“To the women of America, in whose hands rest the real destinies of the republic, as mouled by the early training and preserved amid the maturer influence of home, this volume is affectionately inscribed.” – Catharine E. Beecher, The American Women’s Home (1869) [1]

“37 Deep Cleaning Tips Every Obsessive Clean Freak Needs to Know” – Buzzfeed.com (2014)[2]  

Buzzfeed article posted May 26, 2014.

Buzzfeed article posted May 26, 2014.

For centuries humans have sought answers to some of life’s biggest questions. “How do you poach an egg?”, “What’s the best way to get that stain out?”, and “How can I unclog my drain?” Although the concept of domestic advice and prescriptive literature is not new, the way we consume it is.

Throughout history women have passed down their knowledge of the domestic arts to their children through demonstration and oral tradition. Beginning in the 1830s and ‘40s, highly popular and mass produced domestic literature such as Catharine Beecher and Harriet

The American Woman's Home. New York State Historical Association Library.

The American Woman’s Home. New York State Historical Association Library.

Beecher Stowe’s The American Women’s Home exploded onto the scene. Now we watch YouTube videos and consult apps and online articles. In the past, this type of literature was highly gendered, often speaking directly to women, and imbued with social and moral values. In the digital age, the democratizing nature of the internet allows many more voices to both contribute to and consume this type of prescriptive domestic literature. But does that mean we’ve eliminated the gendered, moralistic nature of domestic advice?

During the Victorian era, the rise of a literate white middle-class as well as a rise in the availability of goods led to a new audience eager for domestic advice. [3] Women like Catharine Beecher and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, were passionate about women’s domestic education. They believed that the home was the center of morality and sought to elevate the woman’s “profession.”  In The American Woman’s Home: or Principles of Domestic Science; Being A Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical Healthful, Beautiful and Christian Homes¸the Beecher sisters thoroughly discuss a wide range of topics from the structure of a good Christian home, to stove maintenance, to childrearing, to domestic manner and entertaining, to the

Diagram depicting an example of a proper kitchen.

Diagram depicting an example of a proper kitchen in The American Woman’s Home.

importance of charity, often delving into the scientific principles behind their advice. [4] Although cookbooks and advice-giving literature still exist, many would find it odd to crack open a heavy book when one click can access thousands of recipes and articles. The modern domestic may also find some of the Beecher’s overtly gendered and moral instruction uncomfortable or out of place in a YouTube tutorial or Buzzfeed article. In fact, many cooking videos simply feature disembodied hands, eliminating the question of gender altogether.  However, according to Time, the users of Pinterest, a social media site partially dedicated to domestic “how-to,” is over 80% female. [5] In regards to the question of morals and values, Buzzfeed articles on “green” cleaning techniques, healthy recipes, and “life-hacks” all uphold values of sustainability, health, and efficiency. Though we no longer espouse Victorian ideals, our modern-day version of domestic-advice literature still gives our mason jars and lemon-based cleaning products social value and meaning.

– Tori Lee ’16

[1] Catharine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman’s Home (New York: J.B. Ford and Company, 1869).

[2] Peggy Wang, “37 Deep Cleaning Tips Every Obessive Clean Freak Needs to Know,” http://www.buzzfeed.com/peggy/deep-cleaning-tips-every-obsessive-clean-freak-should-kno#.bgDd2Vl12D

[3] Sarah Abigail Leavitt, From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[4] Catharine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman’s Home

[5] Keith Wagstaff, “Men are from Google+, Women are from Pinterest,” Time, February 15th, 2012, http://techland.time.com/2012/02/15/men-are-from-google-women-are-from-pinterest/