Typical life in the 1840s?
November 19, 2012 6:50 PM   Subscribe

Looking for recommendations of books that illustrate typical American life in the 1840s-- not Wild West-type stuff. Ideally New England-area. Fiction or non-fiction, either way. Thanks!
posted by shakespeherian to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Funny you should ask this -- I was considering asking it myself. One that I've just found is Daughter of Boston, the edited diary of Caroline Healey Dall, which begins in the 1830s. She was an early feminist, an abolitionist, and a thorough diarist during an unhappy marriage.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:08 PM on November 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

Two favorites of mine from about that time period. First is non-fiction, second is fiction.

- The Frozen-Water Trade is a fascinating account of the birth of an industry that ultimately revolutionized domestic life for millions of people.
- Set in northern Vermont in 1930, On Kingdom Mountain is the story of Miss Jane Hubbell Kinneson. She is a renowned local bookwoman, eccentric bird carver, and the last remaining resident of a wild mountain on the U.S.-Canadian border, now threatened by a proposed new highway.
posted by jessamyn at 7:08 PM on November 19, 2012

Haven't read it but keep meaning to, and can pass along that it exists and has decent reviews: Jack Larkin's The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840. I'd glance at his other books and the "customers who bought this also bought" recommendations, too, while waiting for MeFi's early American historians to weigh in.
posted by mediareport at 7:29 PM on November 19, 2012

You might be interested in reading about the whaling industry, which peaked around that time in New England (specifically Nantucket, New Bedford, and similar Massachusetts communities). Good books about this include In The Heart Of The Sea (about the whaleship Essex which was Melville's inspiration for Moby Dick) and Leviathan: The History Of American Whaling.

These books aren't about "typical" American life at the time, but they are about a significant aspect of American life during the 1840's that not many people today know about. Whale oil was used by a HUGE proportion of Americans to light their homes, and it was one of the most lucrative American commodity markets of the time.
posted by Sara C. at 7:37 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

You also might like Farmer Boy, which is Laura Ingalls Wilder's novel about the childhood of her husband Almanzo. It takes place in upstate New York in the 1860's, and is a children's novel, but might be of interest.
posted by Sara C. at 7:41 PM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry, I meant to link to In The Heart Of The Sea, somehow did not, and my edit window is over.

Here is the book for you that is entitled In The Heart Of The Sea.
posted by Sara C. at 7:51 PM on November 19, 2012

Daughter of Boston really is great. I could not have written my Civil War novel (almost finished!) without it.

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is obviously not a memoir by a "typical" person, but the great abolitionist is observant about life in New Bedford after his escape from slavery. (William Wells Brown's memoir gives some insight into the life of a formerly enslaved person in upstate New York in the same era.)

A Tour Around New York by John Flavel was another great resource for me as well as a fun read. Sean Wilentz's Chants Democratic has lots of references to marvelous primary sources of that era.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:55 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Samuel Goodrich's Recollections of a Lifetime is rich in detail on Connecticut. Lydia Maria Child and Louisa May Alcott both wrote about their childhoods (though neither was typical). Child also wrote children's books that may give some sense of what a "typical" white, working/farming/artisan-class New England childhood was expected to be like.

Back to Massachusetts, Edward Everett Hale was a prolific memoirist; his sister Lucretia P. Hale's The Peterkin Papers is a delightful comic novel for children about a bizarrely illogical family in a small Massachusetts town.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:04 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another place to look is local newspapers, many of which are digitized and online now. Newspapers of that era tended to include more discursive, personal-essay-style pieces than did post-Civil War newspapers.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:08 PM on November 19, 2012

Highly recommend Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell. It's the history of the Americanization of Hawaii, as told in Vowell's very personal, approchable style. Most of the history takes place between 1820, with the arrival of the New England missionaries, until 1893, with the coup d'├ętat led by the missionaries' sons. So a large chunk of the tale takes place within your general timeframe. There's quite a bit of detail contrasting the lives of the missionaries, both in New England and in Hawaii, with the lives of the native Hawaiians.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:33 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I recently read Pink Chimneys, a fiction novel about women in Maine in the 19th century. Focuses on a midwife from the Bangor area and covers a generation.

Another one I just read is Gap Creek, about a young woman in the Appalachia's who gets married and the trials of her first year of marriage (and severe poverty). It's set a bit later in the 19th century, but due to the location, there are really good detailed descriptions of every day life, getting the wood in, how to clean and butcher a wild turkey, hog butchering time and the perils of lard rendering, lack of good medical care, etc. So it may as well have been set in the mid-1800's. the only clue I got that it was a later time period was two characters discussing the Civil War.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:23 AM on November 20, 2012

English travel memoirs! Here are three from Project Gutenberg:

A Visit to the United States in 1841. By Joseph Sturge, a Quaker anti-slavery activist. Occupied mainly with the American Abolitionist movement, with asides and observations on Northeastern American life.

Frederick Marryat's Diary in America sprawls across two breezy, opinionated volumes. Your interest will probably lie with the first part, which depicts his travels in New York and New England at the close of the 1830s, and with his more general "remarks" and opinions on American mores.

Charles Dickens' American Notes (1842) covers much of the same ground, though with somewhat more consideration and art. All three Englishmen, in fact, have very similar itineraries; it seems that British travelers making the American tour felt obliged to see Lowell (for its factories), Sing Sing, and upstate New York.
posted by Iridic at 9:45 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

^Great suggestions from Iridic, but you don't want to miss Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans, which is really the OG in this subgenre.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:44 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older It's both me and the job, help me fix both.   |   What are some potential causes of high systolic... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.