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This Day in Labor History: May 12, 1878

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beecher

On May 12, 1878, Catharine Beecher died. This is a moment to discuss the incredible importance of Beecher’s 1841 book Treatise on Domestic Economy, its influence on housework for middle class women, and the general rise of housework as a modern middle class phenomenon that transformed the nation.

Born in 1800 in East Hampton, New York, Beecher was the daughter of the famed minister Lyman Beecher and the sibling of such luminaries as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher. Like her siblings, she played a critical role in the creation of middle-class Victorian culture. She ran a school where she experimented in the new food reforms of the time such as the Graham diet, which she did not give up until her students asked to dine at a real restaurant with her, after which she realized that food maybe should taste like something. She opposed Indian Removal and she focused her energies on building educational facilities in the West and South.

Modern standards of household cleanliness were basically unknown in the first half of the nineteenth century. Both in terms of personal cleanliness and modern housework, Americans still lived basically medieval lives. This became a more serious problem as American cities grew rapidly with the rise of the Industrial Revolution. The upheaval around that event began to create the social tumult that opened room for new ideas like those movements the Beecher family supported and pioneered, in addition to temperance, women’s suffrage, free public education, and the unusual religious movements associated with the more extreme elements of the Second Great Awakening. Both the economic and social tumult also began to create the beginnings of the middle-class, which included a series of social values that would be strongly associated with both the personal standards that class would demand of themselves and the reform mission work that it would use to attempt to impose these ideas on a broader society. Women would play a central role in all of this, including everything from serving as Christian missionaries to China to temperance. This is the world into which Catharine Beecher entered on the issues of cleanliness and middle-class household standards, redefining women’s work in the home.

In 1841, Beecher published A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School. In this book, Beecher went far to create modern housework standards. For her, the home was not only the refuge of women (a standard feature of 19th century middle class reform thought) but also a place of labor. She believed housework was a legitimate profession and thus women should be educated for it like they would be educated to be teachers. She believed the English were “distinguished for systematic housekeeping, and for a great love of order, cleanliness, and comfort.”

Her book attempted to teach these qualities to American women. She focused on practical advice around childcare, cleaning, training servants (the Irish of course who for a nativist like Beecher needed a lot of training), cooking, sewing, nursing, gardening, and other skills a proper middle-class woman needed to create a new generation of moral Americans. She called for a redesign of houses to create an architecture of cleanliness. Every room would have a fireplace, a kitchen needed a good sink, and wells or cisterns must be located nearby so that the constant amount of laundry that needed to be done in this brave new world of housework could get accomplished. While her book mostly avoided the subject of bathrooms, she did emphasize bathing and rejected the common idea that dirt was healthy. She encouraged full body bathing, fresh air, and exercise.

Of course, it’s not that Beecher was wrong about some of these issues. Americans were shockingly filthy and unhealthy in 1841 and those two issues were related. Cholera epidemics were striking with disturbing regularity and the nation would see just how disastrous public health ideas could be during the Civil War. The lack of bathing did lead to disease and Beecher’s own experiences at health resorts grounded her in the benefits of cleanliness. She noted that horses received more attention to their cleanliness than horse owners gave to themselves. Beecher was not alone in her quest. Beecher would later publish works on the need for women to exercise as part of her larger crusade. During the mid-19th century there were many middle-class reformers making similar arguments, including Sylvester Graham, William Alcott, and Beecher’s sister-in-law Eunice Beecher, who wrote about furniture and domestic arrangements within the context of cleanliness and health in the middle-class household. Catharine Beecher was perhaps first among equals and her book went through several editions. The overall impact of this movement was to transform middle-class ideas of cleanliness by the time of her 1878 death, ideas that then began to be pressed down onto the rapidly growing urban working class and onto the still sizable number of rural dwellers in the nation. All of this had a deeply moral aspect to it. For Beecher, who was by no means a feminist, women had a moral role to play in civilizing men and educating the next generation. Women were to play a decidedly subservient role in the household, yet that role was absolutely crucial for developing the nation and she believed they should embrace by making their homes citadels of cleanliness.

The modern creation of housework during the mid-19th century always had the theoretical side of freeing women from drudgery. But the reality was that most of the technologies created to save women work while keeping up proper standards created more work for women. There were some exceptions. The invention of the electric washing machine in 1910 obviously was easier for women than the horrible drudgery of washing clothes over an open fire that required hauling water. But the idea of proper housework only led to increasingly higher standards over what a properly clean house meant. With all of this work done by unpaid female labor (or sometimes paid female labor, but always for someone else’s house and this declined dramatically after 1910 or so), it vastly increased the daily labors of millions of women.

I originally wanted to write this post using the exact date of the publication of Treatise on Domestic Economy. If anyone has access to this information, I would appreciate it. I could not find it and had to use her death date instead.

I borrowed from Suellen Hoy’s Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness in the writing of this post. Kathryn Kish Sklar’s 1976 biography of Beecher is also a standard of the early women’s history, but I have never read it.

This is the 221st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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