Child, Lydia Maria, 1802-1880
Lydia Maria Child was born in Medford, Massachusetts, the son of Susannah Rand Francis and David Convers Francis, a successful baker. The youngest of five surviving children, Maria, as she preferred to be called, attended local school as a young girl, and spent one year at Miss Swan's Female Academy, which was woefully inadequate for Child's budding intellect. She shared a passion for books with her brother Convers Francis Jr., six years her senior, who guided her largely self-taught education; Convers graduated from Harvard College and later became a professor in the Harvard Divinity School. Child's mother died when she was twelve, and in 1815 she was sent to live with her older sister, Mary, in Norridgewock Maine. "From Mary, Child learned the domestic skills she would impart to thousands of readers in The Frugal Housewife (1829)," recounts Carolyn L. Karcher, Child biographer. She continued her studies as well, reading Milton, Scott, Gibbon, Addison, Shakespeare, and Samuel Johnson. In 1820, she moved to Gardiner, Maine to teach school, and one year later moved in with her sister-in-law and her brother Convers, pastor of the First Church of Watertown, Massachusetts, and a leading Unitarian. Child enjoyed meeting the intellectuals who regularly visited her brother's house, including transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, and the Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker. Over the next few years she ran a school for girls, and in 1824, was inspired by a magazine article calling for the development of American literature, to write her first novel, Hobomok, A Tale of the Times. Written quickly over just six weeks, Child drew on her experience meeting the Indians in Maine to write a story about a white woman who marries an Indian chief when her first husband, a white man, is presumed drowned at sea. Couched in a standard melodrama, the story broached arguments for religious and racial tolerance beyond the norm for her day. Despite objections from some quarters, Hobomok was warmly received by the reading public, and launched the writing career of twenty-two year old Child. In 1825 she published her second novel, The Rebels; or, Boston before the Revolution, to critical acclaim, and in 1826 she began an eight-year project, publishing the bimonthly Juvenile Miscellany, the first children's periodical in the United States. She continued to publish short stories in magazines as well.
In 1828, in opposition to her family, she married the talented but impractical Harvard graduate David Lee Child -- a lawyer, author, abolitionist, and advocate of social reform. The couple moved to Boston, where David Lee Child was dogged by a libel suit, legal fees, debts, and very little income, while Lydia Maria Child keenly felt the pressure placed on her to economize drastically and earn enough for both of them to live. Her answer to the situation was to publish a domestic manual, The Frugal Housewife (1829). Unlike the majority of cookery books on the market already, this one was intended for the poor and those, as she tellingly put in her subtitle, Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy. Child even refers readers "who can afford to be epicures" to Eliza Leslie's cookbook, Seventy-five Receipts (also in this collection). The first sentence sets the tone for the book; "The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials." Later in the book ("Hints to Persons of Moderate Fortune," a section that was first published in her husband's paper, the Massachusetts Journal) she cautions strongly against keeping up appearances with wealthier neighbors, spending money on traveling and public amusements, and allowing daughters to dream only of marriage without developing a means of self-support. Despite the reaction of surprise and disappointment among Boston's elite literary circles, who found it unseemly that one of their own woman authors would stoop to writing a handbook on what they saw as a vulgar preoccupation with money, the book sold extremely well. According to Karcher, "At the height of The Frugal Housewife's popularity in the 1830's, the readers Child addressed probably constituted a majority of the nation's adult female population." It became the standard American cookbook of its time, reprinted at least thirty-five times between 1829 and 1850. As poor populations flocked to the cities in the 1860's and 1870's, instructions for rural housekeeping became less applicable, and the book's sales dropped off.
Child quickly published two more domestic manuals after The Frugal Housewife; The Mother's Book and The Little Girl's Own Book both came out in 1831. Now an internationally known author for both fiction and domestic advice, Child was at the height of her popularity. William Lloyd Garrison compared Child's "Hints" to Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac, "for they embody his wisdom, his sagacity, and his wonderful knowledge of human nature," and hailed Child as "the first woman in the republic." Garrison, a committed abolitionist who would form the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society with Child's husband in 1832, met Child in 1830, and opened her eyes to the necessity of ending slavery immediately. "I little thought then that the whole pattern of my life-web would be changed by that introduction," she wrote in 1879, at the time of his death. "I was then all absorbed in poetry and painting . . . He got hold of the strings of my conscience, and pulled me into Reforms." Three years later, in 1833, she published her most important work, and one of the most important books ever written about slavery. Karcher writes:
An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans provided the abolitionist movement with its first full-scale analysis of the slavery question. Indeed, so comprehensive was its scope that no other antislavery writer ever attempted to duplicate Child's achievement; all subsequent works would focus on individual aspects of the subject that Child covered in eight thoroughly researched and extensively documented chapters.
Child scandalized her reading audience because she refuted racist ideology, supporting tolerance for inter-racial marriage and equal rights for blacks and because she dared, as a woman, to publicly engage herself in political controversy. "As Child had somberly expected, the Appeal outraged a public that had just canonized her as a paragon of feminine virtue," says Karcher. Sales of her books plummeted, the Juvenile Miscellany was forced to shut down due to canceled subscriptions, and Child was censured among Boston society.
Undeterred, Child continued writing and publishing, including The History of the Condition of Women, in Various Ages and Nations (1835), The Family Nurse; or, Companion of the Frugal Housewife (1837), Letters from New York (1843/1845), and An Appeal for the Indians (1868). She also assisted the escaped slave Harriet Jacobs, editing her narrative Incidents in a Life of a Slave Girl (1861).
In her long career, Child would write forty-seven books (including four novels and three collections of short stories), enough articles and uncollected short fiction to fill one or two more books, and voluminous correspondence. At a time when America was barely beginning its long, as-yet unfinished attempt to come to terms with slavery, civil rights, racism, woman's rights, and Indian and tribal rights, Child devoted her life's energy, and sacrificed much of her social and economic standing, to speak out in favor of justice and equality. When the African-American minister, Hiram R. Revels, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1870, Child wrote, "It marks the first great step in the emancipation of the white race from the enslavement of an unjust and absurd prejudice." A brief seven years later, the compromised election of Rutherford B. Hayes led to the end of Reconstruction and the end of the enforcement of civil rights for blacks. It also signaled an end to Child's prominence as an abolitionist and a crusader against racism. Her writing, subsumed by political expediencies, would not resurface until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's.
- Child, Lydia Maria, The Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy. Boston: Carter and Hendee, 1830.
- ----------, The American Frugal Housewife. New Introduction by Jan Longone. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1999.
- ----------, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. Introduction by Carolyn L. Karcher. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.
- Freeberg, Ernest, "Child, Lydia Maria," Women in World History. Vol. 3. Waterford, CT: Yorkin Publications, 1999.
- Karcher, Carolyn L., The First Woman in the Republic. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.
- Teets-Parzynski, Catherine, "Child, Lydia Maria Francis," American National Biography. Vol. 4. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford, 1999.
Written by Anne-Marie Rachman