This Sisterhood of Books: An Introduction in Terms of Library History
By Susan Tucker
Maud Howe was the fifth child of Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) who headed up the Women’s Department at the New Orleans Exposition. Julia Ward Howe wanted to demonstrate products made by women, those of “the hand and of the mind.” Two arched entranceways to the Department led, on the one side, to crafts by women, and on the other, to scientific and literary achievements. Maud Howe solicited books from authors, publishers, and each state. This acquisition method was a common library practice. She also followed older conventions in thinking of books in a curatorial manner; books were rare, not to be touched by the casual visitor standing before a library shelf.
Maud Howe’s work, however, also involved new ideas. In then evolving “subscription libraries,” more and more working and middle-class men, and a few women, were beginning to read for self-education, and, more unusual, for pleasure. Similarly “social libraries” began to allow visits by the wives and sisters of members. America’s first large publicly supported library, Boston Public Library (1854), met the widening field of readers by providing women with a floor of their own. Boston’s librarians and others believed women were special-needs users who might endanger themselves by reading while also disturbing men, the primary users of books, after all. Refuting the need for this segregation, national women’s clubs and suffrage associations promoted reading as a civic right, and libraries as essential to democracy.
Maud Howe and her mother, both writers, were part of these changes. They were also cognizant of how unusual books by women were. Book collections everywhere included many more books by men than by women. Educators and librarians generally chose for women books written by men. Novels were considered a regrettable choice especially for women—whether as authors or readers—and not suitable for many libraries.
A Differing View and Homes for the Sisterhood of Books
In New Orleans, Maud Howe defended reading outside such prescribed boundaries. To her, books of “erudition” could stand beside books of “household interest” and “practical matters.” Even more unusual, she found merit in “romance, poetic and fanciful wonder stories for children.” These types of books served to “instruct and develop the minds … to refresh and divert.…”
After the Cotton Exposition ended, Maud Howe presented the entire collection of some 1,400 books to the New Orleans’s Southern Art Union, and had placed within each book, a bookplate. The Union was a logical choice, since, besides being a writer, Maud Howe was an artist, and the Union had been unusual in having many women members. The Union also already had a library, sometimes called the city’s first public circulating library, though open only to whites.
But the Art Union dissolved and its books were, in 1887, given to the city’s Women’s Christian Exchange. The Exchange disbanded its library in 1895, leaving no record of the books at all. We have found only one book with Maud Howe’s bookplate.
Yet their collective status serves as a link between a library of books by women first attempted at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia (for which no inventory was made and not much is known) and the better-known, larger, much-documented collection of books by women amassed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. The latter, long hailed as the first of its kind, had its inception in these earlier attempts.
The list of New Orleans books, created by Maud Howe for her mother’s report on the New Orleans Women’s Department, enabled a collectivity that serves as the basis of the re-creation of the library, that brings the books from the 1884-1885 Exposition back together. Grace of digital technology, the books now form both a historical exhibition and a lending library. We invite you, by visiting and working on the site, to help us as we reconstruct their sisterhood, their place in the history of women and reading.
Maud Howe placed this bookplate in each of the eight hundred books she donated at the end of the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair to the circulating library of the Souther Art Union. At the closing ceremony for the Women’s Literary Department, she expressed hope that “this beautiful sisterhood of books” would serve the citizens of New Orleans well and be increased over time. The plate reads: “Presented to the Southern Art Union in the name of the Women Writers of the United States by Maud Howe.”
“Eminent Women 1884.” Maud Howe, head of the Literary Section in the Women’s Department, placed photos of famous writers over her desk. This lithograph depicts Nora Perry, Mary A. Livermore, Sara Orne Jewett, Grace A. Oliver, Helen Hunt, Lucy Larcom, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Lousie Chandler Moulton, Louisa M. Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Julia Ward Howe (Maud’s mother).
The Women’s Department at the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair. Lady Commissioners from thirty-one states and territories created exhibits such as these, displaying paintings, needlework, pottery, inventions, and examples of professional and educational advancement. In a separate alcove were scientific specimens and on shelves in the Literary Section were hundreds of women-authored books and newspapers.
The National Women’s Christian Temperance Union Pavilion occupied the central location of the Women’s Department. Each state’s WCTU affiliate had a space within the pavilion; Louisiana’s president was activist and suffragist, Caroline Merrick. Members handed out hundreds of temperance leaflets and scores of cups of ice water, a smart attraction to the booth. On March 3, 1885, women celebrated the formal opening of the Women’s Department near this flag-draped space.
For more on the library and its place in library history, see Report and Catalogue of the Women’s Department of the World’s Exposition, Held at New Orleans, 1884-1885 or on our website here.
See also our section on About the Library with links to two articles on the Women’s Department at the Fair, as well as the following books and articles:
Sarah Wadsworth and Wayne A. Wiegand, “Right Here I See My Own Books: The Women’s Building Library at the World’s Columbian Exposition”
Wiegand, “Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library”
Abigail Van Slyck, “The Lady and the Library Loafer: Gender and Public Space in Victorian America,” Winterthur Portfolio 31, No. 4 (Winter, 1996): 221-242
Paula D. Watson, “Founding Mothers: The Contribution of Women’s Organizations to Public Library Development in the United States,” Library Quarterly, vol. 64, no. 3 (1994).