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Women at Home and Abroad
| Social, Political, and Cultural Activities
Diaries | Ideologies of Womanhood

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ideals of womanhood, though very different, were based on a clear separation between womanhood and civic or public life. These ideals did not represent the reality of most women's lives. However, by the mid-nineteenth-century, middle-class women for the most part did inhabit a world centered on the home, and their sphere of influence was seen as confined to the personal, moral aspects of life.

By the twentieth century, as women began to play a larger role in the public sphere, concepts of ideal womanhood had begun to change significantly. This portion of the guide pulls together materials that illuminate issues of gender role ideology, as it has shaped women's lives, their culturally understood roles, and public imagery of womanhood during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

Although Baker Library’s manuscript collections constitute a resource in business history research, many of the collections additionally contain personal and family papers and records that emerged from these middle-class “private” aspects of life. Particularly, pre-twentieth-century collections include many letters and diaries that together document almost every aspect of women’s domestic and family lives.

The ideology of separate spheres also created opportunities for women’s civic action outside the home. Since women were thought to have a greater facility for morality and social persuasion, charity and reform became realms of middle-class female public activity. A number of the collections contain materials that record women’s activities in this public realm. Some of these activities, such as moral reform, were part of volunteerism or reform during the nineteenth century but later became part of the social professions. Others, cultural and charitable activities, for instance, have remained the realm of unpaid middle- and upper-class women. Political activities such as abolition and labor activism, of which there are records in the collections, were and are part of the lives of women of all backgrounds.

By the turn of the twentieth century women became more visible in the public sphere, and cultural assumptions about womanhood began to change. Women emerged into the public eye on all fronts, including art and politics. Married women’s employment rose steadily. Women also became highly visible in public imagery of the culture at large, for instance as a focal point in advertising. Nonetheless, women’s public presence and visibility was a contested issue in American culture during most of the century.

This increased but sometimes problematic public visibility of women in the twentieth century manifests itself in the manuscript collections at Baker Library. There are a number of collections, offering rich source materials for studying changing ideologies of womanhood. They consist of advertising and popular literature materials, as well as gathered collections and research data on various topics.


Personal papers in the manuscript collections consist of a variety of private and family correspondence, including letters from women to family and friends, as well as letters written by women while travelling.


The manuscript collections contain a surprising number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century diaries, kept by men and women, shedding light on all aspects of women’s lives.

Social, Political, and Cultural Activities

The records and papers of nineteenth- and twentieth-century businessmen often include materials pertaining to their wives’ and daughters’ social activities. Many prominent men also maintained extensive contacts with women who ran charities, organized or participated in cultural events, and pushed for reform. In addition, the large labor collections, notably but not exclusively of textile manufacturing companies, contain materials on women workers' labor activism.

Ideologies of Womanhood

Pulled together under this heading are collections, mainly of twentieth-century papers, of interest to researchers in a wide-ranging variety of studies of gender and culture. They include advertising materials, newspaper clippings, and oral histories of women’s lives that shed light on the gender roles of American women.

Unexpected Resources in Business Collections

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Letter from Harriet B. Calhoun to Paul Seimen Forbes in Canton, China, 1843.

A number of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century business records collected by Baker Library are those of large family firms. Many of these collections, however, also include personal and family records. By attempting to document the lives and activities of American businessmen, the library inadvertently preserved the writings of their wives and other female relatives. Most of the personal letters and diaries, written by well over 300 different women, do not directly relate to business matters, instead discussing such aspects of the writers' lives as family relationships, friendships, personal tragedies, travel, education, and religion.

The 1843 letter reproduced above, from Harriet B. Calhoun to her brother Paul Seimen Forbes in Canton, China, is one of hundreds of family letters in the Forbes Family Collection. Note that Calhoun used every available surface and sealed the letter with wax. It was probably included in a larger package with letters from other family members.

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Trade Card, ca. 1875-1899, advertising "Guns, Rifles, …, and Sporting Apparatus."

Women's history scholarship of the past several decades has renewed academic interest in the visual portrayal of womanhood. In addition to the manuscript collections, Baker Library holds significant groupings of printed advertisements, photographs, and other visual materials. Although these materials were likewise collected primarily to preserve the history of business, they provide a magnificent resource for the study of gender imagery, especially in relation to American family consumption patterns, the development of domestic technology, and the emergence of consumer products.

Baker Library's collection of some 8,000 nineteenth-century trade cards, many elaborately illustrated, is a particularly rich source of images of women. This advertisement for M. L. Buswell's hunting and fishing goods store features a woman holding a tennis racket. Her face, clothing, and hat suggest that this image represents an early form of what became an advertising staple during the 1890s: an independent, physically fit young woman looks out resolutely from under her hat, taking on the modern world.

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