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The General Collections



Starting Places
Biographical Sources
Women's Writings
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arrow graphicEtiquette Books
Sex Manuals
Gift Books and Annuals
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Etiquette Books and Prescriptive Literature

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.

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“The Two Paths.” Illustration from Social Purity, or, the Life of the Home and Nation. 1903. HQ31.G46. General Collections.

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“The Two Paths.” Illustration from Golden Thoughts on Chastity and Procreation. 1903. HQ31.G44. General Collections.

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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).22

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).23

The Library's collections contain hundreds of titles describing a woman's duties as wife and mother in similar terms. The American Memory collection An American Ballroom: Companion Dance Instruction Manuals ( contains several examples of this kind of prescriptive literature, such as:

How to Be a Good Wife

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The young housekeepers, the day after marriage. N. Currier. 1848. Prints and Photographs Divison. LC-USZC2-3195.
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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) [catalog record], to the modern Your 30-Day Journey to Being a Great Wife, by Patrick and Connie Lawrence (Nashville: Oliver Nelson, 1992; HQ759.L376 1992) [catalog record], writers explain the duties of each sex within marriage.

In The Young Husband's Book [catalog record], 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).24 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) [catalog record], 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, [catalog record], articles on “The True Lady” and “The Model Wife” tell women to be “agreeable, modest, and dignified” and industrious (1895),25 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 [catalog record], 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.”26 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.

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).27 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.”28

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!”29

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.

SEARCH TIPS: Works of etiquette and advice published before 1801 will be found in the Rare Book and Microform Reading Rooms.


Dixon, Penelope. Mothers and Mothering: An Annotated Feminist Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1991. Z7963.M67 D59 1991 MRR Alc [catalog record].

Hodges, Deborah Robertson. Etiquette: An Annotated Bibliography of Literature Published in English in the United States, 1900 through 1987. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1989. Z5877.H6 1989 [catalog record]. Includes articles and books.

Newton, Sarah E. Learning to Behave: A Guide to American Conduct Books before 1900. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. BJ1547.N48 1994 MRR Alc [catalog record].

SAMPLE LCSH: Books on these topics have many varied subject headings and call numbers. Searches with broad subject headings such as “Woman” or “Conduct of life” are occasionally necessary.

Young women
Conduct of life
Etiquette Woman—Health and hygiene
Beauty, personal
Home economics
Domestic economy
Cookery, American


For conduct of life and etiquette: BJ1651; BJ1681; BJ1853.

For courtship, marriage, health, and motherhood: HQ759, HQ801.

For medical works: RA778; RG121.

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