Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

I cannot resist an old book, or at least an old book that doesn’t smell musty or leak silverfish from the spine. Those mysterious dark covers, which almost never retain a visible title, can contain anything—outmoded scientific principles, hilarious purple prose, earnest prescriptions for expired value systems. Today I would like to share what may be a perfect specimen of all three—The Young Woman’s Guide to Excellence, by William Aldus Alcott.[1. If your wise and loving parents have neglected to provide you with a copy, The Young Woman’s Guide has the added benefit of being available on Project Gutenberg (with a no-smell, no-insect guarantee).]

William Aldus Alcott (1798-1859) was the second cousin and childhood best friend of Louisa May Alcott’s father. He was an eccentric vegetarian, a progressive teacher, physician, abolitionist, founder of the American Physiological Society, and had firm ideas on just about everything. He was also the author of 108 books, including a series of widely read self-help manuals, The Young Man’s Guide, The Young Wife, The Young Husband, The Young Mother, and the volume which most concerns us here, The Young Woman’s Guide:

This work is called “The Young Woman’s Guide to EXCELLENCE,” because it is believed that excellence, rather than happiness, should be the leading aim of every human being…

Dr. Alcott was the kind of prose stylist who manages to cram nearly 200 pages worth of content into a 376-page volume. He dedicates the first several hundred pages of his book to earnest exhortations about character, self-knowledge and the far-flung influence that a woman, working without hope of worldly reward in the domestic sphere, can have on future generations:

Would that our young females–sisters especially–had but an imperfect conception of the power they possess to labor in the cause of human improvement! Would that they had but an imperfect idea of female responsibility!

My remarks are applicable to all young women; but they are particularly so to elder sisters. To them is given in special charge, the happiness and the destiny of all younger brothers and sisters, be they ever so numerous. As the desires of Abel were to be expressed to Cain, and the latter was appointed to rule over the former, so is the elder daughter appointed to rule over those whom God has, in the same manner, committed to her trust. Happy is she who has right views of her weighty responsibilities; but thrice happy is she who not only understands her duty, but does it![2. Note to self: call younger brother, convince to shave neck beard.]

Like all advice givers, Dr. Alcott really shines when he stops going on about “cultivating your conscience” and “love of improvement” and buckles down to the nitty-gritty specifics. Those gentle readers wishing to take up the book for maximum entertainment should start with Chapter XV, “The Right Use of Time,” and press on through “Health and Beauty,” “Dress and Ornament,” and “Dosing and Drugging.” If you persevere, you will arrive eventually at Chapter XXXII: “Moral Progress.”

I should include the caveat that some of the advice has worn fairly (and boringly) well. His description of the importance of fiber could come from the self-help aisle today:

The stomach and intestines require such food as will call them into proper action…that which is too easy of digestion, will not afford the stomach exercise enough…Concentrated substances—substances, I mean, consisting of pure nutriment, or that which is nearly so—such as oil, sugar, gum, &c.—do not afford the right kind of exercise to the stomach.

Other than a general approval of breadmaking as a necessary component of female education,[3. Just like Uncle Alec in LM Alcott’s Eight Cousins! In fact, I am utterly convinced that Uncle Alec is modeled on William Alcott, even though, after living together for a time in 1837-38, when Louisa was five, the families seem to have drifted apart. In addition to the medical degree and the breadmaking, Uncle Alec and William also have common interests in women’s dress reform, cold water bathing, objections to coffee, housekeeping as a form of healthful exercise, rejection of contemporary snake-oil medicine, and an advocacy for physiology as the basis for education of both boys and girls.] however, Dr. Alcott does not devote much space to food and nutrition in this volume, perhaps realizing that the least he can do for the parents who actually spent money on his book is avoid inspiring their offspring to picky eating. The gloves come off in A Young Mother’s Guide, in which he employs (founds?) the time-honored and profitable tradition of fear-mongering about the modern American diet[4. I have not really read A Young Mother’s Guide in the detail it deserves, however, glancing at the chapter titles, I cannot wait to do so. Dr. Alcott anticipates every facet of the modern parenting manual. Besides nutrition, he covers co-sleeping, breastfeeding (in this case, vs. homemade formula), weaning, infant schools, the proper configuration for your stroller, why you shouldn’t try to teach your child horseback riding yourself, and on and on. There’s even a whole paragraph headed “Hints for Fathers.” He ends, as an afterthought, by exhorting parents to avoid beating their children about the head with sticks.]:

There is nothing more important in diet than simplicity, and yet I think there is nothing more rare. To suit the fashion, everything must be mixed and varied . . . Where can you find many adults who would relish a meal which should consist entirely of plain bread, without any addition; of plain potatoes, without anything on them except a little salt; of a plain rice pudding, and nothing with it; or of plain baked or boiled apples or pears?[5. Louisa May Alcott’s family followed an even stricter version of this diet—partially driven by poverty—including meals of plain boiled rice, to the extent that houseguests brought their own supply of spices and meats when they came to visit. Perhaps as a result of her Spartan childhood, Louisa May seems to have softened the previous generation’s stance towards food—gingerbread, pickled limes, walnut caramels, tea, and, yes, buttered toast make frequent appearances even in her model households.]

Where does this degeneracy lead? To the devil alcohol, of course (and tea and coffee, which Dr. Alcott considers equally injurious):

It need not be wondered at, that a palate which has been so long tickled by variety, and by so many stimulating mixtures of food, should come to regard cold water for drink as insipid; and should feel dissatisfied with it, and desirous of boiling some narcotic or poisonous herb in it, or brewing it with something which will impart to it more or less of alcohol. The wonder is, not that some of our epicures become drunkards, but that all of them do not.

So if your child turns out to be a dipsomaniac, it is all your fault, Mom. But let us leave the joys of plain foods and a mother’s duty for another day, and return to The Young Woman’s Guide. Instead of braving the minefields of family mealtimes, in this volume Dr. Alcott exhorts his young readers repeatedly in areas where they are more likely to be in control of their own habits, most particularly time-management[6. Dr. Alcott takes this platform to assign moral degeneracy to traits that are merely annoying. For instance, when certain relatives’ debate about the merits of four different restaurants enters its second hour before they finally choose a fifth restaurant thrown in at the last minute, I am tempted to agree with Dr. Alcott’s characterization of indecision as a wicked waste of God-given time.], exercise[7. Walking, 2 hours per day. If you don’t have the leisure or constitution for that much walking, housekeeping, gardening, and spinning with a high wheel are all recommended. Singing much improves the lungs.], hygiene[8. Cold sponge baths and vigorous toweling to exercise the capillaries, daily.] and sleep.

On this last topic, he employs an etymological argument. “Midnight,” he reasons, is literally the middle of the night. Therefore, you should sleep an equal number of hours on either side of midnight, 8 pm to 4 am being the ideal sleeping schedule. No adult, and none but the smallest infants, have any excuse to sleep in after 5. Via recent intrepid experiment and self-sacrifice in the name of research (i.e., completely involuntary insomnia), I discovered that even in midsummer, 4 am is pitch black. You would think that people who had to stumble around managing the coal hod and boot buttons and so on would be really, really glad of some light to do it by, but no, that would be too easy.

Dr. Alcott is deeply concerned that housework, although next to walking the most beneficial form of female exercise, might be too easy. If chores are split among sisters, none of them, he says, will be really capable of managing a household in early married life, when she might have no help at all. So each sister should undertake the entire management of the household on a rotating schedule, so as to prepare herself.

Was there really any danger of housework being too easy, no matter how divided? Let’s consider what was actually involved in breadmaking. See Sarah Josepha Hale’s 1839 manual The Good Housekeeper for instructions:

Put the grain in a clean tub, a bushel at a time; fill the tub with water, and stir . . . Pour off the water and fill it with clean . . . two or three waters are usually sufficient . . . Then spread it thinly on a large strong sheet . . . Stir the grain with your hand every two or three hours,–it will dry in a day, if the weather be fair.

She then advises taking the flour to the mill. A bushel of grain yields 56 pounds of flour, and a large family will use a bushel of flour weekly. But for a family of four of five persons,

Take twentyone quarts of flour, put it into a kneading trough . . . pour into it half a pint of brewer’s yeast, or the thick sediment from home-brewed beer—the last, if good, is to be preferred.

Just like a modern baker, having established your sponge, add water, knead and let rise. Divide into seven loaves. But wait! Your oven—

The oven, if a good one and you have good dry wood, will heat sufficiently in one hour. It is best to kindle the fire in it with dry pine, hemlock furze or some quick burning material; then fill it up with faggots or hard wood split fine and dried.

At the time, there were no oven thermometers, so measuring and managing the heat of the oven was its own art. I remember as a young thing being rather contemptuous of Rose Campbell of Eight Cousins, who struggles with making bread. Armed with greater historical knowledge, I applaud her efforts, and then I go take a nap in sympathy with women of ages past.

But, if the modern reader quails at the thought of a 4 am alarm clock, plain rice for dinner, or truly DIY breadmaking, we can at least take heart in how much better we are doing on the underwear front. As a physiologist, Dr. Alcott laments the compression of the circulatory system and lungs through the agency of the corset:

Then the venous blood which is brought into the lungs to be purified and cleansed, cannot–I repeat it–be purified and cleansed as it ought to be; and the whole system must suffer the consequences, in being fed and nourished on impure, and I might say poisonous blood.

Modern French-cut briefs have the additional advantage of rarely dragging through the kitchen fire and catching, burning us to death, as petticoats and crinolines were wont to do. So well done, modern women!

The penultimate chapter is on “Social Improvement,” under which camouflaged heading Dr. Alcott hides his dating advice. And here he manages to give solid guidance that could be profitably followed today:

Have nothing to do, above all, with those who despise your sex. There is a large number of young men–much larger, indeed, than you may be aware, who have caught the spirit, not to say sentiments, of Byron, in regard to woman.[9. I would guess that Lord Byron’s private life was too spicy for even a veiled mention in A Young Woman’s Guide, and that this reference is to literary sentiments expressed in such poems as “To Woman,” “that fair and fond deceiver.”] . . . Beware, then–I beseech you, beware–of the young man who is ever prating about the innate worthlessness, not to say vice, of your sex.

His urgency is informed by cold fear—once married, a woman had limited legal personhood. At the time The Young Woman’s Guide was published, a married American woman could not earn money, own property, hold a patent, or enter into a contract. Legal reforms were slow, and were enacted in piecemeal from the 1840s through the end of the century.

When the character Jo March says, “I don’t believe I shall ever marry. I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in a hurry to give it up for any mortal man,” she is not speaking about an airy-fairy metaphorical sacrifice of independence, she is speaking literally. And all from a reasonably well-educated white woman of the middle class—for many American women, this was as good as it got.

When reading Louisa May Alcott, it is easy to get caught up in borrowed nostalgia. Back when the world was sweet and pure, you know, and families sang songs together in the apple orchard as they gathered the harvest in; small children and courting couples ice skated on the frozen lake; merry-faced music teachers baked apples in their apartment hearths. This rosiness is, of course, deliberate—Ms. Alcott was writing sentimental fiction, and she was very good at it.

But period nonfiction is history with the gloves off. For Dr. Alcott, the same sentence that compliments women as natural sick-nurses, notes that another advantage was that a female nurse could be paid much less than a man. The same paragraph that insists sugar-pills and cloves were no good for digestive complaints, also reveals that allopathic medicine had nothing better to offer. The advice to suit yourself for hard domestic labor, was because if all else failed, work as a servant could keep you from indigence.

For all his quirks and rigidities, though, Dr. Alcott was not a bad advisor for a young girl. He was a progressive thinker–an abolitionist (although this is not mentioned in The Young Woman’s’ Guide), and an early proponent of birth control (also, of course, not mentioned here.) Although he weaseled his way around the question of whether women could or should be equals of men, in practice, he advocated for a society that educated its girls more completely, and valued its women more highly, than the one that he was born into.

I received my copy of The Young Girl’s Guide as a historical curiosity, and read it with glee and cynicism, but it found wide and presumably earnest readership in its day. In my copy, the twelfth edition from 1846, there’s a name written on the fly-sheet: Miss Orra Clark, and she left a paper doll pressed between the pages.

[Image via IVU]

Select Payment Method

Loading ...

Personal Info

Donation Total: $1.00

Abigail Carlin exercises her moral influence in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her most commonly used Craigslist search term is "bookcase."

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again

(Close this.)