Austen, Beecher & Stowe

October 16, 2014

In the years leading up to the Civil War, Catharine Beecher’s influence was eclipsed when her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin ignited a movement to abolish slavery. In 1869, Beecher and Stowe collaborated on combining Treatise on Domestic Economy and Domestic Receipt-Book into the American Woman’s Home. However, Beecher’s legacy was established in her arguments that women’s roles in the domestic and educational sphere were the foundations for social advancement and the cornerstone of American democracy. Whereas the Grimké sisters used Christian rhetoric to fight for the abolition of slavery, Beecher used the same rhetoric to wrap women in a new schema for creating professionalism domestic work. She sought to illustrate how rationalism and utilitarianism could give women the opportunity to turn ordinary female activities into a means to achieve success that echoed masculine models for success

The literary landscape dramatically expanded when American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) – who was born the year Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was first published – reached into the American consciousness to engage its sentimentality for the abolitionist cause. Stowe picked up the threads from female authors of the early Republic when she wrote “A New England Sketch” for Western Monthly Magazine in April 1834. Stowe’s collection of stories and sketches called The Mayflower (1843), modeled after Addison and Steele’s The Spectator, utilized Enlightenment rhetoric to inculcate moral lessons, and launched her career as a leading abolitionist writer. However, Stowe is best remembered for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life among the lowly (1852), which introduced American readers to a new genre of “family novels” featuring short chapters that were read aloud with the entire family present, similar as to when families gathered around their radios for entertainment during the early-twentieth century.

Utilizing contacts with the abolitionist newspaper the National Era, Stowe had her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), published in installments over a forty-week period. Family stories were often published in serial form so they could be read aloud by at least a dozen people, thus serials crossed economic regions that expensive books might not reach. This aspect of popular culture often occurred in connection to women’s communal activities including sewing or quilting bees and similar to today’s book club where people shared an experience and discussed its implications.

Austen’s work never carried the label “bestseller” during her lifetime; she was not widely read even in England. Relevant to American history, this nineteenth century American bestseller (still second only to the Bible) evangelized against slavery as the cornerstone of the Southern plantation system. After borrowing a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from her neighborhood “Reading Circle” a young Vermont mother named Chastina Rix wrote in her diary: I hate slavery and always did. This Work although a fiction, is calculated well to touch the feelings & enlist ones sympathies for this unfortunate race, a curse upon our country will surely come if men will persist in keeping these poor creatures in such a degraded condition aye & hold there [sic] children in bondage too! It makes my blood burn when I think on it. (Bonfield and Morrison 1995, 70).” Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, and credited her with laying the moral groundwork for the conflict over the abolition of slavery, “So this is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war (Stowe & Smiley 2001: xxii).” Today most Americans are more familiar with the plotlines of Austen’s British classics. The semantics of conversation presented in Austen’s novels must have seemed to innocent, quaint, and guileless to later generations as middle-class affluence increased with the industrial revolution. The two cousins once-separated by a family dispute no longer felt any animosity as Victoria of England grew as a national and international icon for feminine morality.


Beecher, Catharine. Miss Beecher’s Domestic Reciept-Book: Designed as a Supplement to Her Treatise on Domestic Economy. New York: Harper, 1850.

Bonfield, Lynn A., and Mary C. Morrison. Roxana’s Children: The Niography of a nineteenth-century Vermont Family. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher, and Jane Smiley. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life among the Lowly. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

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.

Catharine Beecher (1800-1878) was considered by many to be the mother of home economics in America. Beecher became an influential shaper of American middle-class female culture during the antebellum years, by lobbying for higher education for women and the advancement of female teachers in public education. More importantly, Beecher intellectually reconciled the status quo for female subordination to values of American democracy by developing new ways of promoting the role of women within nationalistic rhetoric. Beecher wrote prolifically on education and woman’s place in society, leading an American domestic science movement that was in tune with the demands of industrial capitalism of the late nineteenth century. Many women’s historians feel that Beecher’s influence devalued women’s labor regulating married women to the private sphere of the family household with out benefit of suffrage or property rights.

Catharine Beecher attended Sarah Pierce’s Lichtfield Female Academy from 1810 to 1816 first as a student and then as an assistant teacher. The Lichtfield Academy inculcated the philosophy of Republican Motherhood. This concept of gendered roles emerged during the Early Republican era when rhetoric espoused that the future of the nation was contingent upon women shaping and protecting the spiritual and moral life of society. When Miss Pierce’s nephew Charles Brace came to teach at the academy, he introduced a curriculum for boys along with Addisonian values of domestic gentility to female students. In this model, women and men shared intellectual equality in separate spheres: men conducted business and social activities in the public sphere and females managed the home and social obligations in the private sphere. The curriculum of the Litchfield Academy included reading, writing, composition, and English grammar; geography, ancient and modern history; philosophy and logic; spelling and simple needlework.

Raised in a Calvinist household, she studied music and drawing in preparation for a teaching career. She planned to marry a mariner, which meant that she would need an occupation while he was at see, her first opportunity to teach came in 1821 when she was hired to teach music and drawing in New London. Breaking with the Calvinist teachings of her father Lyman Beecher, Catharine settled into an acceptable occupation for a single woman which was teaching. Catharine wrote to her father on February 15, 1823, “there seems to be no very extensive sphere of usefulness for single woman but that which can be found in the limits of a schoolroom.” After the death of her fiancé Alexander Metcalf Fisher at sea in 1823, Catharine inherited a small fortune from his estate, which she and her sister Mary Foote Beecher used to establish a school for girls in Hartford, Connecticut. This school evolved into the Hartford Female Seminary. Mary did a bulk of the basic teaching, leaving Catharine time to develop her own teaching philosophy where academic excellence is fostered.


Holding a tiny doll that has a dress made by my mother. Photograph by R. I. Otterbach, 2014.



P.S. I have donned my folklorist attire to do some research on a French artist that settled in San Francisco in the 1910s after finding his name spelled in every which way on the Internet. I am having a blast with the old-fashioned gumshoe-ing and will report on findings in the coming weeks.

Lyman Beecher, an ardent New England abolitionist, established the American Temperance Society in 1825 because women and families had been put at risk for being destitute when husbands spent family wages on alcohol. Lydia Maria Child, an indefatigable social networker, abolitionist, and proponent for the rights of Native Americans, offered practical knowledge for women with husbands who could not provide for families in her The American Frugal Housewife (1829).

Catharine Beecher (1800-1878), the daughter of Lyman Beecher, who organized women’s schools and colleges, and intellectually reconciled through her writing how existing patterns of female-subordination attributed to the “cult of true womanhood” were necessary to sustain American democratic sensibilities in antebellum America. Her Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) illustrated the consistency of Christian ideals of democracy to American social hierarchies. She proposed a new schema for professionalizing domestic work and schooling, and utilized Lockean theory to substantiate the argument that women’s activities required the same autonomous and practical critical thinking skills in the private sector as were required of men in experiencing career success in the public sector.

Detail of twentieth century stitching on back cover from Happy Hands Studio (Pendelton, Oregon) from unique artist book by Roberta Lavadour called "Happy Hands"

Detail of twentieth century stitching on back cover from Happy Hands Studio (Pendelton, Oregon) from unique artist book by Roberta Lavadour called “Happy Hands”

The Midwest became a cultural hearth where women organized pressure groups. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was established in Cleveland to oppose the manufacture and use of alcoholic beverages, and to educate the public on the social impact of abusing liquor. When the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, slave traders began to kidnap free blacks in the North and sell them into slavery in the South. During the 1850s, Ohio, where The Anti-Slavery Bugle was published, became a hub for abolitionist activism. Bugle writer Josephine Gaffing sheltered fugitive slaves in her home, and Quaker women provided safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. Catharine Beecher’s younger sister Harriet Beecher Stowe was living in Cincinnati, Ohio, and knew women assisting escaped slaves fleeing from Kentucky to Canada via the Underground Railroad.