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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1853, Francis Holl
When the name of Harriet Beecher Stowe is mentioned, the next mention is almost always that of her greatest novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Blamed (or credited) with having single-handedly started the Civil War with her book by no less an authority on the subject that Abraham Lincoln himself, this talented, intellectual, socially conscious, hardworking woman was the epitome of the long-suffering Christian wife and mother of the 19th century. Born in Connecticut in 1811, the daughter of Lyman Beecher, a powerful preacher and Congregational theologian, also the founder of the American Bible Society; she first served as a teacher at a women's academy in Cincinnati during the 1840s. It was there she came to know the evils of slavery firsthand. Her home was a station on the famous Underground Railroad. It was there also she met her theologian husband, Calvin Stowe, who was eleven years her senior. When he took up a teaching position at a college in Maine during the 1850s, she moved there with him and began writing and publishing, in serialized form, her Uncle Tom's Cabin while raising seven children (three of whom died young). The publication of the series in book form during the 1860s made her an internationally know author. The book sold 3000 copies the first day, 300,000 copies the first year, and eventually rose to a total of three million copies in twenty different languages (impressive even in this day and age).

An 1859 poster marking the launch of
Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Insofar as most people know Harriet Beecher Stowe, her life's story ended with the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. In fact, she lived to be 85 years old.  She died in 1896.  After the war, with the abolition of slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe still found plenty to write about. For the next thirty years, she produced almost one book per year. Having "freed the slaves" so to speak, she next turned her writing talents toward the emancipation of women. And it is in this context that this literary artist becomes interesting from a broader, artistic perspective. While she was an amateur painter at various times in her life, it was her book, American Women's Home (bottom, left, written in conjunction with her sister, Katherine) in which she better displayed her creative bent with its innovative designs aimed at freeing women from much of the household drudgery which had always enslaved them.

The Stowe Kitchen,
Not surprisingly, she started in the kitchen, making it smaller, more compact, and better organized. She was the first to separate the room into two distinct areas, segregating the intense heat of the cast iron stove of her day to a separate area behind sliding doors to form a cooking alcove, its walls lined with shelves to store cooking utensils as well as double as a pantry. The other half, a modest 9' X 9' area had a built-in sink with a dish drainer that could be folded over it to increase counter space. Shelves overhead held dishes and table service while beneath the counter was contained bins for bulk staples such as sugar, flour, salt, rye, and corn meal (above, left). The counter top was made up of separate, reversible surfaces for chopping vegetables and kneading dough. The sink came with two hand pumps, one for well water, the other for cistern water which could also be used to pump water to a reservoir in the attic to allow for running water in the upstairs bathroom (one of the first affordable home designs of the era to even include an indoor bathroom).

Stowe's "Christian House"
The house itself she dubbed the "Christian House," so indicated by the crosses on each of its four gables. It was story-and-a-half design of eclectic style, quite modest in proportions (a mere 43' X 25'), consisting on the ground floor of an entry foyer with stairs, drawing room, kitchen, dining room, and two small, roofed piazzas for outdoor living. Upstairs were two bedrooms and the innovative bath.  Inasmuch as the first "water closets" were just starting to come into use, Stowe also illustrated a design for what she called an "earth closet." This was a combining of the old familiar chamber pot with the addition of a wall-mounted bin of "kitty litter" or dried earth as she termed it, which could be sifted into the removable receptacle after each use. And although the device demanded a good deal more servicing, it had the "advantage" of not requiring indoor plumbing, the lead pipes of which were notoriously prone to freezing in winter and leaking all year around.

Stowe's American Woman's Home, 1873
And while the house lacked central heating, the two Franklin stoves and the behemoth kitchen cooking stove were all centrally located and fed into the same chimney. Also,  Stowe's design was perhaps the first of her era to include duct work for the introduction of fresh air into the family's living quarters, a feature she found dangerously lacking in professionally designed hotels, churches, restaurants, even steam ships of her day. Stowe's American Women's Home may not have been as popular as her first book, but if Uncle Tom's Cabin, was instrumental in freeing the slaves, there can be little doubt that Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Christian House" went a long way in helping to free the women of her day too.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Stowe's own home was
a bit more upscale than her "Christian House."

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