All areas of the collection contain material relating to women’s history. In paintings and maps, allegorical images representing America include Indian maidens, Minerva, and Liberty. Biographies and prints feature women of all periods. Many portrait prints appear as plates in books, for which the Library Company has an ongoing project.
The collection includes literature for or about women in all stages of life, especially childhood, courtship, matrimony and motherhood. Cookbooks, etiquette and housekeeping manuals, and some works of popular medicine primarily reached a female audience. The collection also contains books, serials, and ephemera instructing women or mocking women for their involvement in fashion and other aspects of beauty culture. Of particular note are the comic valentines, which lampoon men as well as women for aspects of their work and gender roles.
Many occupations such as teachers, seamstresses, and midwives were considered natural extensions of women’s domestic roles. Philanthropists often were concerned that low wages would force women to turn to prostitution, and the issue of women working outside the home remained controversial. Many women became unpaid assistants to their husbands; this was particularly true for women married to clergymen or missionaries.
Women often assumed greater economic responsibility after their husbands’ death or business failure. In such situations, many women wrote for publication, particularly on culturally sanctioned topics such as child-nurture and education, fashion, cookery, and belles lettres, with fiction considered a feminine genre. Women also edited serials. Less formal genres such as friendship albums, diaries, and personal narratives help document the lived experience of women who did not aspire to publish. Additionally, many items in the collection contain evidence of women as former owners, and the Library Company has a long history of women members, and can document women’s use of the collection as early as 1742 from the Directors’ Minutes.
Especially after the Woman’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls (1848), women’s rights activists and their detractors faced off repeatedly, leaving an extensive record in print. The collection contains many pamphlets and other ephemera on the issue of women’s rights, including texts by Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah Mather Crocker, and Frances Wright that antedate Seneca Falls.
Gwenn Davis and Beverly A. Joyce. Personal Writings by Women to 1900: A Bibliography of American and British Writers (Norman, Okla., 1989). See also their compilations listing poetry, drama, and short fiction by women.
Elizabeth Donaldson. “Annotated Bibliography on Comic Valentines.” (PDF File)
Sarah J. Hale. Woman’s Record, or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women, from the Creation to A.D. 1850 (New York, 1853).
Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary (Cambridge, Mass., 1971).
Women, 1500-1900: A Joint Exhibition of Prints, Photo [sic] and Ephemera From the Collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and The Library Company of Philadelphia. (Philadelphia, 1974).