Upstairs: The Responsibilities and Struggles of Childrearing
Three Wylie Women: A Generation of Late Nineteenth-Century Mothers
As you explore the exhibit, click on images to learn more about the artifacts and to read full transcriptions and view full-size scans of the letters.
For the exhibit, three of the upstairs rooms of the Wylie House are interpreted to present the many roles and responsibilities of mothers. The Women’s Workroom, a space of continuous sewing, mending, knitting, and quilting, serves to discuss the mother as the “family seamstress”, a never-ending task with growing children and changing seasons. As evidenced from the family letters, this room was most likely the bedroom of Seabrook and family, during her early years of marriage.
Down the hall, the Sick Room examines mothers in the role of “family nurse”. In the late nineteenth century, small rooms like this one were used to quarantine sick family members. However, this room may have also been used to house student boarders. Both a space a familial caretaking and outsider inhabitance, the space reveals the “woman’s sphere” as simultaneously of the family and of the public.
Across from the Sick Room, the Girls’ Room exhibits mothers as early teachers and moral educators, especially in the case of their daughters, who were to be trained at an early age to handle the same domestic responsibilities as their mothers. Ideologically, women were responsible for instilling good Christian values and properly preparing their growing children for opportunity and success in the future.
“. . .The more knowledge a woman possesses of the great principles of morals, philosophy, and human happiness, the more importance she will attach to her station, and to name of a “good housekeeper”. It is only the frivolous, and those who have been superficially educated, or only instructed in showy accomplishments, who despise and neglect the ordinary duties of life as beneath their notice. Such persons have not sufficient clearness of reason to see that “Domestic Economy” includes every thing which is calculated to make people love home and feel happy there.”
Middle-class women of the nineteenth-century were responsible for, as Catherine Beecher put it, “ten-thousand disconnected items.” The letters of the Wylie women reflect the busyness of mothering and domestic work. Often, the mothers would write to one another, apologizing for their lack of time, due to caring for fussy children or the demands of sewing for the coming winter season. These sentence-long apologies allow for a glimpse into the non-stop, laborious responsibilities of mothering that continued on during times of pregnancy and nursing. On March 17, 1881, Seabrook opened her letter to Louisa:
“I can not write a long letter tonight. Have only a little while to spend in letter writing. Baby is not sleepy yet and while he is busy drumming, I thought I would commence a letter to you. After I get him asleep I must sew!”
Many other letters of the Wylie women provide similar images of frenzied maternity at-work. On October 28th, 1875, Maggie wrote to Louisa:
“The baby has changed so since you saw him. He looks better and can climb. I am afraid he will fall and kill himself. His chief delight just now is to get on a chair and try to rock it back and forth or to go up stairs to make me run after him.”
Another example, on July 3, 1878, Louisa recalled in a letter to her husband:
“Baby is well and just as sweet as ever. . . This morning I was tying up my jelly and I left the room a moment. When I came back he had got into one glass of jelly and his hands and face and the table were daubed all over. He has just been here begging to get in “Mamma’s lap awhile.”
These snapshots of mothering starkly contrast with the constantly narrowing idealized image of the “woman’s sphere”, widely represented in advice literature. As the nineteenth-century progressed, middle class women’s work became less and less associated with domestic labor, and more associated with morality. Domesticity became a marker of social difference. Well-off, respectable women were expected to delegate labor to paid domestics, while still upholding their positions as the primary overseer of household concerns. Mothers, represented as innately selfless and filled with unconflicted maternal love, held the responsibilities of nurturance, and their daily duties centered on maintaining the moral well-being of their families and overseeing the proper upbringing of their children. Often this meant regulating their own behaviors, and considering their domestic labors as extensions of their Christian mission, as mothers and wives. As Presbyterians, the Wylie women, too, were concerned with the religious upbringing of their children, and their roles as good Christian mothers.
Exemplifying the contradictory nature of the maternal advice genre, other authors encouraged modernizing the role of the housewife, recommending intensified domestic education and advocating for “scientific”, skilled housekeeping. Authors, like Lydia Marie Child, stressed the necessity of frugality, and emphasized the importance of learning to manage family resources. Scientific motherhood increasingly insisted that women needed “expert” assistance in their duties related to child care, undermining the lived experience and skill of practiced mothers.
Of course, the confusing ideologies of maternity remained ideals inaccessible within the chaos of reality. Mothers, with and without the assistance of hired domestic help, continued to strenuously labor over their families, simultaneously cooking, sewing, cleaning, nursing, and educating. The unreachable, sentimental maternal ideal of women’s advice literature elevated the status of mothers, while also further narrowing what was consider acceptable mothering. The ideal was further complicated in houses that kept boarders, such as the Wylie house. In this context, mothers worked not only out of love, but for money and for outsiders. Varying conditions, economic or otherwise, required women to confront the expectations of advice authors and hastily push them aside.
For example, diverging from the expectations of Christian “moral mothering”, on August 13th, 1890, Seabrook wrote to Louisa about her lack of time devoted to religiously educating her sons and daughter:
“Lou, don’t scold. I’ll tell you something very wrong and I know it but don’t censure me for this too much. Our babies have not said their prayers regularly. When I had boarders it was impossible. Then, since every circumstance has been against it. Please know I want them to and I want them to be good in every way. Their good and their future in all is all to me. Burn [this letter]!!!”
Like within many other aspects of mothering, maternal advice held great influence over the female readership. This proved especially true within the domestic treatment of the sick. Traditionally, primary care was the responsibility of the matriarch of the family. However, with the help of “expert” advice, the late nineteenth-century ushered in a new ideology of “scientific motherhood” that emphasized a reliance on male, medical physicians. At the time, many of these physicians lacked proper education, training, or experience. Despite this, physicians now attended sick rooms as consultants, while mothers remained the primary caretakers of aches, coughs, colds, and fevers. While this underscored the practiced experience of mothers, women, concerned with health of their families and promised expertise, readily allowed male physicians to assist in their duties.
In this passage from a letter to her husband Hermann, Louisa spoke of consulting four different physicians about her child, Marie’s, condition. Emblematic of a continued trust in maternal, practice knowledge despite an evident shift to physician consultation, the passage ended with her noting that she trusted her mother would see to the recovery of treatment.
“The lump on baby’s head still grows and Dr. Van Nuys says it is a tumor, a blood tumor Dr. Harris called it. Dr. McPheeters says a blood wart though both he and Dr. Maxwell call it a Mevis or Nevus, I don’t know if I spell it right. I want to have it taken off as soon as possible, but the doctors have been so busy with a boy who cut an artery that I couldn’t have it done. Dr. McPheeters says it can be taken away in three ways—by burning with caustic, by tying until it sloughs off, and by vaccinating. Dr. Maxwell said he would vaccinate it. I dread to have it done, and have wished so much that you were here, but I don’t suppose there is any danger at all and I will get Ma to come tomorrow when it is done.”
Confused on who's who? Take a look at the Family Relationship Chart at the end of this exhibit.