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From spiritual guides to eager consumers: American girls' series fiction, 1865–1930

Emily A Honey, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation argues that girls' series fiction played a key role in the cultural discourse about girlhood from the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. Over the course of sixty-five years, the desirability of piety and community activism for girls slowly shifted to an emphasis on the empowering possibilities of responsible consumption. Chapter One (the introduction) discusses the difficulty of defining adolescence in the postbellum period and its slow evolution into a distinct life phase and consumer category. Chapter Two examines the ways in which reading and religion were intertwined for girls and how the depictions of postbellum benevolence and reform organizations offered girls a path to personal agency that still fell within "acceptable" social behavior. Chapter Three examines the Little Women, Elsie Dinsmore, and Chautauqua Girls series and argues that postbellum series modeled a proto-New Womanhood that was based first on individual acts of charity, next on overlapping networks of benevolence and reform societies, and finally on political and social reform organizations that aimed to create national change. Series heroines take advantage of ix their social status as pious individuals to assist the poor in their communities and to extend their moral reach. Chapter Four begins to detail the shift from postbellum activism to consumerism as the prevalent ideology for girls by examining Edward Stratemeyer‘s innovations in the series book market. Stratemeyer combined the traditional series format with production techniques borrowed from story paper and dime novel publishers. He was also one of the first to recognize adolescents as a distinct market group with money to spend. Finally, Chapter Five examines the Patty Fairfield, Grace Harlowe, and Outdoor Girls series for the ways in which they communicate both excitement and anxiety about the new culture of consumption. Girl heroines exercise agency as consumers and develop individuality through their purchases, gaining a considerable amount of individual autonomy while they lose some of their status as spiritual leaders. Girl heroines learn to be responsible consumers and enjoy the pleasures of individual consumption, but series authors also warn against desiring money and material goods simply for their own sake.

Subject Area

American studies|Womens studies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Honey, Emily A, "From spiritual guides to eager consumers: American girls' series fiction, 1865–1930" (2010). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3409591.