Miss Simmons: Establishing Character

Female orphans in the 18th century were not expected to live a life of “fashion and fortune” as Miss Simmons describes American women of wealth, in the preface of her cookbook American Cookery circa 1798. More likely, a female orphan would live with a family and become a domestic worker or “[take] refuge with their friends or relations, and doing those things which are really essential to the perfecting them as good wives, and useful members of society.”

However, those orphans who were left in the care of “virtuous guardians” necessarily had an opinion and determination of their own. It seems Miss Simmons preferred “the good old way” rather than “bend and conform readily to the taste of the times, and fancy of the hour.” She believed that by having an opinion one could be strict in adhering to “those rules and maxims which have stood the test of ages” and have shaped the female character into a virtuous one. A woman could remain virtuous while also conforming to societal changes such as in cookery, dress, language, and manners.

Notably, those women who have “parents or brothers or riches” can have their indiscretions concealed, she says, but an orphan has to rely “solely upon character.” Every action, every word, and every thought must be pure and every move must be “good and wise.”

Indeed, although Ms. Simmons was distinctly American, her understanding of the character of a woman was not unlike the view of British cookbook author Ms. Elizabeth Hammond.

The Original Female Character

In the English cookbook “Modern Domestic Cookery and Useful Receipt Book,” 3rd edition, published in 1819 and authored by Elizabeth Hammond, much is spoken about a woman’s role in the home, particularly a woman of modest means with a family to manage.

Unlike Ms. Simmons who was a domestic worker without a family of her own, Ms. Hammond’s view of female character focused on the mistress who has the responsibility to be “acquainted with [the] interior economy” of the family.

In Hammond’s view, a woman who knows how to manage the family budget would be in a position “to claim the respect of their compeers: and afford a beneficial example to the younger branches of society to such as are desirous of respect this mode of conduct is a matter of necessity the neglect of which no excuse can extenuate.” According to Ms. Hammond, women were not as attentive to family concerns as they had been in previous times.

“The accomplishments proper for the female character are not so seriously attended to as formerly, when all persons, whatever might be their rank, were studious to render themselves useful. Yet domestic occupations should never for one moment be neglected, as such neglect must produce misery, and may, perhaps, ultimately terminate in ruin.”

In fact, she wrote the cookbook to help women of modest means, who might be working outside of the home and neglecting their domestic responsibilities, get back to tradition—by learning how to properly manage a household on a budget—in the simplest way possible.

“If such minute attention to domestic concerns reflects honour upon females of elevated rank, at the same time that it is useful to them, how much more therefore must it be beneficial to such as possess contracted incomes.”

A Changing Social Structure

In the early 19th century, society was undergoing a transformation, which affected public social lives and private family lives of the British people owing to the Restoration Period—when moral earnestness and social decorum were cast away and the emphasis was on vices rather than virtues.

By the early 1800s, commercialization and industrialization led to a transformation in both entertainment and occupations available. Additionally, new fashion trends came onto the scene. 

There was also the idea of individualism (the interests of the individual are paramount), reason, and romantic sensibility, which resulted in daughters wanting to choose their own husbands, rather than her parents doing it. Further, the strictly man-controlled household where women were under the man’s care as a result of arrangements made by their parents, was falling to the wayside. These arrangements had usually been done to ensure the social standing of the family, much to the bride’s dismay in many cases.

More often the wealthy households maintained the harsh intensity of a Puritan-style home because the issue of social class was at stake, while less wealthy families increasingly chose a companion because there wasn’t the issue of social status. Once romance and feelings entered into the family structure, women became more like equals and had some say in important family matters, such as whether she would go outside the house to work, how much domestic work she did in the home, and how she would dress.

To Ms. Hammond, these freedoms led to a serious neglect of domestic duties and ultimate ruin.

Bring Back Tradition

In Ms. Hammond’s and Ms. Simmons’ view, women were more preoccupied with their own vanity and the latest fashion trends rather than the “proper management of their domestic affairs,” Ms. Hammond said.

“Females should be early taught to prefer the society of their, homes, to engage themselves in domestic duties, and to avoid every species of idle vanity, to which thousands of them owe their ruin; … then indeed we might hope to see all as it should be.” Ms. Hammond believed a woman who gave primary concern to matters of the home would have “daily evidence of real comfort and happiness.”

She points to a time when women knew little beyond their “family concerns,” but now they know the least about family concerns. However, she does note that going completely in either direction would be extreme, so there can be a balance between the two.

She often talks about woman of wealth as an example.  The wealthy woman sticks to tradition in terms of managing the home, while keeping up with the latest fashion trends and occasionally choosing her own companion.

You may think this woman can easily live the life of a full-time homemaker because her husband is a strong provider, but Ms. Hammond has taken that into consideration and gives this sound advice:

“No female should ever harbour a moment’s doubt respecting her power to conduct and manage a family, even if previously unused to it, as many of her senior friends will freely give her their advice, and a short practical experience will soon render her able to estimate the best mode of management, and also teach her how to keep her family expenditure agreeable to her income, and how to lay out her money to the greatest advantage. To execute this in a proper manner, a strict account of the yearly income, set apart for domestic expences, should be carefully taken; and that it may not be ignorantly exceeded, a minute account of the daily expenditure should be invariably made out, by which a regular habit of prudent economy will be obtained; and should the expences of one week then exceed their bounds, it must be made up by retrenching on those of the following weeks. For where persons depend for their support and comfort on the skill and active exertions of a father, much also depends on the mother, who, should she be a bad manager, will soon undo all that her husband has done; but should she understand her duties, prosperity will smile upon the family, and perhaps fortune may be ultimately secured.”

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