Learning about other people’s lives can be endlessly fascinating, particularly if they are people who inhabit another place or time very different from your own.
In my case, I love to read about the domestic and personal lives of ordinary women in American history as told through their journals or letters, the artifacts of their lives, or the evidence of historical sources and documents.
Here are some outstanding books from Manhattan Public Library about the lives of some American women:
• “A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
Martha Ballard, the subject of this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, was a housewife, midwife, and healer in Maine in the 18th century.
Her diary is compelling reading, an intimate, personal view of the daily concerns and events in Ballard’s own life and the lives of the women she served, as well as happenings and social dynamics in the communities she traveled.
* “Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century” by Laura Shapiro.
‘Perfection’ recounts the development of the Domestic Science reform movement in the Progressive-era U.S. between 1880 and 1930.
The movement was an ambitious plan to improve the lives of American women and their families by applying “modern” scientific knowledge to common domestic activities, thereby boosting efficiency, promoting better health and sanitation, and improving food and nutrition.
The impact of this movement on American homemakers and its legacy up to the present time include both positives and negatives. This is an enlightening and entertaining book.
• “Never Done: A History of American Housework” by Susan Strasser.
Using plentiful illustrations and primary sources, this book offers a comprehensive overview of housekeeping and women’s work in U.S. history, from colonial and pioneer households through the industrialization of America to the consumer culture and time-stressed lifestyles of the 20th century.
• “No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting” by Anne L. Macdonald.
Great fun for knitters as well as armchair historians, this book chronicles the role of “the womanly art of knitting” through our national history. From the Colonial woman for whom idleness was a sin to her Victorian counterpart who enjoyed knitting while visiting with friends, from the war wife eager to provide her man with warmth and comfort to the modern woman who knits as a creative and artistic outlet, this book offers a unique perspective on American women’s changing historical roles.
• ‘The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
This Ulrich work follows 14 handmade artifacts of American domestic life through their history and the lives of the people who made and used them. An engaging combination of women’s studies, history, and the study of museum artifacts, this book guides the reader through American material culture of colonial times, the revolution, frontier life, the growth of commerce, and the Industrial Age in America.
• “Linoleum, Better Babies, and the Modern Farm Woman, 1890-1930” by Marilyn Irvin Holt.
Studying the Domestic Science movement and the resources and programs it offered to the lives of rural women in America (home economics education, Extension Home Demonstration Units, etc.), this is a very readable, well-illustrated history of changing roles for women in agriculture that is significant in its inclusion of African-American and Hispanic American farm women.
• ‘Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America” by Laura Shapiro.
The story of how post-war overcapacity in the food manufacturing industry intersected (collided?) with the needs of 1950s housewives to produce dramatic changes in American kitchens, women’s lives, and family life.
Characters in this entertaining history include modern marketing and food science, the advent of television advertising, advances in the American kitchen and die and changing race relations in America.
Additionally, there’s the appearance of homemaking and cooking icons, both fictitious and real, from Betty Crocker to Julia Child and Freda De Knight.
Close enough to present day to strike the chords of memory for many of us, this is fun and fascinating social history.