Letters to Country Girls: 19th century self-help

Flyleaf of Letters for Country Girls

Self-help books have been popular since Sebayt (“Teaching”) was written in Egypt in 2800 BCE.  Written in the form of a letter of advice from father to son, it is the oldest known example of a genre that includes Hesiod’s Works and Days, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the Book of Proverbs, Machiavelli’s The Prince and Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.  Human beings, bless our far-from-perfect little hearts, are self-improvers.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, “savior vivre” books were indispensable guides for men who wanted to know how to behave in polite society.  But the genre really exploded in the United States in the 19th century, which saw the publication of books on topics from cookery and homemaking, to business success, weight loss and self-medication. 

Jane Grey Swisshelm’s contribution to the self-help genre was her Letters to Country Girls.  The Letters started as a series of columns in her newspaper, The Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter.  She meant to write only a dozen columns, but the feature was so well-received that Jane ultimately wrote more than twice that number and collected them into her first published book in 1853. 

Marcus Aurelius, an early self-help writer. His Meditations has been a lodestar for me in times of trouble.

The purpose of the Letters

Jane specified that she was not writing for middle-class city girls, whom she dismissively described as “these drawling concerns who lounge around reading novels, lisping about fashion and gentility, thumping on some poor hired piano until it groans, and putting on airs to catch husbands.”  Her intended audience was girls growing up on the farms of Western Pennsylvania, young women who churned butter, made their own clothing, and might not see town more than monthly or a big city once in a lifetime.  She respects these young ladies, thinks them worthy of bettering themselves, and sees herself – a young farm wife herself, before she became owner/editor of a Pittsburgh newspaper – as singularly positioned to advise them. 

The letters are written in an intimate, conversational style, with touches of breezy, sometimes scolding humor.  They read less like newspaper columns than like letters from a wry, loving aunt only a few years older than the recipient.  Jane provides advice on a wide range of subjects:  how to keep worms from peach trees, build a wire fence, make different colored dyes, cook peach butter and ketchup, even how to make papier-mache furniture tops and artificial flowers and grapes to adorn readers’ parlors. 

“Get yourself a nice little sprouting hoe”

She was adamant, from her first letter, that every young woman must have her own hoe.  “Some day when you go on an errand to the village, and ride a horse to be left at the blacksmith’s, just get the man of the anvil to make you a nice little sprouting hoe!  You can send him a couple of pounds of butter for it.”  She goes on to describe to her readers how they may trick a husband or brother into making a handle for the hoe.  “Don’t patch (his) coat until the handle is in the hoe!  If that does not do, go to the woodpile some day, about eleven o’clock, and work very busily until they come in for dinner.  It will not be ready, you know; and they can put a handle in the hoe while you get dinner.” 

With your hoe, she advises her reader, you can dig up woodland wildflowers and small trees to beautify your yard, or a little tansy to keep the worms away from you peach trees, and transplant wild berries and grapevines into your garden.  It has other uses: “Sometimes it will do for a cane to help you to spring over muddy places and across runs.  When you clamber up steep places you can hook it fast to a tree, bush, or projecting root, to help you up….If you meet a snake, you have a weapon to kill him with…In fact, of the two, a little hoe, as a companion in a morning walk, is decidedly preferable to a full-grown beau.”  Jane thus anticipates the guy-code “bro’s before ho’s” by 150 years, and turns it on its head: “hoes before beaus.”

19th-century housekeeping advice

Jane provides advice on efficiencies and economies in housekeeping, not because she believes that housekeeping should be the center of a woman’s existence, but because she understands that it must be done – and, if it is completed efficiently, her readers will have something to spare for self-care and self-improvement.  She admonishes her country girls to keep their bodies as clean as their teapots and to care for their complexions as carefully as their carpets. 

Love of nature

Jane also urges her girls to cultivate a love of nature.  Modern urban people might assume that that would have come naturally to our rural ancestors, but the tone of Jane’s letters hints that country people of 200 years ago saw nature mostly as something they must conquer or hold at bay via endless drudgery.  Jane urges her readers to awaken to the beauty around them.  She especially advocates cultivating a love of flowers.  And she writes this about humble moss: “See how thickly it covers the old rotten log, as if it would hide its decay from those tall forest lords who now stand where it once stood…while this old tree that perhaps bore the very acorn they sprang from, is mouldering to dust at their feet.  The green leaves it once bore, the rough bark that protected it, are gone; but the beautiful moss creeps over and covers it up so lovingly.  Moss is like the mantle of charity, too, for it covereth a multitude of faults.”

She wants her readers to tend to their souls, as well as their bodies.  Jane is an advocate of reading, but not for pure entertainment.  She is scornful of city ladies who lounge around reading romantic novels.  She advocates instead for daily Bible reading, and for forming Reading Societies, where country folk can socialize and discuss serious books and current events. 

A picture of Jane taken around the time she was writing the Letters

Feminism in the Letters

Jane writes from a feminist perspective.  In letter #10, she excoriates men who see their wives and daughters as they see their farm animals.  The women in their families are resources, to be worked to exhaustion in the fields and barns, and then come back to the house to cook, churn and scrub while the men rest from their labors.  Women had no vote in the 19th century, and little legal recourse.  A woman’s labor and property belonged to her husband.  Jane points out that the legal situation encouraged men to see women as property.  “If Sallie has no right to hold office in church or state – if she is to submit to me in all things, of course I must be wiser than she, and better too.  She is ‘heaven’s last best gift to man’, an’ mighty useful one can make her!”  But, she goes on, “let one presume to use her mental powers – let her aspire to turn editor, public speaker, doctor lawyer – take up any profession or avocation which is deemed honorable and requires talent, and O! bring the Cologne, get a cambric kerchief and a feather fan, unloose his corsets and take off his cravat!  What a fainting fit Mr. Propriety has taken!”


Jane was a farmer’s wife herself, and understood how hard the work was.  She didn’t object to a woman helping out with the men’s work on the farm.  In #14, she writes, “If you have plenty of help in the house, there is nothing unfeminine or unhealthy in tossing hay, or raking grain.”  But her point is that such assistance should go both ways.  “When she requires his assistance at her work, let him return the favor.”  She is ever an advocate for a marriage of equals, where husband and wife support each other, ever an advocate for women getting enough relief from drudgery to have a life of the soul and the mind, ever an advocate for education and self-improvement. 

The book is a genuine delight, and available to read on Google Play for free.  Just follow this link: https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=Rt4-AQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&pg=GBS.PA7

A sampling from my own self-help library, from the sublime to the somewhat ridiculous. Why do I still own Dr. Spock?!


Swisshelm, Jane Grey; Letters to Country Girls, New York:  J.C. Riker, 1853.



The Pittsburgh Fire of 1845

Downtown Pittsburgh from bottom of Coal Hill (Mt. Washington), during the fire.

In this time of plague, it seems fitting to remember how people survived past calamities.  And we are approaching the anniversary of a great local catastrophe:  the Pittsburgh fire of 1845, a turning point in my upcoming novel Righteous.

Pittsburgh’s great fire is almost forgotten now, but for many years, the city commemorated the date by ringing out 1 – 8 – 4 – 5 on the old City Hall bell at noon on the anniversary, April 10.  Articles about the fire appeared regularly in newspapers on the anniversary date, major ones appearing on the 25th anniversary in 1870, and following the similarly-devastating flood in 1936. 

Origin of the Fire

Whenever there was a fire in a major city in the 19th century, some poor Irish woman always seemed to get the blame.  But the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow in Chicago turned out to be apocryphal, and the origin story of the Pittsburgh fire is also in doubt.  The story goes that the fire was started by Ann Brooks, an Irish washerwoman who worked for Colonel William Diehl on Ferry Street (present-day Stanwix Street).  Mrs. Brooks was said to have started a fire to heat water for Col. Diehl’s laundry.  She left it unattended and a spark ignited a nearby ice shed. 

We don’t know whether Mrs. Brooks was really to blame, but it is undisputed that the fire started somewhere near the corner of Ferry and Second Streets and that it destroyed 60 acres, about 1/3 of the young city.  Estimates of the total damage range from $6 million to $20 million.  The best estimate is about $12 million, or $267 million in 2020 dollars. 

The fire started on Ferry Street (present-day Stanwix St.) between 2nd and 3rd Streets.

Pittsburgh’s Preparedness (or not)

Also undisputed is that the city of Pittsburgh was as unprepared for the 1845 fire as our nation has been for the current pandemic.  In 1844, the city built a new reservoir on Bedford Avenue to replace the old one that stood at the current location of the Frick Building.  But the water mains and pumps were inadequate, leading to poor water pressure.  The city had no municipal fire department.  Six competing volunteer fire companies provided protection. They were well-intentioned but very poorly trained and equipped. 

Conditions were against the city, too.  Houses and businesses stood shoulder to shoulder, and the air was thick with flour dust, coal dust, soot and cotton fibers from the city’s many mills and factories.  Sources say that no rain had fallen in anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks.  6 weeks of no rain in a Pittsburgh spring seems implausible, but all sources agree that it had been a dry spring and the reservoir was very low. 

1845 map of Pittsburgh. Burnt area circled in blue; the red dot is the site where the fire started.

The fire spreads

The day of the fire was warm and windy.

A volunteer fire company arrived on Ferry Street soon after the ice shed fire was reported, but by then the flames had spread to the nearby Globe Cotton factory.  Still, the fire could have been controlled at that point had the fire fighters not been hampered by low water pressure and their own rotted hoses 

The fire raced up Second and Third, nearly destroying Third Presbyterian Church.  The wooden spire of the church caught fire and the church was only saved by fire fighters cutting off the spire and letting it drop to the street.

The flames reached their peak in Pittsburgh’s first and second wards between 2 and 4 p.m.  Winds blew the fire south and east, destroying the city’s pride and joy, the elegant Monongahela House Hotel, as well as the Courthouse and Western University, predecessor to the University of Pittsburgh.  The wooden Monongahela Bridge also burned, to be replaced by the first Smithfield Street Bridge. 

Western University before its destruction by the fire
The original location of Western University of Pittsburgh is now occupied by the parking garage for Oxford Center

Bank of Pittsburgh

The Bank of Pittsburgh, built entirely of stone and metal, was supposed to be fireproof.  The head cashier calmly locked the bank’s cash, books and records in the vault before vacating the building and standing on the street with other onlookers.  When the building’s zinc roof melted, the interior burst into flames and was entirely gutted.  The vault itself was fireproof, and the bank’s valuables remained intact, but the destruction of the building caused panic.  People who had been merely observing the fire rushed home to try to save their possessions.  Soon, carts full of boxes, furniture and other property clogged the chaotic streets.  Most of these goods ended up abandoned, and either burned or stolen.  Some people escaped across the Monongahela Bridge before it burned.  Some fled northeast to the present-day Hill District, and courageous ferry operators transported many others to safety.

Bank of Pittsburgh was located on Fourth Avenue between Market & Wood Streets. I’d like to imagine that it stood on the present-day location of one of my favorite downtown pizza restaurants, Ephesus….
but it was probably on this end of the block, across from the Union National Bank building

Destruction of wharf and Pipetown.

This depiction of the Mon Wharf was created in 1825, 20 years before the fire. In 1840, the Monongahela House replaced the building second from left.

The flames raced along the Monongahela Wharf, destroying the docks, the warehouses and any boats that hadn’t cast off down the river in time.  The destruction at the docks might have been contained if a barrel of liquor hadn’t fallen and burst right in the path of the flames, igniting nearby straw and the rest of the liquor warehouse.

The fire followed the Monongahela River towards Pipetown, an industrial suburb that lay below what was then called Boyd’s Hill (now called simply The Bluff, the present-day home of Duquesne University).  There it randomly spared many factories while destroying others, including the city gas works, Miller & Co. glass works, and Dallas Iron Works.  Finally, around 6 in the evening the winds died down, and by 7 p.m. the fire had burned itself out on the slope of Boyd’s Hill.

Cost of the catastrophe

Downtown Pittsburgh after the fire

The fire destroyed 10-12,000 buildings, displacing 2000 families, or about 12,000 people.  A sampling of the businesses burned to the ground include the offices of the Daily Chronicle newspaper, the garage and all equipment of the Vigilant Fire Co., the Weyman Tobacco Factory, six drugstores, 4 hardware stores, 5 dry goods stores, 2 book shops, 2 paper warehouses, 5 shoes stores and 3 livery stables.  Every insurance company in the city except one was bankrupted. 

Incredibly, only two people died in the fire – out of a population of about 20,000.  Lawyer Samuel Kingston returned to his house on 2nd St. to rescue his piano.  He fell into the basement of his house, was trapped there and died.  A Mrs. Maglone or Malone was also reported missing the day of the fire, last seen at a shop on 2nd St.  A set of bones found in a store at the corner of 2nd and Grant on April 22 were believed to be hers.


Pittsburgh rose from its ashes almost immediately.  The state provided a moratorium on state taxes and $50,000 in relief ($1.7 million in today’s dollars).  Donations came from other parts of the country and all over the world.  Individual contributions of note include $500 from future president James Buchanan, $25 from future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and $50 from former president John Quincy Adams.  The city of Wheeling, WV, contributed 100 pounds of flour and 300 pounds of bacon. 

Property values skyrocketed, and a construction boom started on April 14, only 4 days after the fire.  By June 12, while many streets were still blocked with fire debris, 500 new buildings were either completed or in progress.  Fine buildings of brick or stone replaced the destroyed wooden tenements. 

Pittsburgh came back from the great fire bigger and better.  I have faith that we will emerge from our current calamity renewed, refined and strengthened. 

The ruins of the Courthouse
This marker are 415 Smithfield St is all that is left downtown to remind Pittsburghers of the great fire.

And an aside…

A tidbit about the Monongahela House that I can’t bear to leave out, but that didn’t fit into the flow of my overall fire narrative:  Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley all stayed at the rebuilt Monongahela House in the years following the fire.  Garfield and McKinley slept in the same bed that Lincoln had used – and all three men were assassinated!  The furniture from the “Lincoln Room,” including the unlucky bed, passed into the hands of Allegheny County when the Monongahela House was torn down in 1935.  The County placed the furniture in a small museum on the grounds of South Park.  The furniture was subsequently stored in a warehouse in South Park, where it didn’t come to light again until 2006.  The bed is now in the possession of the Heinz Pittsburgh History Center.

The Monongahela house as rebuilt in 1847
Site of Monongahela House today. (Looking opposite direction from the old picture above. The picture above was taken looking away from Smithfield St. Bridge; this one is taken looking towards the bridge)





My friend and former work colleague, Gary Link, has written a series of novels that take place in mid-19th-century Pittsburgh.  The Pittsburgh fire is the central event of the first book in the series, The Burnt District:

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