[To “Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read”]

The Well-Bred Boy (1844 [1839]) &
The Well-Bred Girl (1850 [1841])

Etiquette and conduct books show later readers not only how people were expected to act, but also how they weren’t acting. The Well-Bred Boy and The Well-Bred Girl do both. The books present young paragons of politeness who go to school, attend parties, and respect their elders in narratives designed to attract young readers. Along the way, the author contrasts these models of propriety with less ideal examples. When Alfred, the well-bred boy, goes to church, he quietly goes to his family’s pew, “not loitering about the door to chat with other boys, compare their clothes, or giggle and play.” Alice, the well-bred girl, mends her clothing and puts it away as soon as it is washed, instead of adhering to “the practice some young people indulge in, of allowing their clean things to remain in an open clothes-basket for some time.”

As novels, the narratives are tame. Nothing exciting happens; Alfred and Alice live quietly, obeying their elders and never raising either their voices or a sweat. As glimpses of 19th-century white middle-class American life and thought, the books are more interesting. Alice makes a dress, and we have detailed instructions on how this is done. Alfred and his friends make a slope down which to coast their sleds. Alice writes a letter; Alfred rides in an early-19th-century train.

And the author shows us how to pad a book. The bible verses Alfred reads are copied into his book, as is the lecture he attends. The entire long letter Alice writes is included in her book, as an example of good letter-writing; the biography of a brilliant young woman is inserted, apparently as an example of ideal womanhood.

A feature of both books are descriptions of games to be played at parties: “Acrostic” for Alfred and his friends; “Madame Bobinetta” and “The Game of Weathercocks” for Alice. If the games actually were played in the 19th century, they died out quickly, because like a lot of games supposedly good for children, these are dull, dull, dull, and a bit overcomplicated.

Stories also appear in both books. Alfred’s sister reads two folktales to him when he is ill (he’s a very patient patient). Alice’s stories are exceedingly educational: the biography of an ideal young woman, a long tale in which an impoverished girl learns the pleasures of taking care of her own clothing.

Who wrote the books? Unknown. The only information about the author appears in Godey’s Lady’s Book, and Ladies’ American Magazine, which attributes The Well-Bred Boy to “a Boston lady.”

Reprinting was the life-blood of 19th-century American publishing, and the histories of Boy and Girl show this. Both books were reprinted in 1844 and 1845; they were reprinted together—apparently from stereotype plates—in one volume in 1850 (with a copyright of 1849). In the reprints, illustrations were dropped. The 1850 reprint of Girl leaves out the frontispiece. Boy lost a full-page illustration in 1844, which results in the leaf comprising pages 73 and 74 apparently missing in the 1844, 1845, and 1850 reprints, though the text is unbroken; the leaf simply wasn’t reprinted. Did publishers care that they weren’t reprinting the entire book? Probably not. Did young readers notice that page numbers were missing? Again, probably not. Twenty-first-century readers and children’s literature scholars do notice, however, and here Youth’s Companion fills the gap. Parts of two chapters of Boy were reprinted in Youth’s Companion in 1842: the opening pages (11 February 1842; p. 157) and chapter 7, “The Party of Pleasure” (18 February 1842; p. 161). Luckily, the Companion’s reprint of chapter 7 includes what appears to be the missing illustration; it has been scanned and placed in Boy as pages 73 and 74.

The 1844 edition of The Well-Bred Boy is available here, with transcriptions of reviews of its first edition and a notice of the 1844 edition. The 1850 Mussey reprint of The Well-Bred Girl is included here, with a notice of and a paragraph on its first edition.


The Well-Bred Boy (1844)

The Well-Bred Girl (1850)

reviews and notices of both books

Copyright 1999-2019, Pat Pflieger
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