Advice to new wives on domestic duties and education

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

This chapter is taken from The Young Wife's Book, one of several advice books written in this time period.   Advice books, the quintessential American publication like the "how-to" series, were hugely popular in the mid-nineteenth century.  Published in 1838 by Carey, Lea, & Blanchard in Philadelphia, PA, this particular book recommends a role for the wife in keeping with the popular idea that men and women occupied "separate spheres."  The home was considered to be the wife's proper sphere, and her husband the center of her attentions.  The world of business and commerce, which took place outside of the home, was considered the husband's proper sphere.  An underlying principle of "seperate spheres" is submission, and the idea that a "happy Christian" wife will deny herself for the good of her husband and her family.

Transcription of Primary Source


Although it is undoubtedly true that experience and example are the best teachers of domestic duties, it is not less true that much may be done by precept and advice. Indeed, there is no situation in life, in which the promptings of some kind and unobtrusive monitor may be offered more usefully and opportunely, than when a young bride has just left the mansion of her early guides and protectors, to enter upon a new sphere of action—a new and untried scene of probation.

Very probably she has no friend of her own sex near her. Many wise matrons think it decidedly best that she should have none—that the new-married pair should be permitted to live without any other inmates of the family than themselves and their servants, during the first months of the married state. I subscribe to this opinion; and in doing so, beg permission to present the bride with this small volume, to supply the place of a living adviser—a volume filled with precept, advice, warning, and encouragement,—gathered from many sources, the work of many learned and experienced minds. I hope that she will permit it to lie upon her toilet or centre-table, and occasionally read it until the whole is familiar to her as household words. If she shall be faithful to herself in the application of its counsels, she will save herself from many vain regrets, and reap a harvest of that which should be the heart’s desire and prayer of a young bride, the object of her warmest hopes and best exertions,—DOMESTIC HAPPINESS—HOMEFELT JOY.

Domestic happiness, thou only bliss
Of Paradise that has surviv’d the fall!
Tho’ few now taste thee unimpair’d and pure,
Or tasting, long enjoy thee:-------
* * * * * * *
* * * * * * *
Thou art the nurse of Virtue. In thine arms
She smiles appearing, as in truth she is,
Heaven-born, and destin’d to the skies again.
Thou art not known, where pleasure is ador’d,
That reeling goddess, with the zoneless waist
And wand’ring eye, still leaning on the arm
Of novelty, her fickle frail support:
For thou art meek and constant, hating change,
And finding in the calm of truth-tied love
Joys that her stormy raptures never yield.
Forsaking thee, what shipwreck have we made
Of honour, dignity, and fair renown!


Every woman by marriage is placed at the head of a family, and in some degree or other acquires importance in society. This circumstance, alone, imposes on her an obligation to frame her conduct so as to render it at least irreproachable in the eyes of others, if not a model for imitation. In a greater or less number she has dependants around her, not only expecting to derive from her comfort and prosperity, but unconsciously regulating their conduct by hers, and imbibing from her precepts and opinions favourable or otherwise to their morals. She may have, in the course of time, a family of children around her—to them she ought to appear as an infallible guide and example; untarnished by habits, which, in their influence, would affect, prejudicially, the character of youth, and incapable of uttering sentiments in any way injurious to the cause of virtue.

In the next place, a woman increases, by her marriage, her family-ties and relationships. These give her new friendships to cultivate, and to cement with esteem and affection—while those previously formed are still to be preserved and maintained. This is by no means an unimportant point of attention; for the happiness of many a married couple has been materially affected by injudicious conduct towards both new and old connexions. Jealousies and petty family-feuds spring from this source, and diminish the respectability, as well as the comfort of domestic life; to avert them needs only the exercise of good sense and good temper.

The mistress of a family has, too, the power, generally, of being the spring of its movements, and the regulator of its habits. Exerting this power properly, she sees around her every one obedient to the laws of order and regularity. The laborious parts of household occupations are all performed without unnecessary pressure, and the consequent comfort is felt by the whole family, and especially shown in the satisfied countenances of those who perform the work. They, knowing exactly their daily task, can by diligence earn for themselves periods of relaxation and rest, which would be completely lost but for the regularity prevailing throughout the family arrangements. Where this is neglected, discontent and ill-humour have constant exciting causes in the confusion and discomfort which pervade the family.

Another point of duty, which usually devolves on the married woman, and which demands the constant exercise of judgment and prudence, is, the expenditure of that portion of income allotted to household exigences. Here judgment should direct and determine her to a just division of that sum between luxuries and essentials: prudence should secure her adherence to that division, and should regulate all the minutiae of her expenditure. Extravagance and inattention to this branch of domestic management would be destructive of the comfort of almost every family, and perhaps fatal to its prosperity.

The married woman has also obligations of society to discharge, which may be said to extend beyond the bounds of family connexions and relationship:—she has to cultivate suitable acquaintance; to perform the various offices of good neighbourhood; to be social, friendly, and charitable.

In the last place, the married woman has duties to herself to perform. These regard the government of herself in temper; in subjecting her mind and affections to her reason; in restraining and correcting propensities and habits prejudicial to the happiness of married life; in the disposal of her time, the improvement of her mental powers, the cultivation of morality, and the duties of religion.

Of all these social, domestic, and personal obligations, her husband is the centre: when they are properly discharged; his welfare and happiness are certainly promoted; and his esteem, affection, and confidence established on a permanent basis. In neglecting them, he is neglected, his respectability diminished, and his domestic peace and comfort destroyed.


There have not been wanting ill-judging females who have affected to establish an unnatural separation between talents and usefulness, instead of bearing in mind that talents are the great appointed instruments of usefulness, who have acted as if knowledge were to confer on woman a kind of fantastic sovereignty which should exonerate her from the discharge of female duties; whereas it is only meant the more eminently to quality her for the performance of them. A woman of real sense will never forget, that while the greater part of her proper duties are such as the most moderately gifted may fulfil with credit (since Providence never makes that to be very difficult, which is generally necessary) yet that the most highly endowed are equally bound to fulfil them; and let her remember that the humblest of these offices, performed on Christian principles, are wholesome for the minds even of the most enlightened, as they tend to the casting down of those “high imaginations” which women of genius are too much tempted to indulge.

For instance; ladies whose natural vanity has been aggravated by a false education, may look down on economy as a vulgar attainment; unworthy of the attention of an highly cultivated intellect; but this is the false estimate of a shallow mind. Economy, such as a woman of fortune is called on to practice, is not merely the petty detail of small daily expenses, the shabby curtailments and stinted parsimony of a little mind, operating on little concerns; but it is the exercise of a sound judgment exerted in the comprehensive outline of order, of arrangements, of distribution; of regulations by which alone well-governed societies, great and small, subsist. She who has the best regulated mind will, other things being equal, have the best regulated family. As in the superintendence of the universe, wisdom is seen in its effects; and as in the visible works of Providence that which goes on with such beautiful regularity is the result not of chance but of design, so that management which seems the most easy is commonly the consequence of the best concerted plan; and a well concerted plan is seldom the offspring of an ordinary mind. A sound economy is a sound understanding brought into action; it is calculation realized; it is the doctrine of proportion reduced to practice; it is foreseeing consequences, and guarding against them; it is expecting contingencies, and being prepared for them. The difference is, that to a narrow-minded vulgar economist, the details are continually present; she is overwhelmed by their weight, and is perpetually bespeaking your pity for her labours, and your praise for her exertions; she is afraid you will not see how much she is harassed. She is not satisfied that the machine moves harmoniously, unless she is perpetually exposing every secret spring to observation. Little events and trivial operations engross her whole soul; while a woman of sense, having provided for their probable recurrence, guards against the inconveniencies, without being disconcerted by the casual obstructions which they offer to her general scheme. Subordinate expenses and inconsiderable retrenchments should not swallow up that attention which is better bestowed on regulating the general scale of expense; correcting and reducing an overgrown establishment, and reforming radical and growing excesses.

Superior talents, however, are not so common, as by their frequency, to offer much disturbance to the general course of human affairs; and many a lady, who tacitly accuses herself of neglecting her ordinary duties because she is a genius, will perhaps be found often to accuse herself as unjustly as good St. Jerome, when he laments that he was beaten by the angel for being too Ciceronian in his style.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
The Young Wife's Book: a manual of moral, religious and domestic duties
ix, x, 11, 17-19, 283-285
288 pages, 2 leaves of plates, 2 illustrations
Carey, Lea, & Blanchard
Place of Publication: 
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
14 cm.
American Antiquarian Society
Catalog Code: 
G800 Y78 Y838