Mary Lincoln oil painting by F. B. Carpenter, 1865.
Mary Lincoln oil painting by F. B. Carpenter, 1865.

On the morning of Thursday, November 2, 1854, Mary Lincoln was up at dawn. Overnight the fickle Springfield weather had turned cold and damp, and to make matters worse, the fire in the Lincoln's new Thompson stove had gone out. Now Mary could only hope that she could get another started in time for the prairie chicken soup she intended for the boys' lunch. Keeping the fire going was the responsibility of the man of the house according to the nineteenth-century canon that separated the work of men and women. But at 8th and Jackson, Abraham Lincoln was away so often and for such long periods of time that the sexual division of labor that applied in other middle-class households did not—could not—pertain. [1]

This time Lincoln had been gone from Springfield for nearly two weeks. The opening of the Champaign, Illinois, circuit courts had taken him to Urbana and then he had travelled on to Chicago, but Mary Lincoln knew her husband well enough to be certain he would return on Tuesday for election day. In fact, this year he was on the ballot again as a candidate for the state legislature.[2]

So it was Mary Lincoln who broke up the kindling wood, found one of the new loco-foco matches that sometimes exploded in a stream of phosphorus, and restarted the fire, meanwhile listening to the growing din from the front bedroom where eighteen-month-old Tad was wailing after some altercation with four-year-old Willie. Meanwhile from the loft there was no sound from eleven-year-old Page  [End Page 1] Robert, who must soon start for the inaccurately named Illinois State College. (This institution was neither a college or a state-sponsored academy, and Robert would later discover how lax its standards were.) The worthless Catherine Gordon, one of Mary Lincoln's few live-in domestics, who sometimes entertained her boyfriends in her tiny room, was still asleep. Another day had begun at 8th and Jackson streets. [3]

What Mary did for the remainder of this quite typical day—that is, the cooking, cleaning, sewing, and taking care of the children that summed to managing her household—were not new assignments for women. Woman in other societies and earlier periods of American history had accomplished these same domestic tasks. But the perception of them and the new definition of domesticity that accompanied their proper execution were unique for middle-class American women. Certainly the exhortations to females about their status as household managers was novel, as was the new definition of successful management of the house.[4]

Mary Lincoln had less apprenticeship than most white, middle-class women in managing the house, having been raised as the pampered daughter of a wealthy businessman-politician from Lexington, Kentucky. Ten slaves took care of ten Todds in the Robert Smith Todd household on Lexington's Main Street. Because the labor was that of slaves, it was Mary's father who reprimanded and organized the domestic help, with the exception of the specific daily tasks specified by the ladies of the house. As a fourth daughter, Mary had little to do with domesticity. Instead she concentrated on her schoolwork and became one of the best educated women of her day. (Later the gossips would say that it was too much schooling that was the cause of all her troubles, and the abiding concern that a well-educated woman risked her reproductive normalcy remained a prejudice throughout the nineteenth century.)

Then, when Mary moved to Springfield in the late 1830s, her sister Elizabeth Edwards's house was too well-managed, and Mary too busy with beaux like Stephen Douglas and Edwin Webb, to pay much attention to domesticity.

All this changed dramatically when Mary Todd married Abraham Lincoln in November 1842. She expected as much. Indeed, once she commented to a female friend that American married women "got Page  [End Page 2] serious" when they married and did not seem to have much fun any more. It was the same point that another perceptive observer—Alexis de Tocqueville—had raised about American women who seemed so independent before their marriages and so abject and self-denying thereafter. [5]

The crux of the transformation that Mary Lincoln noted rested with the change in American attitudes toward the home and the women who were increasingly installed as its managers and directors. When the home diminished in importance as the center for the production of essential items such as textiles, candles, soap, and food, women had less of importance to do. Simultaneously, new roles were created for them, especially as mothers—"madonnas in the nursery" Harvey Green has termed their newly self-conscious maternity.[6] It is impossible to date with precision this transformation; such social variations occur slowly and like the freezing of cold water into ice, they are hard to see until they are in place. Still, social changes in family patterns do occur, and this particular one that was the result of new arrangements of work and production had a vast influence on the course of American history.

It is enough to say that the transformation from woman as household producer to woman as manager of home, husband, and children took place at precisely the moment when Mary Lincoln moved from belle of the ball (and she was assuredly that) to wife and mother in the Springfield of the 1850s and 1860s. Yet between the ideal and the actuality there is always variation. Thus, Mary Lincoln's version of domesticity is a useful window onto the prescribed status of millions of nineteenth-century middle-class American women. At the same time that because all cultural artifacts are given individual expression by the human beings who act them out in their daily lives, Mary Lincoln's rendering of conventional notions of domesticity provides insight into her life.

The conveyors—and to some extent creators—of these new domestic roles were the magazines and prescription manuals that gave advice to women. Thus, books like John Abbott's The Mother at Home, William Alcott's The Young Housekeeper, Lydia Sigourney's Letters to Mothers, periodicals like The Mother's Assistant and Godey's Lady's Book—even the cookbooks of Miss Eliza Leslie's popular series—shaped opinions about the proper roles of respectable fe- Page  [End Page 3]

 "The Light of Home, from Godey's Lady's Book, July 1860.
"The Light of Home, from Godey's Lady's Book, July 1860. Page  [End Page 4]
males. And in turn because there are always material forces that influence new social practices, these opinion-makers were responding to opaque forces of industrialization and urbanization that were transforming the United States. [7]

At the center of the new formulation of female domestic management was the raising of children. Conscious motherhood, unknown to previous generations, emerged as the central occupation for American women, and this shift from a male-dominated patriarchal family to a nurturing Christian home where mothers taught moral values was one of the great social changes in American history. Its influence is still being felt today.

Since the Stone Age—and perhaps before—humans have understood the central role that females have in childbearing. Indeed, the reproduction of the species has served contrarily as an explanation for both female power and female demotion.[8] What was new in Mary Lincoln's time was the extent to which child care—as distinguished from childbearing—became the exclusive responsibility of women.

By the third decade of the nineteenth century, motherhood, which now included not only the reproduction of the species but its formal socialization as well, had emerged as the critical function of one-half the population. Women, who had always worked in and out of the home, were no longer acceptable to employers if they were married. Although there were continuing exceptions to this prohibition, the closest student of female work patterns, Alice Kessler-Harris, has concluded that fewer than 5 percent of married American women worked outside their homes for wages in the new market society.[9]

The prescription of marriage and childbearing was an assignment which, if failed, signalled an incomplete woman. In such a society the unmarried and childless had no easy time. Or as an author in Godey's Lady's Book gushed: "The perfection of womanhood is the wife and mother. The center of the family, the magnet that draws man to the domestic altar that makes him a civilized being, a social Christian. The woman is truly the light of the home."[10] Page  [End Page 5]

Not only did women come to control the process of shaping the morality of the young at home and inculcating good instincts and behavior in their husbands, but the task of bringing children from infants to adults—"upbringing" as nineteenth-century Americans called it—also became far more laborious and time-consuming. Moreover, mothers were held responsible for the result, and mothering became an awful, guilt-raising vocation. A bad child pointed to a bad mother; a dead child, in the cruellest of these connections, raised suspicions of dereliction of duty in a society that had few therapies for the bacterial and viral diseases of the young and that accordingly emphasized the importance of cleanliness and ventilation. [11]

A series of self-appointed experts instructed middle-class mothers in practical issues of feeding, dressing, toilet-training (this to be begun early), length of nursing, and even strategies to deal with the great nineteenth-century bug-a-boo of masturbation. In the past these life events had simply happened. But by the 1840s, mothers were instructed to keep their houses tidy, their windows open, and their tempers under control as they shaped their children's morality. Women no longer simply cooked, cleaned, and nursed the young; in Mary Lincoln's day they promoted the health, morality, comfort, and prosperity of their husband and children.

Thus what had been parenting in which fathers had predominated now became mothering. The words father and parent virtually disappeared from advice manuals, although plenty of guidance was still offered to young unmarried men. Instead, as The Ladies Companion described, "A fathers duties are the acquisition of wealth and the advancement of his children in worldly honor."[12]

Meanwhile the objects of such attentions—the children who to previous Americans were little packages of original sin—now were rank with potential for goodness—if their mothers only would do their job. The connection to religion was obvious, and one of the reasons for the power of this new domestic culture is its close affiliation to Protestantism at a time when many denominations found that a primarily female audience listened to their spiritual messages. [13] Page  [End Page 6] Certainly, the hierarchy of denominational religiosity remained male, and the male principle of the Trinity was acknowledged. But women increasingly served as the volunteers of the church and carried forward its Sunday School missions in what Barbara Welter has described as "the feminization of American religion."[14] Moreover, church services stressed a God of mercy and tenderness: gone from many Protestant celebrations was the ancient Jehovah of wrath and anger who had been familiar to colonial celebrants. Female grace and kindness were increasingly linked to God's essential humanity. In the words of one contemporary author: "A woman is nobody. A wife is everything ... and a mother is, next to God, all powerful." [15] In many of the visual depictions of this image it is the Bible that the madonna of the nursery is reading to her children, and the new female role of inculcating moral values linked the nineteenth-century version of American motherhood to God. The Golden Rule, which was under great pressure in the capitalistic workplace, could be retained in the sanctuary of the home under the guidance of American women.

It is not by chance that the new domestic feminism emerged at precisely the moment when American women were bearing fewer children and therefore had the energy, time, and increased life span to monitor their children's development. Women of Mary Lincoln's generation averaged 2.2 fewer children than their mothers. In her own consciously controlled pattern of childbearing, Mary Lincoln had half the number of offspring of her mother, who had seven, and her stepmother, who produced eight Todds. Somehow the Lincolns controlled their fertility, for it was only after Eddie's death in 1850 that Mary became pregnant with Willie. And as a mother of no more than three children at any one time, Mary Lincoln had sufficient time to spend in the process of shaping her sons' integrity.

Armed with the conventional wisdom of her day (and we know that Mary Lincoln read advice manuals such as Eliza Leslie's The House Book and periodicals such as Godey's Lady's Book and the longer works of the scribbling ladies who also conveyed the message of engaged maternity, and we know that after 1853 she went to the Presbyterian Church), Mary Lincoln managed her home in such an orthodox way that those who would make her an eccentric in Springfield would do well to look elsewhere. She cooked, perhaps not for Page  [End Page 7]

 Title page of a popular cookbook used by Mrs. Lincoln.
Title page of a popular cookbook used by Mrs. Lincoln. Page  [End Page 8]
William Herndon but for her family and her husband's friends; she cleaned in her recurrent battle against insects and the accumulation of dirt aggravated by the new astral lamps. She took care of the family clothes, sewing, and mending, although hers was a generation that could buy cloth from the dry goods stores. And of course she raised the boys.

To a great extent Mary Lincoln was a single parent. Despite the homey paternal images of her husband pulling his children in wagons and babysitting while she went to church, he could not have done this very often, for he was away a great deal. And for all his sensitivity to the "little codgers," he was a distracted man, the opposite, in fact, of the omnipresent mother sought by the advice manuals. Thus the Lincoln anecdotes come with children falling out of those wagons and an office torn apart while a forgetful father concentrated on other matters.

So it was Mary Lincoln, who created the child-raising strategies at 8th and Jackson. If anything, she pushed forward the parameters of maternal attention. Hers was, like so many things in her life, an exaggerated form of the new domesticity, for she was intensely engaged in shaping her childrens' characters. Few children in Springfield received personally addressed invitations to large birthday parties as Willie Lincoln's did. Few mothers actually participated in child's play, as Mary did when her oldest son Robert and his friends recreated Sir Walter Scott's romantic fiction and she encouraged them to be kind and courageous. While she recognized what she once called "the silliness" of children's play, she recognized its seriousness and instinctively appreciated its possibilities for influencing her sons.

Few mothers permitted the extensive menagerie of goats and ponies, and even once a turkey that Tad and Willie collected in the White House.[16] And most mothers employed a great deal more spanking and corporal punishment to control wayward offspring—often violating the expectations of the manuals that encouraged the inculcation of conscience (today's guilt) as a means of regulation. So after Lincoln's assassination, when Mary Lincoln was accused of many things, a reporter publically accused her of whipping Tad, which she hotly denied.[17] Clearly, Mary Lincoln rendered that passionate maternity and child-centered home demanded of American women. In fact, she offers to history a model example of committed motherhood. Page  [End Page 9]

Arguably Mary Lincoln extended the supervisory role of mothers to include choices about schooling, which remained, especially for sons, the preserve of the father. (The education of daughters was a more informal matter, usually decided by both parents, although the essential training for girls was obtained through apprenticeship with their mothers.) Unusually omnipotent in her home, well-schooled Mary Lincoln, who after twelve years spent in classrooms appreciated formal schooling in a way that Lincoln could not, wanted the best. And so it was that Robert Lincoln left the prairies of Illinois in 1858 for the culture of the East and its most famous college—Harvard. And it was Mary who after her husband's death finally began Tad Lincoln's formal education that eventually included—again note the emphasis on excellence—a German high school and special tutors.[18]

There was always more, much more, to managing the home than raising the children, although they provided its central nexus and the most obvious example of the transformation of the home culture. But along with the attention she gave to her sons, Mary Lincoln also was responsible for well cooked nutritious meals, a clean home, and, increasingly, the creation of the genteel interior surroundings that made up the Christian home of Victorian America. Again Mary Lincoln was efficient and energetic, setting aside special days for the variety of tasks she must complete. As was the custom in most Springfield homes, Wednesday and Saturday were baking days, whereas Monday and Tuesday were devoted to the washing and ironing—the most detested of labors and one she consigned to the domestic servants who worked at 8th and Jackson.

Much has been made of Mary Lincoln's treatment of these servants, although a distinction must be made between those who were hired girls making a few dollars or, as Harriet Hanks did, serving as au pairs while attending school. Before her years in the White House Mary had no trained servants, and her impulsiveness and high temper were frequently displayed in her dealings with women who were not as efficient and faithful as the slaves of her Kentucky days. She could do things better herself, and did—earning a considerable reputation as a successful hostess and frugal housewife who was not above bargaining for lower prices.

Like so much in the private life of the Lincolns, Mary's role as a housewife has been removed from the social history of the times. In fact, the relations of middle-class mistresses and untrained country girls resonated with conflict, and most of the manuals of the period Page  [End Page 10] emphasized the necessity of lowered expectations among employers who hired young women who did not intend to spend their lives in someone else's home. Moreover, as standards of elegance rose in Victorian America, the Mary Lincolns of the nation expected ladies' maids and got instead hired hands.

and Mrs. Manuel Defreitas. Mrs. Defreitas was employed as a maid by
the Lincolns in 1860.
Mr. and Mrs. Manuel Defreitas. Mrs. Defreitas was employed as a maid by the Lincolns in 1860.

Although she never earned prizes for her sewing or cooking at the Springfield fair—as her sisters did—Mary Lincoln was completely enmeshed in the domesticity established for middle-class women. Many of the aspects of life at 8th and Jackson, such as enlarging the house, were reactions by a conventional woman to the dictates of the cult of domesticity. Even in the case of the controversial renovation of the house, it should be noted that the advice manuals of the period were beginning to insist on separate bedrooms for properly raised children and properly genteel parents.

Throughout her life, but especially after the death of her husband, Mary Lincoln was often criticized, but never did she commit the kind of heresy about which an author of Godey's Lady's Book warned one delinquent mother: "Your error lies in the false idea that your happiness was to come from outside you and your home."[19] Mary Page  [End Page 11] Lincoln's happiness, as she explained to her daughter-in-law years later, always came from the private world of her family life.

Many Springfield women of the 1840s and 1850s created individualized versions of the same kind of domestic management; in the case of Mary and Abraham Lincoln, the extent of Mary's authority in the house was unusual, and it developed from her relationship with her husband. From the beginning of their association she had served him as a teacher in social behavior and the expected practices of polite society. How else could a socially uneducated son of a poor farmer learn the proper dress at dances as well as the way to engage a lady in conversation? Mary gave Abraham a lifelong course in gentrification, and in return she received an unchallenged sovereignty within her home.

The significance of Mary's domesticity, for her, was that she carried it with her to Washington and her new role as First Lady. There her efforts to manage the White House conflicted with those of the American people, who were unprepared for the Mary Lincoln version of domestic feminism in what they considered their house. Having never learned of the public world while enrolled in her distinctly private one, Mary violated the boundaries erected around the proper female deportment of the wives of public officials. But what she had done in Springfield, she would do in Washington. Mary Lincoln believed that she was only doing what was expected of her—and indeed the millions of other American women who lived by the dictates of self-conscious management of home, husband, and children.

For students of American history, Mary Lincoln's version of domestic management serves as an example of the power of the new domesticity and its fulfillment in one particular household, the one on the corner of 8th and Jackson, in Springfield, Illinois, from 1842–1860. Page  [End Page 12]


  1. The first analysis of the cult of true womanhood and its relation to the concept of divided spheres appeared in an influential article by Barbara Welter. Welter proposed that the assigning of various qualities to women such as piety and purity assuaged the anxiety of men, who were increasingly engaged in the pursuit of wealth and who now could stay away from home assured that their wives, as long as they stayed home, would maintain the moral and religious standards required in a self-governing republic. See Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860," American Quarterly 18 (Summer 1966):151–74. return to text
  2. Paul Angle, Lincoln 1854–1861 (Springfield: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1933), 43–45. return to text
  3. The following recreation is based on Jean H. Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987). return to text
  4. Catharine Beecher, A Treatise on Domestic Economy (New York: Harpers, 1848). return to text
  5. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1960), 2:212–13. return to text
  6. Harvey Green, The Light of the Hearth: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America (New York: Pantheon, 1983). return to text
  7. For a discussion of the emergence of the new domesticity in New England, see Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780–1835 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977). return to text
  8. Sherry Ortner, "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?," Feminist Studies (Fall 1972):5–31. return to text
  9. Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 46. return to text
  10. Godey's Lady's Book 60 (July 1860):71. return to text
  11. Richard Meckel, "The Awful Responsibility of Motherhood: American Health Reform and the Prevention of Infant and Child Mortality," Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 1980. return to text
  12. Quoted in Maxine Margolis, Mothers and Such: Views of American Women and Why They Changed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 35. return to text
  13. Colleen McDannell, The Christian Home in Victorian America 1840–1900, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984). return to text
  14. Barbara Welter, "The Feminization of American Religion: 1800–1860," in Clio's Consciousness Raised, ed. Mary Hartman and Lois Banner (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 137–57. return to text
  15. Quoted in Margolis, Mothers and Such, 38. return to text
  16. Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln, 119–25. return to text
  17. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 251. return to text
  18. Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln, 106–9. return to text
  19. Godey's Lady's Book 23 (December 1841). return to text