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Social Science History 25.4 (2001) 535-561

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Sociability and Gendered Spheres
Visiting Patterns in Nineteenth-Century New England

Cameron Lynne Macdonald and Karen V. Hansen


In her diary entry of 24 December 1862, Harriet Anne Severance, a domestic worker, detailed the activity surrounding the seasonal slaughter of hogs: “It has been grease, grease all day, the hog is most taken care of. Henry, Meroa & I got started for Mr. Henry’s this afternoon, Wells came after Henry overtook us at Uncle Chester’s, took him home with him, & Meroa and I went on had a good visit, & we have been to Mr. Child’s this evening.” While her day was unusually busy, it was not unusual in the way that it intertwined the lives of many people, men and women included. [End Page 535]

In this study, we explore how gender shaped the geography of daily social life for working people during the period from 1820 to 1870. The involvement of men and women in the lives of neighbors, friends, coworkers, and kin reflects the fluidity of the boundary between the nuclear family and the community, the volume of those activities not being clearly public or private, and the degree of intermingling between men and women. Specifically, we analyze sociability as reflected in accounts of visiting, with neighbors, kin, and friends, as recorded in working people’s diaries. We use a broad definition of a visit: those occasions that involved interaction between at least two people who were acquainted but were not members of the same household. 1 Visiting practices described in extant diaries chart the contours of the nondomestic—that is, the social—dimensions of people’s everyday lives. 2

Genteel mid-nineteenth-century prescriptive literature addresses visiting behavior extensively: how one should behave, how long one should stay, what one should wear, and how to present one’s self and one’s “calling card.” While this is not a study of advice literature, Miss Leslie’s conception of a visit, detailed in the first several chapters in Miss Leslie’s Behaviour Book (Miss Leslie 1859) illustrates a salient point. Miss Leslie (ibid.: 9) defined a visit as including “a dining, or a tea-drinking, or evening-spending” and specified that it may last anywhere from 10 minutes to a month. Her instructions for proper comportment on the part of the visitor and the host were seemingly endless. Another advice author, Emily Thornwell, specified a critical element of visiting behavior in her 1859 publication, The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility: a hostess should never work while receiving visitors. “If a person visits in an entirely ceremonious way, it would be very impolite to work even an instant. Moreover, even with friends, we should hardly be occupied with our work, but should seem to forget it on their account” (Thornwell, 1859: 86). These words of caution clearly assume a degree of economic privilege and the coterie of servants that accompany it. The audience for this literature is the new middle class, anxious and uncertain, seeking guidance in observing proper bourgeois behavior (Hemphill 1987; Schlesinger 1946). Such advice fell on deaf ears in the Severance household and many others like it that regularly scheduled social events for the purpose of work—slaughtering farm animals, raising barns, shucking corn, sewing quilts, and the like.

Our conception of a visit between working people is similar to that delineated by Miss Leslie in that it could take multiple forms and could last [End Page 536] varying amounts of time. And yet, in contrast to Miss Leslie’s view of visiting, our definition is fundamentally less formal, more spontaneous, and shaped by the occupation and income status of the diarists we studied. We constructed our definition inductively, through reading hundreds of nineteenth-century diaries. Most visiting for working people occurred informally and without prior notice. In visiting, neighbors and kin gossiped, talked politics, pondered the whims of New England weather, passed news, and generally kept company. Further, in the diaries we analyzed we found that...


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