Catharine Beecher (1800-1878), Part 2

October 15, 2014

The Hartford Female Seminary differed from dame schools that prepared girls for refined lifestyles because girls performed calisthenics. Catharine Beecher, like Lydia Maria Child who authored The Girl’s Own Book (1828), focused on reforming standards of diet, exorcise, and less restrictive clothing for women. Beecher in Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education (1829) proposed that mothers and female teachers could fulfill the role traditionally held by ministers in educating the mind as well as nurturing a healthy soul.

When the Beecher family relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1831, Beecher and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe established the Western Female Institute. In 1832 Catharine and Harriet Beecher Stowe joined the Semi-Colon Club, an early literary discussion group for men and women. During the 1830s, Winthrop B. Smith of Truman & Smith, a Cincinnati publishing company approached, Beecher to compile a series of readers, and she declined the offer. Smith conceived the idea of developing a series of “eclectic” readers that contained didactic literature from the best authors of the day. Eventually a young Calvinist schoolmaster named William Holmes McGuffey (1800-1873) accepted the challenge and developed the fabulously successful McGuffey Eclectic Readers. Beecher assisted him with the Fourth Eclectic Reader published in 1837. The series remained neutral on the topic of slavery during the Civil War, and copies were smuggled and sold in the South. The Western Female Institute struggled to remain open but filed for bankruptcy as a result of a financial panic in 1837. Early in her career, Beecher ignited a strenuous public debate through corresponding with Angelica and Sarah Grimké when she wrote her Essay on Slavery and Abolition (1837).

Beecher’s A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School was published in 1843, and she opened the book with a chapter describing the distinct characteristics of American women in contrast to English women. Beecher proposed that American women should be trained in domestic economy to gain logical and practical skills needed to manage a household. Beecher felt this pedagogy could be imparted when girls were between the ages of ten and fourteen years, and could be best taught institutionally in a year when girls were fifteen years of age. Instruction offered in Beecher’s book allowed girls at the age of sixteen to fulfill their prescribed roles in the household, whether for family, for hire, or in establishing their own households. Beecher argued that this curriculum for women was central to the moral and political foundations of the nation.

Beecher was concerned that American women were being trained haphazardly to expound on frivolous and esoteric subjects, while practical skills needed to build successful and healthy lives were neglected. She observed with irony that girls could easily construct and explain a geometric diagram “with far more skill,” than construct a garment using the same geometric principles. Beecher argued that women in antebellum America needed to master skills that would make their families self-sufficient in rural settings, or opportunities to create “value-added” benefits to families in urban environments. Beecher wanted to standardize American domestic practices, providing women with values of self-reliance, hard work, egalitarianism, and independence within home and family. Beecher included sections in her book on preparing of healthy food, maintaining cleanliness and systematical management of home and children, propagating plants, and elements of basic animal husbandry. She developed a curriculum in home economy framed within a specific sensibility that the work of women should be valued within antebellum society.

In 1846, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book was published as a supplementary manual on cooking. This work departed from other cookbook printed in America that were simply reprints of British cookbooks because Beecher felt American women needed more practical advice. She included an entire chapter on preparing hashes, gravies and sauces; suggesting that she valued hashes (dishes combining chopped up meat leftovers and potatoes) as a means for avoiding waste. Her Treatise on Domestic Economy and Domestic Receipt-Book were sold door to door throughout the country. Beecher led the formation of the American Women’s Educational Association in 1852 that strove to expand educational opportunities for women by sending teachers to western frontier towns. Beecher authored dozens of articles and books on female education that challenged patriarchy. Concerned with the health of American women, Beecher asked women to provide impressions on the health of ten women in their acquaintance during her travels that she compiled in Letters to People on Health and Happiness (1855). Later, in her An Appeal to the People on Behalf of their Rights as Authorized Interpreters of the Bible (1860), Beecher challenged Calvinist doctrines and the authority of the ministry.

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