The Education of Daughters – Words of Wisdom from Lydia M. Child, Circa 1832

A full chapter excerpt from The American Frugal Housewife, by Lydia M. Child

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The American Frugal Housewife
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Education of Daughters

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There is no subject so much connected with individual happiness and national prosperity as the education of daughters. It is a true, and therefore an old remark, that the situation and prospects of a country may be justly estimated by the character of its women; and we all know how hard it is to engraft upon a woman’s character habits and principles to which she was unaccustomed in her girlish days. It is always extremely difficult, and sometimes utterly impossible. Is the present education of young ladies likely to contribute to their own ultimate happiness, or to the welfare of the country?
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There are many honorable exceptions; but we do think the general tone of female education is bad. The greatest and most universal error is teaching girls to exaggerate the importance of getting married; and of course to place an undue importance upon the polite attentions of gentlemen. It was but a few days since, I heard a pretty and sensible girl say, ‘Did you ever see a man so ridiculously fond of his daughters as Mr. –? He is all the time with them. The other night, at the party, I went and took Anna away by mere force; for I knew she must feel dreadfully to have her father waiting upon her all the time, while the other girls were talking with the beaux.’ And another young friend of mine said, with an air most laughably serious, ‘I don’t think Harriet and Julia enjoyed themselves at all last night. Don’t you think, nobody but their brother offered to hand them to the supper-room?’
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That a mother should wish to see her daughters happily married is natural and proper; that a young lady should be pleased with polite attentions is likewise natural and innocent; but this undue anxiety, this foolish excitement about showing off the attentions of somebody, no matter whom, is attended with consequences seriously injurious. It promotes envy and rivalship; it leads our young girls to spend their time between the public streets, the ball room, and the toilet; and, worst of all, it leads them to contract engagements, without any knowledge of their own hearts, merely for the sake of being married as soon as their companions. When married, they find themselves ignorant of the important duties of domestic life; and its quiet pleasures soon grow tiresome to minds worn out by frivolous excitements. If they remain unmarried, their disappointment and discontent are, of course, in proportion to their exaggerated idea of the éclat attendant upon having a lover. The evil increases in a startling ratio; for these girls, so injudiciously educated, will, nine times out of ten, make injudicious mothers, aunts, and friends; thus follies will be accumulated unto the third and fourth generation. Young ladies should be taught that usefulness is happiness, and that all other things are but incidental. With regard to matrimonial speculations, they should be taught nothing! Leave the affections to nature and to truth, and all will end well. How many can I at this moment recollect who have made themselves unhappy by marrying for the sake of the name of being married! How many do I know, who have been instructed to such watchfulness in the game, that they have lost it by trumping their own tricks!
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One great cause of the vanity, extravagance and idleness that are so fast growing upon our young ladies, is the absence of domestic education. By domestic education, I do not mean the sending daughters into the kitchen some half dozen times, to weary the patience of the cook, and to boast of it the next day in the parlor. I mean two or three years spent with a mother, assisting her in her duties, instructing brothers and sisters, and taking care of their own clothes. This is the way to make them happy, as well as good wives; for, being early accustomed to the duties of life, they will sit lightly as well as gracefully upon them.
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But what time do modern girls have for the formation of quiet, domestic habits? Until sixteen they go to school; sometimes these years are judiciously spent, and sometimes they are half wasted; too often they are spent in acquiring the elements of a thousand sciences, without being thoroughly acquainted with any; or in a variety of accomplishments of very doubtful value to people of moderate fortune. As soon as they leave school, (and sometimes before,) they begin a round of balls and parties, and staying with gay young friends. Dress and flattery take up all their thoughts. What time have they to learn to be useful? What time have they to cultivate the still and gentle affections, which must, in every situation of life, have such an important effect on a woman’s character and happiness?
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As far as parents can judge what will be a daughter’s station, education should be adapted to it; but it is well to remember that it is always easy to know how to spend riches, and always safe to know how to bear poverty.
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A superficial acquaintance with such accomplishments as music and drawing is useless and undesirable. They should not be attempted unless there is taste, talent, and time enough to attain excellence. I have frequently heard young women of moderate fortune say, ‘I have not opened my piano these five years. I wish I had the money expended upon it. If I had employed as much time in learning useful things, I should have been better fitted for the cares of my family.’
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By these remarks I do not mean to discourage an attention to the graces of life. Gentility and taste are always lovely in all situations. But good things, carried to excess, are often productive of bad consequences. When accomplishments and dress interfere with the duties and permanent happiness of life, they are unjustifiable and displeasing; but where there is a solid foundation in mind and heart, all those elegancies are but becoming ornaments.
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Some are likely to have more use for them than others; and they are justified in spending more time and money upon them. But no one should be taught to consider them valuable for mere parade and attraction. Making the education of girls such a series of ‘man-traps,’ makes the whole system unhealthy, by poisoning the motive.

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In tracing evils of any kind, which exist in society, we must, after all, be brought up against the great cause of all mischief-mismanagement in education; and this remark applies with peculiar force to the leading fault of the present day, viz. extravagance. It is useless to expend our ingenuity in purifying the stream, unless the fountain be cleansed. If young men and young women are brought up to consider frugality contemptible, and industry degrading, it is vain to expect they will at once become prudent and useful, when the cares of life press heavily upon them. Generally speaking, when misfortune comes upon those who have been accustomed to thoughtless expenditure, it sinks them to discouragement, or, what is worse, drives them to desperation. It is true there are exceptions. There are a few, an honorable few, who, late in life, with Roman severity of resolution, learn the long-neglected lesson of economy. But how small is the number, compared with the whole mass of the population! And with what bitter agony, with what biting humiliation, is the hard lesson often learned! How easily might it have been engrafted on early habits, and naturally and gracefully ‘grown with their growth, and strengthened with their strength!’
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Yet it was but lately that I visited a family, not of ‘moderate fortune,’ but of no fortune at all; one of those people who live ‘nobody knows how;’ and I found a young girl, about sixteen, practicing on the piano, while an elderly lady beside her was darning her stockings. I was told (for the mother was proud of bringing up her child so genteelly) that the daughter had almost forgotten how to sew, and that a woman was hired into the house to do her mending! ‘But why,’ said I, ‘have you suffered your daughter to be ignorant of so useful an employment? If she is poor, the knowledge will be necessary to her; if she is rich, it is the easiest thing in the world to lay it aside, if she chooses; she will merely be a better judge whether her work is well done by others.’ ‘That is true,’ replied the mother; ‘and I always meant she should learn; but she never has seemed to have any time. When she was eight years old, she could put a shirt together pretty well; but since that, her music, and her dancing, and her school, have taken up her whole time. I did mean she should learn some domestic habits this winter; but she has so many visitors, and is obliged to go out so much, that I suppose I must give it up. I don’t like to say too much about it; for, poor girl! she does so love company, and she does so hate anything like care and confinement! Now is her time to enjoy herself, you know. Let her take all the comfort she can, while she is single!’ ‘But,’ said I, ‘you wish her to marry some time or other; and, in all probability, she will marry. When will she learn how to perform the duties, which are necessary and important to every mistress of a family?’ ‘Oh, she will learn them when she is obliged to,’ answered the injudicious mother; ‘at all events, I am determined she shall enjoy herself while she is young.’
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And this is the way I have often heard mothers talk! Yet, could parents foresee the almost inevitable consequences of such a system, I believe the weakest and vainest would abandon the false and dangerous theory. What a lesson is taught a girl in that sentence, ‘Let her enjoy herself all she can, while she is single!’ Instead of representing domestic life as the gathering place of the deepest and purest affections; as the sphere of woman’s enjoyments as well as of her duties; as, indeed, the whole world to her; that one pernicious sentence teaches a girl to consider matrimony desirable because ‘a good match’ is a triumph of vanity, and it is deemed respectable to be ‘well settled in the world;’ but that it is a necessary sacrifice of her freedom and her gayety. And then how many affectionate dispositions have been trained into heartlessness, by being taught that the indulgence of indolence and vanity were necessary to their happiness; and that to have this indulgence, they must marry money! But who that marries for money, in this land of precarious fortunes, can tell how soon they will lose the glittering temptation, to which they have been willing to sacrifice so much? And even if riches last as long as life, the evil is not remedied. Education has given a wrong end and aim to their whole existence; they have been taught to look for happiness where it never can be found, viz. in the absence of all occupation, or the unsatisfactory and ruinous excitement of fashionable competition.
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The difficulty is, education does not usually point the female heart to its only true resting-place. That dear English word ‘home,’ is not half so powerful a talisman as ‘the world.’ Instead of the salutary truth, that happiness is in duty, they are taught to consider the two things totally distinct; and that whoever seeks one, must sacrifice the other.
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The fact is, our girls have no home education. When quite young, they are sent to schools where no feminine employments, no domestic habits, can be learned; and there they continue till they ‘come out’ into the world. After this, few find any time to arrange, and make use of, the mass of elementary knowledge they have acquired; and fewer still have either leisure or taste for the inelegant, every-day duties of life. Thus prepared, they enter upon matrimony. Those early habits, which would have made domestic care a light and easy task, have never been taught, for fear it would interrupt their happiness; and the result is, that when cares come, as come they must, they find them misery. I am convinced that indifference and dislike between husband and wife are more frequently occasioned by this great error in education, than by any other cause.
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The bride is awakened from her delightful dream, in which carpets, vases, sofas, white gloves, and pearl earrings, are oddly jumbled up with her lover’s looks and promises. Perhaps she would be surprised if she knew exactly how much of the fascination of being engaged was owing to the aforesaid inanimate concern. Be that as it will, she is awakened by the unpleasant conviction that cares devolve upon her. And what effect does this produce upon her character? Do the holy and tender influences of domestic love render self-denial and exertion a bliss? No! They would have done so, had she been properly educated; but now she gives way to unavailing fretfulness and repining; and her husband is at first pained, and finally disgusted, by hearing, ‘I never knew what care was when I lived in my father’s house.’ ‘If I were to live my life over again, I would remain single as long as I could, without the risk of being an old maid.’ How injudicious, how short-sighted is the policy, which thus mars the whole happiness of life, in order to make a few brief years more gay and brilliant! I have known many instances of domestic ruin and discord produced by this mistaken indulgence of mothers. I never knew but one, where the victim had moral courage enough to change all her early habits. She was a young, pretty, and very amiable girl; but brought up to be perfectly useless; a rag baby would, to all intents and purposes, have been as efficient a partner. She married a young lawyer, without property, but with good and increasing practice. She meant to be a good wife, but she did not know how. Her wastefulness involved him in debt. He did not reproach, though he tried to convince and instruct her. She loved him; and weeping replied, ‘I try to do the best I can; but when I lived at home, mother always took care of everything.’ Finally, poverty came upon him ‘like an armed man;’ and he went into a remote town in the Western States to teach a school. His wife folded her hands, and cried; while he, weary and discouraged, actually came home from school to cook his own supper. At last, his patience, and her real love for him, impelled her to exertion. She promised to learn to be useful, if he would teach her. And she did learn! And the change in her habits gradually wrought such a change in her husband’s fortune, that she might bring her daughters up in idleness, had not experience taught her that economy, like grammar, is a very hard and tiresome study, after we are twenty years old.
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Perhaps some will think the evils of which I have been speaking are confined principally to the rich; but I am convinced they extend to all classes of people. All manual employment is considered degrading; and those who are compelled to do it, try to conceal it. A few years since, very respectable young men at our colleges cut their own wood and blacked their own shoes. Now how few, even of the sons of plain farmers and industrious mechanics, have moral courage enough to do without a servant; yet when they leave college, and come out into the battle of life, they must do without servants; and in these times it will be fortunate if one half of them get what is called ‘a decent living,’ even by rigid economy and patient toil. Yet I would not that servile and laborious employment should be forced upon the young. I would merely have each one educated according to his probable situation in life; and be taught that whatever is his duty, is honorable; and that no merely external circumstance can in reality injure true dignity of character. I would not cramp a boy’s energies by compelling him always to cut wood, or draw water; but I would teach him not to be ashamed, should his companions happen to find him doing either one or the other. A few days since, I asked a grocer’s lad to bring home some articles I had just purchased at his master’s. The bundle was large; he was visibly reluctant to take it; and wished very much that I should send for it. This, however, was impossible; and he subdued his pride; but when I asked him to take back an empty bottle which belonged to the store, he, with a mortified look, begged me to do it up neatly in a paper, that it might look like a small package. Is this boy likely to be happier for cherishing a foolish pride, which will forever be jarring against his duties? Is he in reality one whit more respectable than the industrious lad who sweeps stores, or carries bottles, without troubling himself with the idea that all the world is observing his little unimportant self? For, in relation to the rest of the world, each individual is unimportant; and he alone is wise who forms his habits according to his own wants, his own prospects, and his own principles.
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Education of Daughters is a chapter excerpt from Lydia M. Child’s 1832 classic homemaker’s manual The American Frugal Housewife, which is now available in a quality reprint edition from Better Days Books.
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Originally published in 1832, this extraordinary manual for the homemaker of modest means is far more than a mere “cookbook.” In an age before electricity, refrigeration or any other modern convenience, the fine art of storing, preparing and serving food presented difficulties unimagined in our time, challenges our forebears mastered with ingenuity, hard work, the inherited knowledge of generations past, and the sheer American pluck required to make the cheerful best of any social or economic situation. Also included are instructions for making soap, beer and wine, for repairing worn clothing and furniture, for enduring poverty, and even for rightly educating one’s daughters. A rich treasure trove of practical frontier knowledge, Lydia M. Child’s The American Frugal Housewife is an essential volume for contemporary homesteaders, antiquarian collectors, and anyone who longs for a firsthand taste of real American history.
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