This guide does not provide a comprehensive list of our holdings; additional titles can be found using keyword searches for “prescriptive literature” or “conduct of life” in the Duke University Library’s online catalog.
Conduct-of-life books, domestic arts manuals, and etiquette guides are all familiar examples of prescriptive literature. Their authors range from conservative religious leaders to radical feminists, promoting visions of “ideal womanhood” that are often diametrically opposed. The titles variously uphold or reject traditional gender roles, and may have little relationship to the reality of women’s lives across variations of class, age, race, or region.
Taken as a whole, the genre of prescriptive literature highlights the social and cultural forces that shape women’s everyday lives. Works in the Bingham Center’s collection illustrate the physical demands of maintaining a home, the strictures placed on marriageable young women, and the struggles of motherhood. Later works include themes of burgeoning sexual and political freedom. The collection also includes a significant subset of prescriptive titles for children, intended to mold girls into “ideal” women through storytelling, poetry, and moral instruction.
The subscription-only database Everyday Life & Women in America c. 1800-1920 offers fully searchable images and transcriptions of digitized materials from the Bingham Center and the New York Public Library, and is available to Duke affiliates. The materials address a range of issues including religion, race, education, employment, marriage, sexuality, home and family life, health, and pastimes.
Additional information about 19th century prescriptive literature and links to digitized texts may be found in "Domestic Writing and Prescriptive Literature," part of the exhibit "I Take Up My Pen: 19th c. British Women Writers."