The Girls’ Own Book

Frontispiece and title page, Lydia Maria Child, The Girls’ Own Book. New York: Clark, Austin & Company, 1833. Images from the University of North Carolina Libraries via HathiTrust.

During the nineteenth century, literature was a male-dominated field—written by and for men. Although a small subset of books for and by women did exist, those books were often limited to domestic spheres. The Girls’ Own Book by Lydia Maria Child is one such example. The book itself is a collection of activities geared towards upper-class girls so that they may educate and amuse themselves. It includes a wide variety of content, including sheet music, song lyrics, illustrations, games, physical exercises, instructions, crafts, and advice. Some of the of the content is recognizable today—the book contains a version of the common children’s game “I Spy,” calisthenics, sewing and basket making, and even “snowballing” (throwing snowballs). Child includes such a variety of activity because, in her own words, a girl needs to “be useful…, seek to improve [herself]…, be devoted to elegant accomplishments, refined taste, and gracefulness of manner.” The expectation of girls was so high that Child decided to include a mix of everything that could aid in a girl’s development.

It also seems as though the book was immensely popular—it was republished in both America and Europe many times and in many formats. One version, published in 1843, was aimed at younger girls. Some editions, like the one above, have colored frontispieces in addition to the numerous illustrations already in the book. The inclusion of such printed art in color would have been expensive and further indicates that the book was most likely geared towards the upper class—the need for education and amusement itself was upper class, as poor and working-class children would most likely have been occupied with labor.

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