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Advice Books: Insights into the Nineteenth Century

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Teachers frequently ask us about the experts who work with the Library’s collections. March has been set aside as Women’s History month, so we arranged this guest post from Kristi Conkle, women’s studies specialist at the Library of Congress.

As a colleague of mine wrote, “Authors, female and male, have always relished telling women what to do.” After reading an article comparing the advice given to women during various decades of the twentieth century, I was curious as to the guidance given to women in the nineteenth century, which saw changes in women’s roles, including an increasing demand for the right to vote. Advice books offer unique insights into customs and mores, and I searched the Library’s catalog and found that the titles alone were intriguing: How to Get Married Although a Woman, How to Select a Good Husband and Lessons in Love… and How to Become Beautiful to name a few. My favorite, however, is the brief work titled How to Get a Husband!, which is available online. Yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title.

How to Get a Husband!: Leap Year Manual

For ten cents (twelve if by mail), this 1880 work presented women with a “veritable list of some of the best looking, wealthiest, and most reliable single and marriageable men of the Country, with their Post Office address.” The author suggests that women, after thoughtfully examining their motivations and temperaments, write a letter to one of the gentlemen listed in hopes of starting a correspondence. Aside from the descriptions of the men, “James G. Bennett…eyes as blue as his blood,” and the encouragement of women to mention their weight in their letter, what struck me as interesting was the book’s multiple references to the leap year.

Not only is the subtitle, “A Leap Year Manual” but in the sample letter the author suggests that women write “I desire to correspond with you honestly, honorably, and squarely, and as this is Leap Year, I am not overstepping its limitations.” According to the Dictionary of Superstitions, “the best-known tradition connected with leap years is that this is the one time when girls can decently make marriage proposals.” It is unclear how many women, if any, took advantage of the advice offered in How to Get a Husband!

Teaching Ideas

  • Ask students to research the status of women in 1880 and then speculate on possible responses to How to Get a Husband!. How many women might have taken the advice offered?
  • Read “How Leap Year Girl should Propose! – As told by Famous Suffraget Who Did!” and compare it with the advice offered in How to Get a Husband!. The book was published in 1880, the newspaper article in 1906 – what events might explain the difference in tone between the two pieces?  What can students learn about Inez Milholland Boissevain that might help explain the differences between the two publications?

Let us know in the comments how your students reacted to the advice offered in How to Get a Husband!


  1. What a fun Leap Year idea! These advice books might seem an unlikely place to look for material for today’s classrooms, but they are actually a rich source for talking about changing social expectations and the roles of women. One of my favorites is found in the American Memory collection called The American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals. This 1857 manual has an impressively long title: The lady’s guide to perfect gentility, in manners, dress, and conversation … also a useful instructor in letter writing, toilet preparations, fancy needlework, millinery, dressmaking, care of wardrobe, the hair, teeth, hands, lips, complexion, etc. The sample letters for breaking off a courtship are worth a look. The whole book is just a hoot!

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