19th Century Domestic Advice Manuals

The role of the domestic advice manual was to educate and provide guidance and information. Manuals were prescriptive in nature. They promoted popular notions of taste and culture and maintained those of class, gender, duty and morality. Publishers catered to the growing market of middle-class readers, preoccupied with ideas of ‘betterment’, releasing a myriad of books targeting a wide range of topics and audiences.  

The Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection holds a comprehensive collection of 19th century advice manuals. The majority of these handbooks were published in the UK, with some from the US and Australia. This genre of literature was often lucrative for those producing it, and regardless of the place of publication, many of these titles were readily available in Australia - brought here by immigrants or sold locally.

A number of the titles are now extremely rare; in some cases the library retains the only known copy in a public collection. The genre covers subjects such as household management, domestic service, decorating and etiquette and offers great insight into social and material histories of the home.


Guides for domestic economy

The Female instructor
Frontispiece detail, 'The Female instructor', Liverpool: Nuttall, Fisher and Dixon, 1815. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.
In the fields of domestic economy, readership comprised chiefly young married women.

Manuals informed the ‘house-wife’ on a woman’s role within the domestic sphere: how to be domestically capable, make a comfortable home and live within one’s means.

Manuals presented the kitchen as a suitable place for middle-class women to develop skills and managerial proficiency as a key to their role as ‘mistress of the house’. 

Guides for home furnishing

The dining room
Cover detail, 'The Dining room,' by Mrs. Loftie, Art at Home series. London, Macmillan and Co.,1878. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.
Advice on home decorating had traditionally been written by married men for married men.

Titles such as Thomas Hope’s Household furniture and interior decoration (1807) had been the go-to works for advice on ‘tasteful’ home decorating among fashionable circles in the first half of the century.

By late century, a new ethos of domesticity saw home decoration as the specialty of women and this was accompanied by a growth in both female readership and authorship.

Guides for servants

Title page Footman's Guide
Title page, 'The Footman's Guide' by James Williams. London, Dean and Munday, c1845. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.
Guides for servants were written by authors from varied social classes, including ex-servants.

They were published for those learning to work, and could be owned by the servant or held by households as reference books. Manuals contain material relevant to the functions of a specific role, or multiple positions required to staff households and large estates. Many go beyond advice on how to perform duties, with information on servant hierarchies, social guidance and moral encouragement. 

Guides for masters and mistresses

How to manage servants
Front cover, 'How to manage house and servants', by Mrs. Isabella Beeton, c1860. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.
Advice manuals in this category may on the surface appear paradoxical.

The works provide ready reference on the varied duties of male and female domestic service roles. However, they were written for masters and mistresses – explaining the specific services to expect from staff. Authors tended to come from the upper-classes. They employed Christian principles of equality, while disseminating accepted beliefs on class difference and the predetermined suitability of servants to their roles. Many writers also included advice on the ‘proper’ treatment of servants and the mistakes to be avoided for ‘smooth working of domestic machinery’. Chapters generally covered topics such as training, social relations, household scale, equipment, engagement and dismissal of servants, wages, dress, meals, & etc.

Guides for etiquette

Frontispiece illustration Ballroom Manual
Frontispiece illustration, 'The ball-room manual, and etiquette of dancing' by Mr J Seaton; and continued to the present year, by Professor Bland. Halifax: Milner and Sowerby , 1855. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.
Some of the smallest volumes in the collection are etiquette manuals.

These pocket sized volumes cover topics from letter-writing to ballroom dancing and finding a suitable spouse. Conduct books provided the aspirational with a means to understand the practices of ‘respectable’ society and they now offer insights into shifting aesthetics and social and economic changes through the century. 

Most manuals were written as serious instructional handbooks, but some took the form of satirical exposés of high society. Authorship could be by ‘one of the “exclusives”’ or ‘A Lady’.