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How Young Ladies Became Girls: The Victorian Origins of American Girlhood

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Based on an extraordinary array of diaries and letters, this engaging book explores the shifting experiences of adolescent girls in the late nineteenth century. What emerges is a world on the cusp of change. By convention, middle-class girls stayed at home, where their reading exposed them to powerful images of self-sacrificing women. Yet in reality girls in their teens increasingly attended schools -- especially newly opened high schools, where they outnumbered boys. There they competed for grades and honor directly against male classmates. Before and after school they joined a public world beyond adult supervision -- strolling city streets, flagging down male friends, visiting soda fountains.

Poised between childhood and adulthood, no longer behaving with the reserve of "young ladies," adolescent females sparred with classmates and ventured new identities. In leaving school, female students left an institution that had treated them more equally than any other they would encounter in the course of their lives. Jane Hunter shows that they often went home in sadness and regret. But over the long term, their school experiences as "girls" foreshadowed both the turn-of-the-century emergence of the independent "New Woman" and the birth of adolescence itself.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300092639
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Read an Excerpt

How Young Ladies Became Girls

The Victorian Origins of American Girlhood

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09263-6

Chapter One

Daughters' Lives and the Work of the Middle-Class Home

At some point in the nineteenth century, middle- and upper-middle-class daughters of the urban Northeast stopped doing substantial housework. Certainly they continued to have regular chores, to bear responsibility for tidying their rooms, picking the beans, or dusting the parlor, but girls of the new urban middle class lost the function that earlier farm girls of "the middling sort" had had as linchpins of the domestic workforce. Just as the move from the farm meant the movement of men out of the households and into urban shops or businesses, so did urbanization pull girls of a certain means away from their mothers' sides and disrupt their domestic apprenticeships. The disappearance of girls as central figures in the domestic workforce-the result of developments in the economy, public schooling, and the domestic sphere-simultaneously marginalized and liberated them. In subsequent chapters I describe and evaluate the new status that they came to occupy, both what emerged to fill time created by the loss of home work, and the consequences of that change for subsequent women's and cultural history. But first it is important to understand which girls stopped working, where and when.

The freeing of middle-class daughters was in part the continuation of the process begun in New England with the moving of much manufacturing out of the home and into factories. The opening of large cotton and woolen mills in towns such as Lowell and Waltham, Massachusetts, meant that by the 1830s fine, factory-woven cloth was beginning to make home-weaving obsolete. Cloth manufacture had traditionally been the work of unmarried daughters (as the term spinster suggests), and industrialists hired some of the daughters they displaced when they appropriated their work.

But there was plenty of work left behind when cloth manufacture moved from the home to the factory-the routine jobs connected with heating homes, stoking cookstoves, preparing foodstuffs, cleaning lamps, doing laundry. Historians have eloquently demonstrated the continued magnitude of women's home work well after the weaving of cloth was mechanized in factories. Traditionally, all this too had been daughters' work-work done by girls assisting their mothers in maintaining a household. Families without daughters hired the extra daughters of neighbors to assist in the "daily round," such that "helping" was a traditional part of the life course for many girls. In much of rural America from the eighteenth century into the twentieth, daughters still filled these roles, growing up gently at their mothers' sides in domestic apprenticeship.

The same economy which spawned mills, though, also created a growing commercial class with new affluence and aspirations. Increasingly, daughters of this expanding capitalist elite found themselves without a job. Parents of the new bourgeoisie cultivated their daughters to embody the refinement and leisure that they were too busy to practice themselves. As they promoted higher standards for household decorum, families released their daughters from manual labor, delegating them to enhance the family's cultural and social standing, and hiring servants rather than neighbors' daughters to do the household's work. The precursor for this form of domestic labor was the "bound" service of indentured servants or slaves, who performed the menial domestic labor of the colonies, north and south, in the eighteenth century and before. Such servants occupied a distinct and inferior social position in the family and in the social order. Over the course of the nineteenth century, cities on the northeast seaboard grew, as did their commercial elites, and the aristocratic practice of hiring domestic servants of a different class and status-not the sharing of daughters-came to characterize middle-class, urban life in general.

Catharine Beecher Attempts to Halt the Tide

In 1841 Catharine Beecher wrote a famous household manual entitled A Treatise on Domestic Economy, which was directed to that commercial elite. Intended "for the use of Young Ladies at Home, and at School," it was an attempt to reverse the trend of freeing daughters from housework, instead calling for their renewed training in housewifery. Designed to restore to all ranks of society the virtue of industrious, republican women, Beecher's treatise has been regarded by historians as an influential text in promoting a cult of domesticity, elevating the home as a source of civic significance. They may be right in assessing the broader significance of Beecher's tract, but they have generally not noted that it failed in its announced primary goal: the reformation of the education of daughters.

Beecher dedicated her treatise to elite mothers in the hopes that they would set a national example. "Whatever ladies in the wealthier classes decide shall be fashionable, will be followed by all the rest," she suggested. And she hoped that those mothers would reject ornamental education for their daughters and put them to work at home. She went so far as to enumerate chores which "should be done by the daughters of a family, and not by hired service." They included "all the sweeping, dusting, care of furniture and beds, the clear starching, and the nice cooking"-the lighter, and less arduous jobs of domestic upkeep. Despite all the merits of her arguments, she admitted that she would despair of the possibility of such a revolution in the raising of daughters, but for one fact: "the dearth of good domestics in this country." The relative attractiveness of work in the mills and in the new occupation of schoolteaching was making it difficult to find native-born farm girls to work in service. Beecher claimed that already "necessity is driving mothers to do what abstract principles of expediency never could secure," and causing them to train their own daughters to do household work.

Irish Immigration and the Work of Middle-Class Girls

Even as Beecher's book began to circulate, however, environmental disaster in Ireland was preparing to spare elite women the need of putting their own daughters to work around the house. In the 1840s the potato harvest failed for several years in a row, and young unmarried Irish women flocked to the United States in search of escape and a way to assist families back home. Irish immigration brought more women than men to the United States, most of them single, helping to create new patterns of domestic servitude in the cities of the eastern seaboard. By midcentury 70 percent of domestic servants in Boston were Irish-born. The Irish influx not only replaced native-born "helpers." Irish labor replaced middle-class daughters as well.

When Catharine Beecher decided it was time to put out a new edition of her manual on housework, she enlisted the coauthorship of her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and reflected the new realities of domestic labor in the bourgeois home. The American Woman's Home (1869) was not directed to daughters nor dedicated to their mothers. The Beechers seemed to have acknowledged defeat in their efforts to transform the education of native-born girls. Rather, in its first paragraphs, The American Home protested the degradation of household service, as paid work. Because of women's failure to be trained "as men are trained for their trades and professions," "family labor is poorly done, poorly paid, and regarded as menial and disgraceful." In 1841 Catharine Beecher had pinned her hopes for the enhancement of domesticity on educating native-born daughters; in 1869 she and her sister instead seemed to feel the best bet lay in recruiting better paid help.

Their account included some elegiac historical analysis missing from the 1841 version about what had happened both to the notion of domestic service and to the upbringing of daughters. Clearly the two histories had diverged. Beecher and Stowe's American Home paid nostalgic tribute to the nearly lost, and glorious, republican tradition of "helping." "In America," they wrote, "there was a society of educated workers, where all were practically equal, and where, if there was a deficiency in one family and an excess in another, a helper, not a servant in the European sense, was hired." But domestic service had not retained these republican possibilities, instead becoming tainted by "something of the influence from feudal times, and from the near presence of slavery in neighboring states"; the result was "a universal rejection of domestic service in all classes of American-born society." Most significant to their story, "the well-taught, self-respecting daughters of farmers, the class most valuable in domestic service, gradually retired from it."

At the same time that "these remarkable women of old" withdrew from paid service, daughters relinquished home labors. The Beecher sisters waxed lyrical on the subject of "families of daughters, handsome, strong women, rising each day to their in-door work with cheerful alertness-one to sweep the room, another to make the fire," chatting "meanwhile of books, studies, embroidery ... the last new poem," spinning "with the book tied to the distaff." Instead, they noted that "the race of strong, hardy, cheerful girls, that used to grow up in country places, and made the bright, neat New-England kitchens of old times ... is daily lessening; and in their stead come the fragile, easily-fatigued, languid girls of a modern age, drilled in book-learning, ignorant of common things."

Both the first and the enhanced edition of Catharine Beecher's guide to domestic life included portraits of the excessively refined daughter, ignorant of the mundane details of home life, ill-equipped to take on the burdens of home management. The difference was that in 1841 Beecher associated that profile with an aristocracy, an elite she had hopes of reforming. By 1869, instead, the Beechers dropped the class reference, instead alluding simply to "modern" girls, the girls of a new urban order. Many historians have noted the problems in studying the rise of a class that did not name itself but instead universalized its experience. In referring to "modern" girls, Beecher and Stowe demonstrated how the habits of an aristocracy had been generalized as those of a new middle class. The "great problem of life here in America" was that "the modern girls, as they have been brought up, can not perform the labor of their own families as in those simpler, old-fashioned days." "What is worse" about the education of girls, they wrote, is that "they have no practical skill with which to instruct servants, who come to us, as a class, raw and untrained." As described by Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the "American woman's home" in 1869 was not an elite but a middle-class, normative home. It relied on the work of foreign-born servants, and regrettably did not teach its daughters even enough about the running of a household to train those servants.

The Alcott Sisters

The daughters of improvident Concord philosopher Bronson Alcott and his long-suffering wife, Abigail, demonstrate the uneven course and reputation of domestic service as an occupation for native-born girls at midcentury. From the time she was seventeen, Louisa May Alcott's journals include accounts of how the family managed to get by, including her own moneymaking activities and those of her sisters and parents.

Louisa's sister Anna went off in 1850, at age seventeen, to be a nursemaid for a family friend. The letter of invitation to Anna's mother suggests an earlier rural model based on the paid exchange of daughters. Caroline Sturgis Tappan wrote to Abigail Alcott: "If Anna would like to come and help me take care of my baby, it would be much pleasanter for me, both for her sake and my own, than having a nursery maid, and I think Anna would find much to enjoy in Lenox." Caroline Tappan's letter declared, in fact, that if Anna would help her she would not even be a nursery maid, but instead a companion and friend. The next year, however, Louisa also entered service, and her experience followed another regimen-unmediated by family acquaintance, and perhaps influenced by new patterns in domestic service accompanying Irish immigration. Reports suggest that Louisa was used badly and that the entire family resented her treatment. She dug paths through the snow, fetched water from a well, split kindling, sifted ashes. She described this experience tersely in her summary notes and memoranda: "I go to Dedham as a servant and try it for a month, but get starved and frozen and give it up. $4,00." As those wages were actually for seven weeks' work, rather than the four she acknowledged in her memorandum, Louisa was badly paid. The experience clearly left a bad taste in her mouth; an Alcott biographer suggests that the Alcott family returned the wages in contempt and humiliation. Two years later, though, Louisa May again went out to service, this time "as second girl. I needed the change, could do the wash, and was glad to earn my $2 a week." Her willingness to repeat the experience so disastrous before probably resulted from a significant difference in circumstances. As when Anna had ventured out as a nursery maid, Louisa too was going into a known family-in this case a relative of her mother's who was a Unitarian minister in Leicester. By the 1850s, after the Irish potato immigration, there were two different ways to be a servant. As Louisa May Alcott's experience suggests, in the environment of Boston, the older model of egalitarian "helping" among acquaintances was giving way to a model in which relations between servant and mistress were not only hierarchical but often adversarial. By 1868 the Alcotts too had joined those dealing with the problems of hiring domestic help rather than being hired as servants. Louisa's journal noted that they were temporarily without "a girl."

Even so, in her fiction, especially her 1873 novel Work, Alcott attempted to rescue the reputation of domestic service as a legitimate way for nativeborn girls to earn a living. In that novel, her heroine experiences both kinds of domestic labor. Alcott's idealized "situation," however, is a throwback to an earlier tradition of helping, in which her heroine not only is adopted by a Quaker woman so kindly "that mistress and maid soon felt like mother and daughter" but literally becomes a daughter, as she marries the eccentric son of the family. Her vocation is scarcely wage labor at all, a fact underlined by Christie's protestations that "she did not care for any other wages" than her place in her new family. Most significantly, Alcott felt that she could redeem domestic service only by impugning "shiftless" Irish servants.


Excerpted from How Young Ladies Became Girls by JANE H. HUNTER Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction 1
1 Daughters' Lives and the Work of the Middle-Class Home 11
2 Writing and Self-Culture: The Contest Over the Meaning of Literacy 38
3 Reading and the Development of Taste 57
4 Houses, Families, Rooms of One's Own 93
5 Interiors: Bodies, Souls, Moods 130
6 Competitive Practices: Sentiment and Scholarship in Secondary Schools 169
7 High School Culture: Gender and Generation 222
8 Friendship, Fun, and the City Streets 261
9 Commencement: Leaving School, Going Home, Growing Up 315
10 New Girls, a New Women 368
Notes 407
Bibliography 463
Index 467
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