The American Girl’s Handy Book by Lina Beard and Adelia B. Beard, 1887.
This is a Victorian activity book for girls, focusing particularly on outdoor seasonal activities and celebrations. Earlier, I covered The Girl’s Own Book, which is a similar type of Victorian activity book for girls, but there are important differences between the two. For one thing, they were published over 50 years apart, which means that the girls who read this book when it was new would be the daughters and granddaughters of girls who had grown up with The Girl’s Own Book. For another thing, this book is organized by the seasons and has a more outdoor focus. There is a reason for the somewhat different focus of this book, but to understand it, I need to a few words about the authors.
Lina Beard (“Lina” was short for Mary Caroline) and Adelia Beard were sisters. Their brother, Daniel Beard, was the author of The American Boy’s Handy Book, published a few years before The American Girl’s Handy Book. Like their brother did in his book, Lina and Adelia set out to make a book of activities specifically for an audience of American children, taking into account the sort of environment that the children would live in and the language they would use. In the preface to the book, they say that they had the idea to write a book of activities for girls after the publication of their brother’s book, thinking about times when they have heard girls wish for an activity book of their own whenever a new one for boys appeared. (There were previous activity/how-to books for girls, like The Girl’s Own Book, but their comments indicate that there were more books of this type for boys than for girls.)
Both Lina and Adelia would later be founding members of the Camp Fire Girls, the first major scouting organization for girls in America, during the 1910s, while Daniel Carter Beard was one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America. (Camp Fire Girls was founded before the founding of the Girl Scouts. Today, it is now a co-ed scouting organization simply called Camp Fire.) Their family believed in appreciating nature and the benefits of exercise and outdoor life, and these concepts are reflected in the activities in of the Handy Books.
However, even though they valued exercise and healthy outdoor activities for girls and the subtitle specifically mentions “outdoor fun”, this book has plenty of indoor activities for girls as well. This is probably partly because they would have appealed to girls of the period and their parents, but it’s also because the book takes the realities of weather into account. An ideal time for forming walking clubs and enjoying the beauties of nature would have been in the spring, but not so much in the heat of summer, when making fans and playing relatively sedentary games would have helped keep them cool, and not in the winter, when things were covered in snow and girls would have to take their exercise indoors and work on indoor crafts and needlework. Overall, the The American Boy’s Handy Book has more outdoor activities than The American Girl’s Handy Book, but the Beard sisters also wrote other activity books, some of which have even more of an outdoor or camping focus.
Contents of the Book
The activities in this book are organized by season, and I liked the organization much better than the organization in The Girl’s Own Book. The organization by season is the same as in The American Boy’s Handy Book. Within each section, there are more specialized sections, focusing on particular pastimes and holidays in each season.
The holidays that appear in this section are April Fool’s Day, Easter, and May Day. May Day isn’t a major holiday in modern times, but schools in the 19th century commonly had May Day celebrations.
The recommended outdoor activities for spring are lawn tennis (this section includes instructions for making your own lawn tennis net), forming a walking club, and picking and preserving wildflowers. The wildflowers section is the longest section in this part of the book, and it has a surprising array of methods for preserving wildflowers, including crystallizing them.
The holidays in this section are Midsummer Eve and the Fourth of July. Midsummer Eve isn’t a common holiday for modern girls to celebrate, but the Midsummer activities of the 19th century involve fortune telling.
Summer provides many opportunities for outdoor activities. There are tips for holding various types of picnics and decorating a seaside cottage, and there are suggestions for using plants in art and making dolls out of corn husks and flowers. However, summer is also very hot, and in the days before air conditioning, people would have also wanted ways to relax and keep themselves as cool as possible in the heat. The summer section of the book has instructions for making fans and hammocks and playing relatively quiet games.
This section begins with suggestions for celebrating Halloween and ends with Thanksgiving. The Victorian era was the beginning of Halloween parties as we know them today. There would have been games for children and romantic divination games for young adults, particularly young women and girls.
The Thanksgiving section offers tips for putting on a kind of Thanksgiving play, but it’s not historically accurate by any means, and the American Indians aren’t portrayed well. The whole thing is more like a series of joke skits.
The nature themes in the Autumn section focus on nutting parties and making decorations from autumn foliage. A nutting party is a sort of walking party and picnic, where the girls enjoy the beauties of nature, gather chestnuts, and roast and eat the nuts afterward.
Most of the autumn activities focus on various types of art, including drawing, painting in oil and water colors, making picture frames, making clay and wax models, making plaster casts, and painting china.
I was fascinated by the arts and crafts information because I always enjoyed arts and crafts, but I’d like to draw your attention to one activity that doesn’t quite fit with the others in this section: making a tin-can telephone. This fascinates me because telephones were a relatively new invention at the time this book was written, but the tin can variety apparently weren’t far behind.
This section begins with Christmas activities and games and tips for making homemade presents. The other holiday celebrations included are New Year’s Eve, a special Leap Day party (for years with Leap Days), and Valentine’s Day.
Most of the activities in this section are indoor activities, like studying heraldry and making your own coat of arms with suggested symbols, doing needlework, making book covers and scrap books, and how to make things from stuff that otherwise would be thrown away. (They didn’t have the term upcycling back then, but that’s basically what this activity was about.) There are a couple of sections about decorating a room, decorating windows and mantle pieces and making and decorating furniture.
There is also a section with recipes for different types of candy.
For exercise, there is a section about doing indoor exercises. There is also a section about creating booths for a fair, which surprised me because I wouldn’t have thought of that as a winter activity. Then again, people can begin planning early for later events.