Abstract: “A Good Economist Knows the Importance of Carving”: The Business of the Household in Antebellum America

Rachel Knecht


The mid-nineteenth century household was imagined and idealized as a domestic haven away from the crude, competitive worlds of markets and politics. The home, tended to by a caring wife, was widely perceived as a civilizing influence against the “business” world in which men were increasingly required to participate. And yet, at the same time, books for married women on “domestic economy” proliferated, emphasizing such supposedly business values as efficiency, thrift, punctuality, and rationality. This paper asks: how do we reconcile the idea that many of the same proponents of the sentimental home also advocated an economical one? Didn’t “domestic economy” translate the market into the home, and thus threaten wives’ ability to preserve civilized society against the ravages of “the market”?

A closer examination of domestic economy texts produced between 1820 and 1860 reveals important distinctions remained between the ideal “business man” and his economical wife. In particular, commercial calculation remained outside the ideal wife's domain. Arithmetic was deeply associated with “business life” during these decades, and despite multigenerational angst that wives, especially young ones, were impractical and wasteful, domestic economy texts made little mention of household bookkeeping. While this ideal was hardly a reality, cultural emphasis on natural, non-calculative “economy” in the household, and active, rational calculation in “business” fostered a gendered duality of rationality in antebellum America. On one hand, men learned arithmetic in order to participate in and control their business lives; on the other, their wives were supposed to manage household resources without learning explicit mathematical skills to do so. In this way, housewives could be held to standards of capitalist rationality without giving them access to economic knowledge or legitimizing their labor as such.