Photo: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT
Maggie Blaine Smith owns a copy of Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book (1846) and I’m sure she also has a copy of A Treatise on Domestic Economy, For the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and At School (1841). The first is a cookbook that also contains suggestions for a healthy diet and a healthy life. The second is “the first complete guide to house-keeping published in America” (http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/sentimnt/snescebhp.html). As a matter of fact, Beecher’s Treatise was so popular it went through 15 editions.
You may have noticed that, although Maggie likes to pursue writing for newspapers, she is strictly a homebody. And that may have something to do with Miss Beecher.
Catharine Esther Beecher was born 6 September 1800 in East Hampton, NY and died 12 May 1878 in Elmira, NY. She was a member of a well-known family, comprised of father Lyman Beecher, who was a Presbyterian minister and evangelist; leading suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker, and pastor Henry Ward Beecher, a notable anti-slavery, pro-temperance, and pro-women’s suffrage speaker, and author Harriet Beecher Stowe, among others.
Beecher was given about as much education as a young woman could hope for in that era, attending a school where she learned Latin, philosophy, and mathematics. When her mother died in 1816, though, Beecher took on household and family duties. She became a schoolteacher in 1821, and in 1823 founded a girls’ school with her sister Mary that became known as the Hartford Female Seminary (CT).
At the Hartford Female Seminary, the Beecher sisters dared to offer more than the usual curriculum of languages and fine art and opted to give their students a range of subject matter. And this included physical education and calisthenics. It had not passed the Catharine’s notice that young ladies needed to improve their health. She actively sought to defy the prevailing notion that women were weak and fragile.
When her father accepted a position as President of Lane Theological Seminary (Cincinnati, OH), Beecher started another school, the Western Female Institute. However, she closed the school five years later due to her own ill health.
Her interest in education stayed strong, though. Beecher worked on the well-known McGuffey Readers for elementary school children, which became the first nationally-accepted textbooks. But Beecher primarily was interested in women’s education and welfare.
She co-founded the Board of National Popular Education (1847-48, Cleveland). She also founded the American Woman’s Educational Association (1852), which trained teachers to work in frontier schools.
Supporting herself by lecturing and authoring books, Beecher tackled the thorny issue of women’s place in American society. While she was not in favor of female suffrage, she sought to redefine women’s role. Her books, especially the Treatise, inspired consistency with regard domestic practices (everything from sweeping to doing the dishes and making the beds). Beecher sought to raise the status of household care and child-raising, through which she believed women could have a powerful influence not just the home but the nation.
Given the above we might be tempted to say, “she believed a woman’s place was in the home, so she must be a conservative,” or “she pushed for women to have greater power in American society, so she must be a liberal or a radical.” Well, I think she was a mixture, and I’ll write about that tomorrow– with a little help from a paper I wrote years ago in graduate school. But it stands the test of time and helped me have a greater understanding of Beecher’s influence. And now it has helped me see the impact it may have had on Maggie.
The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Catharine Beecher: American Author.” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Catharine-Beecher#ref237965
Women’sHistory.org. “Catharine Beecher (1800-1878). “Debra Michals, Ph.D., editor (2015). https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/catharine-esther-beecher.