Conduct-of-life books, domestic arts manuals, and etiquette guides are all familiar examples of prescriptive literature. Yet this genre is difficult to define because it incorporates so many different facets of women's studies. Works of prescriptive literature present paradoxes: they are written by conservative religious leaders and by radical feminists; they can uphold or reject traditional gender roles; they employ a variety of methods to influence readers; and they promote versions of "ideal womanhood" that are often diametrically opposed.
Taken as a whole, the genre of prescriptive literature highlights the social and cultural forces that shape women's everyday lives. Works like The Housekeeper's Oracle (1829) and The Bride's Primer (c1948) vividly illustrate the physical demands of maintaining a home. Sermons to Young Women (1770) illuminates the strictures placed on marriageable young women in the eighteenth century. The Mother's Guide in Physical Education (1846) and Your Baby: How to Keep It Well (1923) convey the struggles of motherhood in an era of high infant mortality. And burgeoning sexual and political freedom are themes in Swinger's Guide for the Single Girl (1968) and Having It All (1982).
It is also interesting to note the significant number of prescriptive titles for children. Through storytelling, poetry, and moral instruction, works such as Little Nancy (1824), The Girl's Own Book (1858), The Little Cook (1903), and The Mary Frances Housekeeper (1916) attempted to mold girls into the "ideal" women they would become.
This bibliography incorporates works published between 1631 and 2001. We have aimed to provide a representative selection of titles from the Bingham Center's growing prescriptive literature collection, and approximately 10% of our holdings are represented here. To find additional titles, including those housed in Perkins Library, we encourage you to search Duke University Library's online catalog, using the keywords "prescriptive literature" or "conduct of life" as a starting point.
A selection of materials from the Bingham Center's and the New York Public Library's collections of prescriptive literature have been digitized and are available through a subscription-only database called Everyday Life & Women in America c. 1800-1920. It comprises thousands of fully searchable images (alongside transcriptions) of monographs, pamphlets, periodicals and broadsides addressing 19th and early 20th century political, social and gender issues, religion, race, education, employment, marriage, sexuality, home and family life, health, and pastimes. If you are a Duke affiliate you will have online access to these materials.
Additional information about 19th century prescriptive literature and links to digitized texts may be found in the "Domestic Writing and Prescriptive Literature"section of the website created to accompany an exhibit, "I Take Up My Pen: 19th c. British Women Writers," that was hosted in Perkins Library.
Throughout this bibliography, these subject letter codes are used to identify works relating to a particular topic. The guide is displayed at the bottom of each page.
This bibliography was written and edited by Kelsy Peterson, 2003.
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