Reading Advice to Ladies in 1869

The book, What Now? For Young Ladies, was written in 1869 to give advice to women who had just graduated college but could not enter the workforce as their male counterparts did.  The author is Charles F. Deems, D.D., Pastor of the “Church of the Strangers” in New York.  Pastor Deems had some very specific instructions on what and how a lady should read…

You must read.  You will read.  The habits already formed will lead you to this.  The danger is that you may read the wrong kinds of books, or read the right kind improperly.  Upon these points a few suggestions are affectionately addressed to your understanding.

1) Be content not to read every thing.  You cannot go over the whole field.  Make a selection.  Not because it is a book has a volume claims upon you.  You would not allow every kind of man to talk to you for hours.  Be as choice of books, for books are men’s minds made portable.  As there are so many good books in each department of learning, and whereas your time is short, select the very best.

2) Be sure that you never read a sentence in a book which you would not be pleased to have your father or your brother know to be engaging your attention.  Never read a book which you must peruse in secret.

3) Beware of new books.   Let them take their place in society before you admit them to your library.  They will do you as much good five years hence as now, and then those assayers of books, the critics, will have passed tehm through the fire, and the great public of reading persons, often forming a safer tribunal for the trial of books than even the critics, will have stamped the mark of an approximated true valuation.  There are enough books which have survived three generations, to engage your attention while the books published this year will be running the gauntlet.

4) Beware of books with colored paper covers, the cheap thin issues of a depraved press, the anonymous nouvellettes, and tales and stories.  Better never read than peruse such trash as these contain.  Be sure that the man who wrote the book you are reading is really a great man in his department.  Do not be ashamed of being ignorant of the productions of the modern, flippant, bizarre writings, while you are unfamiliar with Milton and Shakespeare, Spenser and Ben Jonson, the men that “built the lofty rhyme,” and the grand old fathers of our noble English tongue.  If you read the modern books of such men as Macaulay and Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt, read with them the older and the greater men, to whom they make constant reference, and from whose “well of English undefiled” they drew the water sparking in their shallower channels.

5) Make yourself a small good library to begin on.  Let it embrace the works of a very few of the greatest poets, the greatest historians, the greatest essayists, the greatest metaphysicians, and the greatest religious writers in the language.  Of course THE BIBLE will lie at the foundation of your studies.  These, with a very few books in each of those departments of physical science with which a woman should be acquainted, and the best dictionary of the language, and, if practicable, an encyclopedia, will make you such a beginning as will give strength and breadth and consistency to your self-cuture.  If you have been styding other languages let the same rigid rule be applied to the literatrue of those languages.  The careful reading of one book will show you what you further need in that department; and so you will pass over the field of English literature, omitting much, but short as life is, and many as may be your cares, you will doubtless by perseverance obtain all that is necessary.

6) You will also have your periodicals.  Few things produce superficiality more than a promiscuous reading of our current periodicals.  You will have two selections to make; one from the mass of such publications soliciting your attention, and another, from those which you take, the articles proper to be read.  It is one of the necessities of successful editing of our monthly magazines that so much useless matter must be introduced to make them popular enough to render them profitable to their proprietors.  There is no monthly magazine in existence, with which I am acquainted, which should be read in all its articles by an intellectual young lady seeking a high and large cultivation of mind.  Your own judgement must guide you in this.  A very few of the best monthlies and quarterlies should be suffered to enter our families, and from these a young lady of refinement may select, perhaps, all the light reading necessary to mental recreation.  It is painful to observe how low the standard of mind among our ladies is, judging from the contents of the most popular magazines for ladies.  In your measure do what you can to correct this evil, by laboring to enlarge in your sex the class of more elevated readers.

The author then goes on to make recommendations about the proper way to read.  I will share the funnier points in my next post.


  1. […] Advice to Ladies in 1869, Part 2 This is a continuation of the advice regarding reading which appeared in the book from the late 1800s, What Now? For […]

  2. If you think that’s good, try browsing through a copy of “The Technique of the Love Affair” by “A Gentlewoman” written in 1928.

  3. Sounds like a winner, draabe! I’ll have to check it out.

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