remnants of a barbarous or aristocratic age may remain in our civil institutions, in reference to the interests of women, it is only because they are ignorant of them, or do not use their influence to have them rectified; for it is very certain that there is nothing reasonable, which American women would unite in asking, that would not readily be bestowed.

The preceding remarks, then, illustrate the position that the democratic institutions of this Country are in reality no other than the principles of Christianity carried into operation, and that they tend to place woman in her true position in society, as having equal rights with the other sex; and that, in fact, they have secured to American women a lofty and fortunate position, which, as yet, has been attained by the women of no other nation.

There is another topic, presented in the work of the above author, which demands the profound attention of American women.

The following is taken from that part of the Introduction to the work, illustrating the position, that, for ages, there has been a constant progress, in all civilized nations, towards the democratic equality attained in this Country.

It thus appears, that the sublime and elevating anticipations which have filled the mind and heart of the religious world, have become so far developed, the philosophers and statesmen are perceiving the signs, and are predicting the approach, of the same grand consummation. There is a day advancing, "by seers predicted, and by poets sung," when the curse of selfishness shall be removed: when "scenes surpassing fable, and yet true," shall be realized; when all nations shall rejoice and be made blessed, under those benevolent influences, which the Messiah came to establish on earth.

And this is the Country, which the Disposer of events designs shall go forth as the cynosure of nations, to guide them to the light and blessedness of that day. To us is committed the grand, the responsible privilege, of exhibiting to the world, the beneficent influences of Christianity, when carried into every social, civil, and political institution; and, though we have, as yet, made such imperfect advances, already the light is streaming into the dark prison­house of despotic lands, while startled kings and sages, philosophers and statesmen, are watching us with that interest, which a career so illustrious, and so involving their own destiny, is calculated to excite. They are studying our institutions, scrutinizing our experience, and watching for our mistakes, that they may learn whether "a social revolution, so irresistible, be advantageous or prejudicial to mankind."

There are persons, who regard these interesting truths merely as food for national vanity; but every reflecting and Christian mind, must consider it as an occasion for solemn and anxious reflection. Are we, then, a spectacle to the world? Has the Eternal Lawgiver appointed us to work out a problem, involving the destiny of the whole earth? Are such momentous interests to be advanced or retarded, just in proportion as we are faithful to our high trust) "What manner of persons, then, ought we to be," in attempting to sustain so solemn, so glorious a responsibility?

But the part to be enacted by American women, in this great moral enterprise, is the point to which special attention should here be directed.

The success of democratic institutions, as is conceded by all, depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the mass of the people. If they are intelligent and virtuous, democracy is a blessing; but if they are ignorant and wicked, it is only a curse and as much more dreadful than any other form of civil government as a thousand tyrants are more to be dreaded than one. It is equally conceded, that the formation; of the moral and intellectual character of the young is committed mainly to the female hand. The mother forms the character of the future man; the sister bends the fibres that are hereafter to be the forest tree; the wife sways the heart, whose energies may turn for good or for evil the destinies of a nation. Let the women of a country be made virtuous and intelligent, and the men will certainly be the same. The proper education of a man decides the welfare of an individual; but educate a woman, and the interests of a whole family are secured.

If this be so, as none will deny, then to American women, more than to any others on earth, is committed the exalted privilege of extending over the world those blessed influences which are to renovate degraded man, and "clothe all climes with beauty."

No American woman, then, has any occasion for feeling that hers is an humble or insignificant lot. The value of what an individual accomplishes, is to be estimated by the importance of the enterprise achieved, and not by the particular position of the laborer. The drops of heaven which freshen the earth, are each of equal value, whether they fall in the lowland meadow, or the princely parterre. The builders of a temple are of equal importance, whether they labor on the foundations, or toil upon the dome.

Thus, also, with those labors which are to be made effectual in the regeneration of the Earth. And it is by forming a habit of regarding the apparently insignificant efforts of each isolated laborer, in a comprehensive manner, as indispensable portions of a grand result, that the minds of all, however humble their sphere of service, can be invigorated and cheered. The woman, who is rearing a family of children; the woman, who labors in the schoolroom; the woman, who, in her retired chamber, earns, with her needle, the mite, which contributes to the intellectual and moral elevation of her Country; even the humble domestic, whose example and influence may be moulding and forming young minds, while her faithful services sustain a prosperous domestic state;--each and all may be animated by the consciousness that they are agents in accomplishing the greatest work that ever was committed to human responsibility. It is the building of a glorious temple, whose base shall be coextensive with the bounds of the earth, whose summit shall pierce the skies, whose splendor shall beam on all lands; and those who hew the lowliest stone, as much as those who carve the highest capital, will be equally honored, when its top­stone shall be laid, with new rejoicings of the morning stars, and shoutings of the sons of God.

You can support this site at no cost if you make an Amazon purchase using this link to get to Amazon: Thanks