I got this book over 10 years ago, at the Sturbridge Village gift shop, and I swear, I've read it so much that I probably have whole sections memorized! It is, without doubt, THE best book of its kind.
The American Frugal Housewife is fascinating on a variety of levels, not the least in that Child wrote the book with the emphasis on "AMERICAN." Other such books existed at the time, but they were written in England and for English women. Child was one of the Transcendentalists who were huge advocates of personal self-discipline and restraint, but believed to their core the importance of fighting for what they knew to be right. It wasn't just a religious fervor -although Child's Christianity, like that of Catherine and Harriet Beecher Stowe, was extremely important - but a belief that the still relatively new United States had a unique destiny that set it apart from the rest of the world, specifically the old, decrepit world that was Europe.
Child was no blindfolded nationalist, however. She saw the flaws and contradictions that bound the new Republic. Child, like many other Transcendentalists, was a fervent abolitionist and a proponent of women's equality, and worked all her life toward achieving those ends. Even with its problems, Child was an ardent American. She saw Americans as a unique race of people with a unique and powerful destiny. Americans, she believed, were new and unique, and that the American destiny was far different from the degenerate, rotting hulk of Old World Europe.
So what does all this have to do with the American Frugal Housewife? Well, Child wrote the book specifically to address AMERICAN houswives and what she knew to be their unique problems and issues. It's much more than just a recipe book; it embodies Child's philosophy that the only way toward virtue was self-restraint and sobriety, and that the way to tutor the new nation in these values was by teaching the nation's housewives - the hand that rocks the cradle, Child believed, did indeed rule the world.
The new nation was becoming prosperous, and Child saw that then, like now, people had a difficult time learning how to restrain themselves financially. One part in particular has to do with how mothers should raise their daughters. Child believed they should teach their offspring the virtues of frugality, that it was better to put savings "out at interest" and earn wealth from it, then to indulge in the latest fad - one in this case being something called a Brussels carpet. As new brides went out to set up their household, Child lectures at how they drive their husbands to bankruptcy by embracing fads and trying to keep up with the Joneses.
Other, cheaper types of carpet "will answer just as well," Child wrote. She also recommends using cheap illustrations, nicely framed, as wall art, rather than going overboard to buy the latest European style.
Some of the best sections are on frugality. Child was the "Hints from Heloise" queen of her day, and she's got a solution for everything that could possibly beset the early 19th century housewife. The interesting thing, as others have noted, is how so many of her tips still work so well.
I don't know that I'm ever going to need her instructions on how to brew my own soap in a backyard kettle or how to keep my homemade pickles in a barrel from turning soft, but I did get a burn mark out of an antique chest by using rottenstone and oil, just as she prescribed.
What's rottenstone, you ask? Well, you can buy it at a hardware store, but if you want the recipe, buy the book! It's a fantastic window on early American life, but the sound advice inside, about not getting into debt and how to "do up" your brass so it doesn't tarnish, is still amazingly useful.
I guarantee you'll become a Child fan, just like me! :)