An American Girl’s Education (Mid-19th Century)

Miss Sarah Kay BierleIn some ways, I can relate pretty well to young ladies of the Civil War era. I like to knit, embroider, sew, garden (occasionally), read, journal, visit and encourage friends, and write letters. Thus, when I began re-enacting it was an easier transition to the clothing and mannerisms of the period.

The most important thing I’ve learned about myself and about young ladies of the Civil War era is that actions and words reflect a heart attitude. What do I mean? Read on…and today we’ll discuss mid-19th century parents’ expectations for their girls and young ladies education.

Intro & “Disclaimer”

Starting off our August historical theme today: “The Ladies’ Role During The American Civil War.” I’ve determined to keep these posts information packed, but short and entertaining.

My disclaimer – I did a lengthy study on this subject in college and my views do not always  align with most modern day historians.

The Expectation

A lady of the Civil War era was supposed to be gentle, suppressing selfish desires, avoiding anger, and displaying good manners, a beautiful feminine spirit, and strong self-control. Most of all, a lady was supposed to serve others, taking delight in this character trait and finding fulfillment through it. A life of cheerful service and virtue guaranteed a lady’s happiness and she received the approval and love of her family and friends.

The majority of young ladies were expected to complete a basic education, learn to run a household, marry, have children, and be kind and respected members of their community.

Girls learned important lessons and life skills from their mothers

Girls learned important lessons and life skills from their mothers

The Education

Depending upon a family’s wealth, goals, and priorities, a young lady might attend a private school for girls, a nearby public school, or receive all her education at home. Even if a girl was sent to a private school, her “classes” focused on domestic skills – sewing, cooking, music, writing – a skill set she would need when managing her own household.

Young ladies also worked alongside their mothers, gaining practical experience in homemaking skills. They looked after younger siblings or cousins too.

Ultimately, practical knowledge was more important than extensive book knowledge.

The Daughters at Home

What happened when a young lady of middle or upper class finished her education and could proficiently run a household, but no Mr. Right was knocking at the door? She served her family.

Let’s be very clear – she was not a servant, she was not treated badly – she assisted with the work around the home, looked after younger siblings or elder relatives, entertained guests, and lent a helping hand to her community.

Far from oppressed, most young women accepted this beautiful role as single daughters at home and honored their families.

But What If…?

In some families, every grown member had to work to help support the household. This might mean working on the family farm alongside parents and siblings (again, an extension of the daughter at home role) or it might be working for someone else.

Some young women in this situation were hired as teachers, worked as seamstresses, or took some other “feminine” job, such as doing housework, learning a trade like hat-making, or were hired to look after children. In some northern cities, a handful of girls did enter factories to find work, but these young ladies represent a very small minority.

Significantly, the majority of the jobs available for young women reflected society’s belief in a lady’s homemaking, child-raising, or domestic authority.

Warm hospitality and good manners are illustrated in this elaborate scene from "Godey's Lady's Magazine," 1859

Warm hospitality and good manners are illustrated in this elaborate scene from “Godey’s Lady’s Magazine,” 1859

Why Does This Matter?

It matters because understanding the ideals for mid-19th century ladies in America lends to better interpretation of their roles during the Civil War.

There is a growing trend to focus on women who joined the military ranks, volunteered as spies, or worked as nurses – some had patriotic motives, others were rebelling against societal (and Biblical) norms. It is crucial to understand that these “adventurous” women do not represent the majority of ladies from the Civil War era.

Ultimately, understanding a lady’s role in the American conflict stems back to her education, her goals in life, and her heart attitude. Many ladies were content to take the noble role of quiet service and their actions supported the armies in the field. More on that next week…

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Your thoughts? Why is it important to understand the ideals of an era?



3 thoughts on “An American Girl’s Education (Mid-19th Century)

  1. Pingback: Supporting the War Effort (Ladies during the Civil War) | Gazette665

  2. Pingback: Vacant Chairs: The Effects of The Civil War & How Ladies Coped | Gazette665

  3. Pingback: Clara Barton: “Angel of the Battlefield” | Gazette665

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