Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"Dear Millie": Letter Writing and Gender in Postbellum America

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"Dear Millie": Letter Writing and Gender in Postbellum America

Article excerpt

Like other forms of "parlor rhetorics" designed for the home learner, such as elocution manuals and anthologies of readings for oral recitation and performance, letter writing guides were popular books for the middle class reader in the decades before and after the Civil War. Nineteenth-century letter writing literature promoted the skill of letter writing as "indispensable" to any one hoping to achieve social or professional success and reinforced the already widely-held cultural assumption that correct writing, like speaking, was inextricable from character and good manners. In making the argument for the importance of women's learning to write effective letters, letter writing guides stress not only the everyday function of correspondence in maintaining social relations and a well run home, but also the inseparable relationship between belletristic manners and what it meant in nineteenth-century American culture to "act like a lady." Narrowly defining the discursive field of "ladies correspondence" as ranging from social letters to "personal business," nineteenth-century letter writing literature generally reinforced conservative definitions of female roles rather than expanded the rhetorical territory of women. Participating subtly but overtly in the tense nineteenth-century cultural drama about the "Woman Question," letter writing literature constructed the white, middle class American woman as writing herself again and again back into domestic space.

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On the cover of the Shelby Dry Goods Herald, published locally in Shelby, Ohio in 1883, a fashionably dressed, middle class young woman holds up a letter in one hand and an envelope in the other, as if she has just opened a letter that has brought her good news. Simulated handwriting on the letter and envelope lend realism to this engraved line drawing in which the smiling woman looks directly out into the reader's eyes. The drawing fills most of the space of this 8" by 11" catalog bearing the title "The Shelby Dry Goods Herald." Below the drawing of the woman displaying her letter is a quotation that tells us the message the lady prominently displayed on the catalog appears to be so happy to have received: '"Dear Millie, You will no doubt be gratified to learn that the New Fall and Winter Stock is simply magnificent. I am sure you never saw such an immense display and their prices are very, very low .... Do hurry and come prepared to buy as everything is so new and nice'" (Figure 1). The signature to this cheerful missive is obscured by damage to the cover, but the familiarity of the salutation, "Dear Millie," in an era when salutations between men and women were either more formal or more sentimental tends to support the conclusion that "Millie" has received a chatty and informative letter from a friend who just happens to know the latest about bargains at Shelby Dry Goods. I The construction of "Millie" as a pleased recipient of a letter from a helpful chum as the leading advertising strategy for The Shelby Dry Goods Herald reminds us of the central role of letter writing in the daily lives of the postbellum middle class and also of the particular role of correspondence in the lives of American middle class women like "Millie."

Millie smiles out at the reader from what is obviously a room in her home. A parlor door is open directly behind her, and standard parlor accouterments such as a large potted plant and massive wooden sideboard are unmistakable. One can easily imagine the commonplace scenario Shelby Dry Goods has drawn on as an advertising ploy: Millie's friend is sitting at a lady's desk in her parlor writing a note to Millie full of the kind of news that women would take as their province, the price and availability of dry goods. The domestic sphere is taken for granted here, and it is reasonable to conclude that the intended readers for this particular issue of The Shelby Dry Goods Herald are the hundreds of "Millies" in and around Shelby, Ohio looking to spend the household budget wisely. …

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