The MCHS curatorial office is home to a collection of ‘old books’ – some original, some reprints – which we use for reference and display. If you’ve visited one of our exhibits in person, you’ve likely seen the fruits of these books (in person or in digital form); A Fine Collection readers will also have noted my fondness for 19th century fashion magazines and reproduction department store catalogs. These books, magazines and catalogs are not considered part of our permanent artifact collections, but they are a valued resource nonetheless. Let’s take a look at a few!
Needle and Brush: Useful and Decorative is a hardback book in the “Metropolitan Art Series,” published in 1889 by the Butterick Publishing Co. and donated to the reference collection by Eleanor Cook. The Introduction informs us, “…our aim was to meet the demand of our patrons for books containing illustrations and descriptions of such varieties of fancy-work as come within the reach of those whose best efforts are dedicated to the task of making home beautiful.” Other scholars have discussed the various social, political, and economic underpinnings of the Victorian fancy-work fad more thoroughly than I can here, so other than noting that there were plenty of Victorian-era women who lacked the time, skill, or inclination to participate in this pastime, I’ll simply focus on my favorite section of the book: Chapter XVI, Decorated Thermometers. No doubt you yourself have noticed that “Among the things which lend themselves most readily to any attempt toward the beautiful are thermometers.” . . . No? Really? Well, admire these examples, and see what you’ve been missing.
Here’s a lovely copy of The Social Mirror: A Complete Treatise on the Laws, Rules, and Usages that govern our most Refined Homes and Social Circles, copyrighted by L.W. Dickinson in 1888, and donated by Jane Cyphers. The premise of this book is easily summed up by the first sentence of the preface: “The aim of every one is success.” What follows is a long, long series of rules to help you achieve said aim. Because I enjoy this kind of thing, here are the chapter headings:
Introduction (by Rose E. Cleveland)
In Public Places
Riding and Driving
Soirees, Matinees and Musicals
Ladies’ Calls and Cards
Calling Customs of Gentlemen
Visitors and Visiting
In the Dining-Room
The Art of Conversation
Customs and Costumes for Weddings
Receptions, Kettle-Drums and Five O’Clock Teas
Manners While Traveling
The Awkward and Shy
At Home and Foreign Courts
Superstitions of Wedding-Rings and Precious Stones
Fitness and Incongruities of Dress
The Toilet, Toilet Medicines and Recipes
Treasury of Home Reading
Relation of Parents and Children
A Mother’s Influence
A Mother’s Cares
Family Government – What Is It?
The Home Conversation
Courtesies in the Family
Keep Your Daughters Near You
Be Patient With the Boys
Culture in the Home
…See? Something for everyone! Though some of the social circumstances have changed (unless Kettle-Drums have caught on again in Polite Society?) and no doubt much of the actual advice is out-dated, if not outright frowned upon today, in a broad sense these are modern – indeed, somewhat timeless – concerns. What is the proper/fashionable/acceptable way to dress or act in public? How do I behave in an unfamiliar situation? Whether you need advice on polite behavior, fashionable attire, interior decoration, child-rearing, hygiene, or even what books to read, The Social Mirror will help you out. It has helped us out in many exhibits and research projects, allowing us to catch a glimpse of the everyday lives of Montgomery County’s past brides, mourners, children, and households.
Finally, here’s one of four volumes of J.J. Thomas’s Rural Affairs: A Practical and Copiously Illustrated Register of Rural Economy and Rural Taste, Including Country Dwellings, Improving and Planting Grounds, Fruits and Flowers, Domestic Animals, and All Farm and Garden Processes, this one covering the years 1858-60, from an unknown donor. As promised by the title, the book includes instructions and advice on a variety of topics, from Preserving Fresh Fruits to Renovating Old Trees to Improved Jersey Cows. Like our other ‘old books,’ Rural Affairs is a great primary source that helps us research and explain the many 19th century household implements in our permanent collections . . . and it also provides such delightful diversions as this treatise on Working-Men’s Cottages:
. . . And though The Social Mirror is not as illustrated as some of its friends, I can’t leave you without letting its author drop some knowledge on you. Here you are: Calling at a Hotel, from the section on The Calling Customs of Gentlemen.
“Calling at a Hotel. – A gentleman, visiting a friend at a hotel, will send up his card and remain in the parlor, never offering to go to his friend’s room until invited. Of course, a lady will always receive a gentleman in the parlor or reception room, unless she should have a parlor for her own use, where, if she be a young lady, she may entertain her guest in this apartment in the presence of her mother or some older person.”