A fragment on images of women, books and reading in 19th century America written for History 351. If and hen I find the complete paper I will post it here.

In her monumental "Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900," Joan Severa has collected hundreds of daguerreotypes and photographs of middle and working class people from the period. Her object is to describe in detail the clothing the subjects wear but the images reveal another intersting accoutrement of Americans of the 19th century: Books. Of the 150 images from 1840 to 1870, with one exception, where a woman is holding something other than a child or article of clothing (such as a hat, watch on a chain, or folded parasol) the article she holds is a book. The exception is an image of two mill workers who hold shuttles. In other images, books, while not held, figure prominently on tables next to the subject. The ages of these women ranges from a child of four to an elderly woman. No books are present in pictures of women with their husbands, and no grown men are shown holding or standing near books. Whether the choice is that of the photographers of that of the woman is unknown, but it is clear that women are associated with books, and, we assume, with the reading of them.

Given her interest in womens' education and his interest in selling magazines, it is not surprising that, as editor and publisher of "Godey's Lady's Book," Sarah J. Hale and Louis A. Godey worked women and books into their magazine. Like the photographs in Severa's collection, books are often held by or placed near women. This is not to say that every image of a woman has a book included. Many of the images are partial figures displaying fashion accessories. As these are usually bonnets and shawls, that is, outdoor wear, it is understandable that books are not every evident. However, in the plates created expressly for Godey's the importance of the book is clear.

The frontispeices for the January 1856, 1857 and 1858 volumes are a case in point. Titled "These are my Jewels" the woman in the 1856 engraving gazes at a portrait of her three children while they sit on the patterened carpet at her feet. Her finger marks a place in the book she has apparently just laid down in her lap. A book lies at her feet while two of her children pore over another. It should be noted that the little girl holds this book while her younger brother looks at it from beside her. Books line the shelves to her side and are piled on the table next to her. Also on the table is some sheet music which, no doubt, is meant to be plyed on the harp behind her chair. This scene is surrounded by flowering vines atop which hover two angels flanking a bird that is bringing a worn to its three young eagerly awaiting in the nest. Books, then, are an integral part of the world of this mother who nurtures and treasures her children and who is in turn venerated by them.

Godey generally comments on the fineness of his engravings but this particular image moved him to eloquence:

"Our title page, "These are my Jewels," is one of those scenes that come home to the hearts of every one, particularly the married ones. Look at it, ye bachelor editors, and envy­regret that ye did not marry years ago­but it is vain to regret, be up and moving; lose no time." (v. 52, p. 88)
Encouraging his fellow editors to marry was not unusual for Godey, In this instance we can be assured that Godey did not find unusual the fact that his ideal image of womanhood and family life was steeped in the reading of books. Also, it appears that he assumes his words wil be read if not by the entire male population, then at least by his fellow male editors.

The 1857 picture, "engraved by A. B. Walter from an original drawing made expressly for Godey's Lady's Book by H. L. Stephens" is designed as a tribute to Godey's specifically, but still makes clear the importance of books. In this instance an older woman holds open a copy of Godey's. At her knee her grandaughter looks on avidly while at her side sits her daughter, her attention also keenly fixed on the book. In her lap, her infant struggles to reach the book. On the floor near them, her young son, oblivious to the object of the womens' interest, teases a cat with a ball of yarn.

The furniture in the room consists of their seats, a draperied window embrasure containing an urn of flowers and towering over them, an ornate bookcase filled with weighty tomes. It's gothic arched doors add to its massive presence. The frame for this image is "A library in itself: Mothers take it the Lady's Book for their daughters whose mothers took it for them." This cameo itself stands on a stone pediment proclaiming this to be Godey's Lady's Book. Also on this pediment are the usual accoutrements of the humanist scholar: books, scrolls, a globe, a palette, oil lamp, and lyre. Crowning all are the spires of a cathedral, or at least a likeness to Oxford's. Clearly books, especially the Book, and here we obviously do not mean the Bible, are objects of interest and veneration. And once again the implication is that this is especially true for women.

The 1858 image is not quite so book-oriented: it allows music and even recreation a slightly larger role. Books, music, the palette, lyre and this time a tambourine make their appearence at the bottom of a picture of a group of young women in a parlour. he women in the foreground hoover over a book while in the background another woman plays a piano. A young man stands behind her, head tilted, arms at sides, but it is unclear whether he is paying attention to the piano player or the reading women. Above this scene a man and woman are are being pulled in This presence, but lack of emphasis on the book is, in part, made up by the facing illustration. A woman and her two children are gathered in prayer around an alter upon which lays a book. We can guess that Godey would not be so sacriligious as to want us to infer that it is his Book and not The Book, but, given the former images, the two might easily be confused.

The book, the Book, and their association with women is well represented by the images in Godey's, but what of the writing? Janice Radway, in her "Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature" examines a late 20th century genre associated with women, the Romance Novel. Her study, focusing as it does on readers' responses to those books rather than on more traditional methods of literary criticism, elicits interesting conclusions about the role of that literature. She bases her study on interviews with the women readers, in effect asking them to analyze what they read and why. Unfortunately, we cannot do the same for the readers of Godey's. But we can at least look for clues about the role of reading in the writing of the women who wrote for the magazine.

The years at the middle of the century covered by the above-described images provide plentiful examples of the centrality of the book to middle class womens' culture.

notes who reads, what do they read (do a bit on stories praising Godey's--what the heck), what is the effect of their reading on others, does their reading help or hurt them, can their reading suport them, how many write, how-who-what write
Hawthorne has trouble with publishing, Neal does not seem to

This file is part of Hope Greenberg's graduate portfolio for the course History 351. Created 24 March 1997.