Michigan State University

Beecher, Catharine Esther, 1800-1878


Catharine E. Beecher was born in East Hampton, New York, the daughter of Roxana Foote and Reverend Lyman Beecher, the prominent Calvinist minister and pastor of the East Hampton Congregational church. The eldest of nine, and stepsister to four, Catharine was a member of an American family that achieved remarkable influence and success in the areas of literature, social reform, religion and education. Her sister (and co-author) Harriet Beecher Stowe, eleven years her junior, wrote the famous antislavery narrative Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her brother Henry Ward Beecher, minister and author, was renowned as the greatest orator of his day. Nearly all Catharine’s siblings were active in public life, as clergymen or crusaders for social change.

It is certain that Catharine’s father was a great influence in the girls’ education. Lyman considered education a religious duty, indicative of a soul’s worthiness. Catharine was educated at home in her early years. When she was ten, her family moved to Litchfield, Connecticut -- back to the “mainland” of Connecticut and away from rural Long Island. There she attended a nationally-recognized girls’ academy whose founder, Sarah Pierce, set out in 1792 to “vindicate the equality of female intellect.” The curriculum, however, was still conventional for girls’ education at the time: geography, grammar, arithmetic, painting, embroidery and the piano. By the time sister Harriet attended, the sciences, higher mathematics, logic and philosophy were required study.

When their mother died, Catharine was sixteen years old. She cared for her younger siblings, and even after her father’s remarriage, continued her responsibilities to the family. She began to question her father’s fierce brand of religious faith, and to seek her own moral grounding apart from her evangelical upbringing. No longer at school, she studied math, Latin and philosophy on her own, and taught school. When her fiancé perished in a sea wreck, Catharine vowed “to find happiness in living to do good.” This also precipitated a true break from her father’s beliefs, and the beginning of her developing her own philosophy of morality and duty. In 1823, she founded the Hartford Female Seminary, a rigorous academy of higher education for women. She went on to open four other schools during her life.

Through her lifetime work as educator and social commentator, Catharine sought to improve education for women, and to inspire them to take on the role of the dominant moral educator in the home. She advocated expanded power for women: in an increasingly industrial society, managing a home was not to be demoted to a position of domestic slavery, but elevated to an expression of female-led domestic government. Sound financial planning, the design and implementation of effective, efficient methods of cleaning, organizing, sewing and decorating, the planning and preparation of healthful foods, proper care of the sick, the servants, and the domestic animals, and most importantly, the moral education of children, would prove to the greater society that women were not inferior to men, but masters in their own domestic realm. Moreover, imparting to children a system of morality and a sound educational foundation would influence the course of the country as much if not more than would the traditionally male-controlled spheres of politics, law, religion and commerce. “The success of democratic institutions, as conceded by all, depends upon the intelligent and moral character of the mass of the people . . . It is equally conceded, that the formation of the moral and intelligent character of the young is committed mainly to the female hand,” she wrote in A Treatise on Domestic Economy, first published in 1841.

Her extraordinary gift, and the strength of her argument, lay in following her own dictate: her moral philosophy would be implemented in the most practical manner -- one well-executed task at a time; and she left no stone unturned in providing her readers with the instruction and advice they would need to accomplish this. Her Treatise was reprinted annually through 1856, and served as a textbook for her schools. Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book: Designed as a Supplement to her Treatise on Domestic Economy (first published in 1846) is, as the title states, a supplement which concentrates mainly on food preparation rather than household management. Cooking times approach modern (shorter) methods, so asparagus are tied in bundles and boiled 15 - 20 minutes in only enough water to cover. An especially appealing “fancy dish” is a prototype potato chip recipe: Cut potatoes around in shavings, like peeling an apple. Fry them until brown, drain, and sprinkle with salt. She advises on temperance drinks, food and drink for the sick, how to provide a variety of food, and how to plan dinner and evening parties. In one chapter, “Systematic Family Arrangement and Mode of Doing Work”, she states, “Have a time for everything, a place for everything, and everything in its place.” In “Words of Comfort for a Discouraged Housekeeper”, she writes, “In the first place, make up your mind that it never is your duty to do anything more than you can, or in any better manner than the best you can. And whenever you have done the best you can, you have done well, and it is all that man should require, and certainly all that your Heavenly Father does require.” In “For the Sick”, she advocates the use of, and shows how to construct a homemade waterbed or “hydrostatic couch” as well as a “rolling chair”, i.e., a homemade wheelchair.

Such abundance of advice continues with The American Woman’s Home, co-authored with her sister, Harriet. Though recipes per se do not appear in the book, chapters on “healthful food”, “healthful drinks” and “good cooking” cover food preparation as part of the Beechers’ greater scientific approach to home and health. Their innovative kitchen plan, which calls for work areas dedicated to prep and cleanup, continuous work surfaces, and storage areas tailored to the needs of the kitchen, was put into practice by Harriet in her own kitchen (and is still on display today at The Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Hartford, Connecticut.)

Many consider The American Woman’s Home the most complete manual of nineteenth century household instruction. In the introduction to the 1975 reissue, the director of the Stowe-Day Foundation, Joseph S. Van Why, summed up its importance as follows:

For the thousands of women who harbored opinions similar to those of Catharine and Harriet concerning the role of women, the book must have struck a sympathetic response which endeared it as much for its moral philosophy as for its fund of factual information. For other readers who did not agree with the moral values emphasized, The American Woman’s Home still provided information in easily understandable language, nowhere else to be found summarized in one volume.

Catharine Beecher never married. Like unmarried women of that time, she did not establish a home of her own, but lived with siblings. She frequently stayed with Harriet and her family during her later years, and resided with her half-brother, Thomas, in Elmira, New York, during the last year of her life.


Sources

  • Beecher, Catharine E., Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book: Designed as a Supplement to her Treatise on Domestic Economy. New York: Harper, 1850.

     

  • Beecher, Catharine E. and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman’s Home. Hartford, Connecticut: Stowe-Day Foundation, 1975.

     

  • Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. 1. Ed. Allen Johnson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964.

     

  • Hedrick, Joan D., Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

     

  • Longone, Janice B. and Daniel T., American Cookbooks and Wine Books 1797-1950. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1984.

     

  • Sklar, Kathryn Kish, American National Biography. Vol. 2. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford, 1999.

     

  • ----Catharine Beecher, A Study in American Domesticity. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973.

     

  • ----"Catharine Beecher’s A Treatise on Domestic Economy: A Document in Domestic Feminism," pp. 29 - 49 in Portraits of a Nineteenth Century Family. Eds. Earl A. French and Diana Royce. Hartford, Connecticut: The Stowe-Day Foundation, 1976.

     

  • The following is a list of Catharine Beecher’s major works on household management/cooking, and the date of first publication:

     

  • A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School. Boston: Thomas H. Webb & Co., 1841.

     

  • Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book: Designed as a Supplement to her Treatise on Domestic Economy. New York: Harper, 1846.

     

  • The American Woman’s Home, or Principles of Domestic Science. With Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: J.B. Ford & Co., 1869.

     

  • The New Housekeeper’s Manual: Embracing a New Revised Edition of the American Woman’s Home; or, Principles of Domestic Science. Being a Guide to Economical, Healthful, Beautiful, and Christian Homes. New York: J.B. Ford & Co., 1873.

     

  • Biography by Anne-Marie Rachman

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