Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter

William Sprague, 1835


However much you may be distinguished for intellectual cultivation, or for proficiency in the more refined and ornamental branches you can make no claim to a complete education, unless you are well acquainted with Domestic Economy. I am aware that this is a subject which, from some cause or other, many young girls regard with strong aversion; and there is reason to fear that, in too many instances, this aversion is heightened by receiving in some degree of parental sanction. But you may rely on it, there cannot be a greater mistake on the subject of female education, than to suppose that this branch of it may with safety be neglected. With regard to the extent to which you should be informed on this subject, I would say in general that you ought to have so much knowledge of it, as will enable you to regulate with advantage the concerns of a family. There are indeed some of the domestic arts which you can hardly be expected to acquire; and which, in the ordinary walks of domestic life, may not be important; but whatever relates to the immediate superintendence and direction of household concerns, you cannot neglect, without exposing yourself to inconvenience which no future exertions may be able completely to remedy.

It is important that you should cultivate a taste for the management of domestic concerns as early as possible. As no part of your education is more practical than this, it were unsafe to neglect it even for a short period; as the consequence of such neglect would probably be, that you would form other habits uncongenial with domestic employments, and which perhaps might give you an aversion to them which you would never overcome. Do not consider it a hardship therefore to be placed in circumstances which favor your attention to this subject, and even demand your active exertions. Every item of this kind of knowledge which you gain, you will be able, hereafter, to turn to some practical account, which will compensate many fold for the labor of attaining it.

It is not uncommon for young girls in the higher walks of life to satisfy themselves in the neglect of this branch of education, on the ground that their lot is cast in circumstances of opulence and splendor. If this excuse could ever be sustained, you have no right to expect that your condition in life will allow you to avail yourself of it: but the truth is, that it cannot be admitted in any case. For what if Providence should actually place you in circumstances of wealth, and what the world calls independence? Would you not still be as truly accountable to God for all your possessions, as though you had been limited to a moderate competence? Nay, would not your responsibility be increased, just in proportion to the abundance which had been bestowed upon you? This, therefore, instead of being an argument for the neglect of the domestic part of your education is actually a reason why you should attend to it with the greater care. For if a profusion of the bounties of Heaven are entrusted to your management, and you are responsible for the proper improvement of them all is it not pre-eminently desirable that you should possess that knowledge which will enable you to acquit yourself as a faithful steward?

But if you leave the idea of accountability entirely out of the question, there are still other reasons of great weight why this part of your education should not be neglected. Without a proper attention to it, you can never be qualified to preside in the concerns of a family. Though you should be placed in a station which might enable you to command all the conveniences and assistance which opulence can furnish you will never feel at home m your own house, unless you have yourself that practical knowledge which will enable you to keep your house in order. You cannot realize half the value of your domestic aid, unless you are capable of exercising a general superintendence, and giving proper directions. And without such ability you will be liable to constant impositions from those to whom you will be obliged to confide interests which ought to remain exclusively in your own hands. Many a large estate has been squandered, and many a family reduced to poverty, in consequence of a deficiency in this part of female education.

Let me add, if Providence should ever place you at the head of a family, and you are obliged from ignorance of domestic economy, to entrust its concerns to another you cannot maintain the dignity which appropriately belongs to such a station. You will be subject to a thousand painful mortifications from discovering that your concerns are improperly managed, and yet being unable to suggest the proper remedy. And though you may try to flatter yourself that your ignorance on this subject may pass for evidence of a genteel education, it is more than probable that the unsavory food, which will sometimes chance to be placed before your guests, will lead them to regret that you happened to possess so unfortunate an accomplishment.

What I have said hitherto on this subject, has been principally upon the supposition that you are to be placed in circumstances of ease and affluence. But I hardly need say that this is, by no means, certain. Even if your prospects in this respect should be fair at the commencement of domestic life, there are a thousand changes which may await you, any one of which may cast around you the gloom and desolation of heart-breaking poverty. I could tell you of many, who have begun life without a cloud being seen to settle upon their temporal prospects, and have closed it in all the degradation and wretchedness which the most abject want could occasion. As it is impossible to tell what scenes of adversity the changes of life may bring with them, it is unquestionably the part of wisdom that you should be prepared for any lot to which Providence may call you.

What then if you should be destined in a few years to the obscure and humble walks of poverty? What if, from a comfortable competence you should sink to a condition upon which you have hitherto been scarcely able to look, without feelings of compassion and tears of sympathy? What if you should see around you a little defenseless family, and all the dreaded evils of poverty clustering upon them in melancholy profusion? And what if, in the midst of all these circumstances of external depression, you should be found incapable of devising a plan or lifting a hand for the relief or comfort of yourself and family?

In supposing this case, believe me, I am not dealing in fiction. I have seen an elegant, accomplished girl, brought up in the lap of luxury, in these very circumstances and who knows but that such a case may be their own? Sure I am, that another argument cannot be necessary to impress you with the importance of the subject I am endeavoring to urge.

And now if I have gained your conviction to the importance of this branch of education let me repeat the request that you will begin without delay to make it a practical matter. I know indeed that much depends in this case on maternal attention and effort; but I know too, that there is in some young girls an aversion to domestic employments which a mother's persevering exertions do not overcome; and I also know that little improvement can reasonably be expected in any department of knowledge, in which the mind does not act not only without constraint but with alacrity. And I beg you to bear in mind that the knowledge of which I am speaking is to be acquired only in one way; and that is by actual experience. You may study the science of domestic economy as carefully as you will, and you may receive lessons from experienced and skillful managers, and after all, you will be little wiser, until you come down to the actual reality of participating in the every-day concerns of a family. When you actually put your hand to the work you will begin to learn; but unless you put your hand to it frequently, and learn to think it no dishonor to engage in anything appertaining to the economy of a family you can never expect to become an accomplished housekeeper.

In a preceding chapter I have urged upon you the importance of taking a good degree of exercise; let me here say, that you cannot comply with that direction to better purpose than by spending a part of every day in domestic employments. And while it will secure to you the benefit of relaxation from your studies, and of the exercise of your bodily powers, it will be an effectual the only effectual means of preparing you to appear with honor and usefulness in this department, as the head of a family.

In connection with this general subject, I have a word to say in respect to the regulation of your expenses. In all your dealings, I would have you avoid even the appearance of being stingy. Let no one ever have just occasion to say, in respect to any financial transaction of yours, that it has not been perfectly liberal and honorable. Nevertheless there is an ostentation of liberality which I would have you carefully avoid; for it is really a contemptible quality and so the world regards it.

There is also in some young girls a spirit of extravagance a disposition to incur expenses which their condition in life neither demands nor justifies another quality which deserves severe reprobation. Let your expenditures be regulated, not merely by a regard to your ability but to your accountability as a steward of the divine bounty. Regard economy as a virtue and never be unwilling to be seen in the practice of it. It is honorable to contract your personal expenses as far as you may that you may thereby have the more ability to support the needy and distressed.

I will close this chapter by suggesting a hint or two on the subject of dress; as it is in relation to this, more perhaps than anything else, that most young girls are tempted to indulge in extravagance. I would always have you appear in this respect neat and decent, and do not care how much correct taste you display; but I beg you to avoid all gaudy and superfluous ornament. It is a good rule to follow the fashion in dress, just so far that you shall not be marked as singular. But you may rely on it, that a disposition to take the lead in fashions, to shine forth in splendid apparel, and a gaudy glare of lace and gold is always taken with discerning people, as proof of a weak head or a proud heart!