A Sound Mind in a Sound Body: How Nineteenth-Century Men and Women Writers Promoted Health and Wellness through Their Texts — Self-Help Guides and Political Manifestos

Signe O. Wegener (Independent Scholar)

Presented at the 21ˢᵗ International James Fenimore Cooper & Susan Fenimore Cooper Conference: Watersheds at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, September, 2017.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 30.1 (Whole No. 83, Spring 2019): 73-80.

Copyright © 2017, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

In today’s market place, both in print media and online, diet and health sell. Audiences are inundated with health and diet advice, most of it contradictory if not downright improbable. Many consumers seem oblivious to the fact that much of the advice they encounter fits under the heading “age-old” when they eagerly embrace the latest diet fad. Diet and health fashions not only run in circles, but today’s suggestions evoke a consistent sense of déjà vu in readers interested in the topics. However, at times the “experts” come as a complete surprise. For example, in 2016, just in time for Father’s Day, a small volume of health advice by none other than Walt Whitman appeared on the American gift book market, promoting a health regime that, besides arguing for the building of physical strength, also seems to foreshadow the paleo diet. Entitled Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health and Training, it is gleaned and simplified from a series of newspaper articles on “Manly Health and Training,” published in The New York Atlas ¹ and written under the pseudonym Mose Velsor ² in 1858. Whitman’s text was by chance discovered by Zachary Turpin, a doctoral student at the University of Houston. ³ And the rest is, as they say, history. Ironically, the name recognition Whitman avoided in 1858 now sells the book. In the newspaper series, Velsor, a.k.a Whitman, dispenses practical advice on health, exercise, and diet, clearly issues as hot in 1858 as they are today. However, the idea of going to a gym was decidedly alien.

Yet Whitman was not alone in a desire to improve the physical health of his fellow Americans — most people apparently lived as unhealthy lives and ate as unhealthy foods in 1858 as they do now. In fact, domestic issues — from architecture and interior design to diet — were quite de rigeur in the world of advice literature, in books and magazine articles, where not only Whitman, but authors like Lydia Maria Child (The Frugal American Housewife, 1829), Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (The American Woman’s Home, 1869), and even James Fenimore Cooper and his daughter Susan dispensed health and exercise advice — albeit the latter two writers did it more obliquely than the former. However, although all the authors chosen for this paper dispense sound advice (like getting up early, walking, and exercising), the female authors especially, but also James Fenimore Cooper, utilized [74] different approaches from Whitman’s male-focused one, ranging from the strictly straightforward and practical in the case of Child, to the almost unstated one in Susan and James Fenimore Cooper, to the very scientific approach in Beecher and Stowe’s text. Significantly, the women’s texts are more holistic and non-gendered and presented as a fitting topic for the persons in charge of the American home — the women. To the women authors, physical health, based on a healthy diet and physical exercise, is a domestic concern and thus a female responsibility — not a means to promote and enhance male physicality. And while they saw health as an investment in the future, and important to the American democracy, the women shied away from Whitman’s focus.

The titles of the different works in my selection make their contrasting approaches and goals clear: the full title of Child’s slim volume is The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of Economy. So popular (and obviously useful) was it that it reached its twelfth edition in 1833, a year after its first rebranding. It also clearly uses name recognition as a marketing tactic: the work is “By Mrs. Child, Author of ‘Hobomok,’ ‘The Mother’s Book,’ Editor of the ‘Juvenile Miscellany,’ etc.” The editors expect that prospective buyers not only are interested in household matters and economy, but also in the author’s expertise in other areas.

Child’s text covers everything the author believes a frugal person ought to know to provide a healthy home for her family: cleaning, diet (including recipes, a one-page illustration showing what parts of the animal the names of cuts refer to, cooking methods and beverages — beer is a “good family drink” (86) — clothing, and exercise. And, taking her cue from Benjamin Franklin, the author has solvency as the end goal: “A fat kitchen maketh a lean will” and “Economy is a poor man’s revenue; extravagance is the rich man’s ruin.” Under the heading “General Maxims for Health,” a section that appears to foreshadow Whitman’s articles, the reader is bluntly advised: “RISE EARLY. Eat simple food. Take plenty of exercise. Never fear a little fatigue. Let not children be dressed in tight clothes; it is necessary their limbs and muscles should have full play, if you wish for either health of beauty” (87). Furthermore, “Wear shoes that are large. It not only produces corns, but makes the feet misshapen, to cramp them” (87). “Wash very often, and rub the skin thoroughly with a hard brush ... Clean teeth in pure water two or three times a day” (88). The reader is also reminded to sleep in a well-aired, cold room, and “have fresh bed linen every week” (88). Child’s volume also provides “Hints to Persons of Moderate [75] Fortune” (this section was first published in the Massachusetts Journal) providing advice from choice and care of furniture to the education of daughters to how to avoid and endure poverty (137). Yet throughout, the focus is on the family unit, not the individual. At a time when the concept of the nuclear family is in its infancy, when the country itself is in constantly changing, Child aims at providing stability and cohesion.

Although published more than three decades later, the 1869 The American Woman’s Home is also conceived as a stabilizing force in a world of change — this time not the Western expansion but the aftermath of a devastating Civil War, seeking the same goals as Child’s text, but addressing a wider audience. Where Child is brief in the extreme — her advice book, including appendices and index — is a mere 130 pages, practical and pragmatic with a mere page and a half of health advice, Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe take a much more expansive and scientific approach to the issues and target a very different audience from Child’s. Their job is, as Nicole Tonkovich explains in her Introduction to the 2002 edition, “to make domestic work respectable”; however, in order for this goal to be attained, “household procedures must be made rational; household practice must be based on scientific principles” (xi), principles they knew from their experience as educators. Resplendent with ideas from diet to dairy production and architectural plans and interior design ideas, the thoroughly illustrated 350 plus page text, approaches the more well-to-do homemaker from a rational angle — everything, including dietary habits, daily routines, and healthy living, is discussed in scientific terms, complete with illustrations. From reading the book, the mother becomes more than a mere housekeeper: she is a scientist, equipped with irrefutable knowledge. One not only learns what to do, but also why. Of course, the readers were not, as Tonkovich points out, expected to actually perform the tasks; however, they were the supervisory position and needed to know in order to instruct their employees.

The marketing strategy of this work also operates on name recognition: both Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe were well known both as writers, educators, and reformers — their text would, on this fact alone, have a built-in-readership; they did not enter the domestic advice market place as unknowns.

Whitman’s text and its publication strategy differs noticeably from Child’s and Beecher/Stowe’s texts. They rely on name recognition and the enduring interest in domesticity and how to achieve a healthy home on which to build a secure nation; Whitman writes against this trend in [76] significant ways by addressing readers in the public, not the private sphere. Although he had, three years prior, released Leaves of Grass, he actively dissociates himself from that venture, perhaps because the two editions of this work were flops. What in 2015/16 appeared as fancy illustrated gift book, first appeared as a series, under a pseudonym, in a popular New York City Sunday publication, The New York City Atlas starting on September 12, 1858. The title itself signals the different narrative/philosophical angle and a male readership: Manly Health and Training, With Off-Hand Hints Toward Their Conditions. Clearly, the domestic angle has been dispensed with — and the housewife is not the target audience. Instead, the various installments — which address a variety of topics, among them diet, exercise, prize fights and prostitution — are aimed at people who work outside the home, and who seems to live in hotels and boardinghouses, and for whom the weekly paper offers non-domestic, non-religious entertainment. How one can do anything in an “off-hand” manner in a thorough, verbose dissertation spanning four months is rather curious. Furthermore, the writer asserts, the headline is meant to be arresting and keep the readers coming back for more: “Manly health! Is there not a kind of charm, a fascinating magic in the words?” (184). It also, as the placement of the first advice column shows, needs to grab reader’s attention: it is placed next to a story about a female spy, whose headline reads, “Marian Monckton — The Fair Spy.” Clearly, Whitman needs something to compete with the lure of the other text on the front page. The effusive opening remarks set the tone for the thirteen-week discussion, “aimed at every man, rich or poor, worker or idler — to all ages of life, from the beginning to the end of it ... some plain and we hope sensible hints towards the furtherance of a sound and steady condition of manly health“ (183-84). All this because health is “the foundation of all real manly beauty ... We have even sometimes fancied that there was a wonderful medicinal effect in the mere personal presence of a man who was perfectly well” (185). Yes, as David S. Reynolds points out to Jennifer Schuessler in a New York Times interview on April 29, 2016, Velsor argues for fresh air, practical clothing (including bespoke shoes), and diet, adding, “One could do worse than follow his advice,” but the goal differs notably from the diet and health advice dispensed by women.

Aimed at “every man, rich or poor, worker or idler ... to all ages of life, from the beginning to the end of it” (184), it argued for, among other items, lean, red meat, physical activities like baseball and walking, and comfortable shoes. And he posits a clear reasoning for his prescriptions: it is “indispensably necessary that a man should be a fine [77] animal — sound and vigorous and perfect in body first — we start with that as our premises, our foundation” (187). If his dicta were followed, the practitioner would acquire “a perfect body, a perfect blood” (187). ¹⁰ As Ed Folsom of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review comments, “The series is a hymn to the male body, as well as a guide to taking care of what he saw as the most vital unit of democratic living” (Schuessler).

Whitman’s single-mindedness contrasts sharply with the approach from the women writers and their more inclusive familial prescriptions. It is also markedly more physical than theirs and focusing on physical appearance: he is concerned with health as “the foundation of all real manly beauty” (185). In fact, the issue of “manly beauty” permeates the text and is the pretext for all suggestions. For, he continues, “is there a man, young, old, or middle-aged, who does not mainly desire to have a perfect physique” (186). Indeed, the “general run of facts, rules, suggestions most desirable to be understood by those who have not yet paid any earnest attention to the subject of developing a perfect and manly physique” (186). However, lest his readers be too smug in their manliness and physical beauty, he adds, on September 19, that if “well and hardy ... he will be more apt to become good, upright, friendly, and self-respected” (190). In other words, mental and physical development must go together, and a perfect physique equals a moral character (203). ¹¹ One cannot avoid reading it as “evocations of homoerotic love” (Folsom, qtd. in Schuessler).

On October 10, it appears that someone must have pulled the writer aside and warned him about being too focused on the male condition of the species. Consequently, in his discussion of “Breeding Superb men,” he opines that mothers, the central core of domestic life and instruction according to the general idea of the time, are “sadly unaware of most of the best conditions” (i.e., they are not men). At one point, it is as if somebody must have pointed the male-centrism out to the writer, for he adds a paragraph, seemingly without any pretext, to the discussion of the father’s role in instilling manliness in his offspring, that the mother is also important.

And, after weeks of extolling the virtues of manly beauty, a single paragraph seemingly lies bare his intentions. The author’s point is to create “an entirely different and immeasurably superior race of men advancing upon the earth ... breeding superb men and women. We think it proper to add, that we include women just the same as men, in the foregoing remarks” (227-28). But does he? True, walking was always possible and popular with both sexes, and later, in the 1860s, exercising [78] with Indian clubs became popular for women as well. However, running races on foot, leaping, boxing, wrestling, and throwing the discus or quoit” (191) might be a taller order. And exercising for two hours per day might be difficult for people working long hours — one needs leisure to be able to exercise a la Walt Whitman.

Like the women writers, Whitman addresses both cleanliness and diet; however, he also argues for a diet that foreshadows the popular “paleo diet” of this decade in avoiding or limiting grains. For example, after a brisk walk and one half hour of exercise, he recommends a breakfast of “fresh rare lean meat” and “a [single] slice or chunk of bread” and if desirable, tea (198). This is to “live well” and very different from what his readers might experience in “hotels, restaurants and boarding-houses” (201).

As we are at a conference dedicated to the works of James Fenimore and Susan Fenimore Cooper, I would like to conclude with some pertinent snippets from some of their texts, in particular the travelogues from the family’s journeys in Europe but also Susan Cooper’s Rural Hours in light of the importance of physical exercise. Walking, an activity recommended by many others, feature prominently. For example, when the Cooper family arrives at their lodgings in Rome, the first thing Cooper does is to walk with his son to St. Peter’s Basilica, commenting he was “not disappointed by its magnitude,” yet admitting to being “oppressed by the vastness” (XXI). In Paris, you see him walk to the Louvre after finishing working for the day to keep Samuel Morse company, and then walking back to family’s apartment bringing Samuel Morse along when the museum closes for the day. ¹² In Naples, we see Cooper walk down to the docks to see the lazzaroni at their daily tasks. And to take one example from his novels: in The Pioneers, Elizabeth and her cousin Richard Jones go for a Christmas morning walk, and Elizabeth and Louisa are often mentioned walking. And Susan Fenimore Cooper states in the Preface to the 1887 printing, “In wandering about the fields. ...” She might drive when the weather is cold, like on Saturday, March 4ᵗʰ; however, the entry for Tuesday, March 7ᵗʰ reads, “Milder; thawing. Walking near the river saw three large waterfowl...” (2). There are walks in fields, by the river, in the woods. But not a word of it ever being “exercise. ...”

Works Cited

  • Beecher, Catharine E. and Stowe, Harriet Beecher. The American Woman’s Home. Ed. and with an Introduction by Nicole Tonkovich. 2 nd ed. Hartford, Conn: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center; New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
  • Child, Lydia Maria. The American Frugal Housewife. 12 th ed. Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Co, 1833. Reprint.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Gleanings in Europe: Italy. Philadelphia: 1838. Ch. XXI.
  • ------------. The Pioneers or the Sources of the Susquehanna; a Descriptive Tale. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980.
  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore. Rural Hours. Introd. David Jones. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1968.
  • Gaddy, James. “Walt Whitman Is Not Impressed By Your Expensive Gym Membership.” Bloomberg, March 30, 2017, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-03-30/walt-whitman-is. Retrieved 8.8.2017.
  • Green, Harvey. The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.
  • McCullough, David. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. 61-101.
  • Schuessler, Jennifer. “Found: Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health.” New York Times, April 29, 2016. www.nytimes.com/2016/04/30/books/walt-whitman-htm. Retrieved 8.8.2017
  • Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood 1820-1860.“ The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective, 2 nd ed. Ed. By Michael Gordon. New York: St. Martin’s, 1978. 313-33.
  • Whitman, Walt. “Manly Health and Training, With Off Hand Hints toward Their Conditions.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 33.3 (2016): 184-310.
  • ------------. Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health & Training. Illustrated by Matthew Allen. California and New York: Ten Speed Press, 2016.


1. The New York Atlas was a weekly Sunday paper, originally named Sunday Morning Atlas, was published between 1838 and the 1880s. Although unknown today, it supposedly was the second-ranked weekly newspaper in New York City (after the New York Herald). By 1842, the circulation was 4.500. [79]

2. “Mose Velsor” was one of Whitman’s favorite pseudonyms. He had used it a number of times by 1858.

3. See Schuessler, “Found: Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health.” New York Times, April 29, 2016.

4. Harvey Green in the 1983 The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America, observes that “Publications with detailed information and advice about the health of American women had been popular since the 1840s. Most etiquette or behavior manuals contained at least a chapter on personal care” (112). Although Green lists Catharine Beecher as one such commentator/advisor, most of the authors he mentions are male.

5. In a March 30, 2017, Bloomberg essay, facetiously entitled “Walt Whitman Is Not Impressed by Your Expensive Gym Membership,” James Gaddy provides a very short review of the Whitman text, as if gym memberships were quite popular in the mid-nineteenth century.

6. The work was first published as The Frugal Housewife in 1829. However, as another work by that name had been published in Britain by Susannah Carter in 1765 and in the US from 1772, Child changed the name. Child observes in the 1833 version, “It has become necessary to change the title of this work to the “American Frugal Housewife,” because there is an English work of the same name, not adapted to the wants of this country.” One understands the necessity for the addition when one learns that between 1832 and 1834 Child’s work was published in Glasgow and London, not only in the US. The page numbers used here refer to the 1833 printing, the twelfth edition, “enlarged and corrected by the author.”

7. Tonkovich observes that both the women avoided the practical application of their ideas. Beecher never had her own home, and Stowe wrote to afford household help. In an 1838 letter to a friend, Stowe asserts, “I have determined not to be a mere domestic slave. ... I mean to have money enough to have my house kept in the best manner & yet to have time for reflection & that preparation for the education of my children which every mother needs” (In Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 119 and qtd. in Tonkovich xvi.)

8. All references to Whitman’s series on manliness can be found in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 33.3 (2016): 184-310. The page numbers used come from this article.

9. Schuessler.

10. This is the very opposite of what the “Cult of True Womanhood” prescribes for women: they are to be “pious, pure, domestic, and obedient, “as Barbara Welter explained in her 1978 essay on the topic (“The Cult of True Womanhood 1820-1860.” Any animalistic tendencies must be erased.

11. Schuessler points out that Velsor’s newspaper columns coincide with Whitman’s preparing for the landmark 1860 3 rd edition of Leaves of Grass, and that “he is probably working on the poems of homoerotic love that are central to the Whitman we know today.” [80]

12. See McCullough 61-101 for an engaging discussion of the relationship between Cooper and Morse.