“This is indeed,” the Adams Sentinel in Gettysburg, Pa., proclaimed on Feb. 24, 1830, “the age of improvement.”
The proclamation was part of a story about the Moral Encyclopaedia, a set of self-teaching books by a writer identified as “Charles Varle, Esq. of Baltimore.”
An advocate of autodidacticism and good old American self-reliance, Varle explains in the introduction to the third, long-windedly titled volume — Varlé’s Self-instructor, No. 3, in Literature, Duties of Life, and Rules of Good Breeding: Interspersed with Popular Quotations, Mottos, Maxims, and Adages, in Latin and Other Languages : Also with the French Words Generally Met with in Newspapers, and Works of Taste and Fancy, Faithfully Translated — that he got the idea of writing an instructional book from Thomas Jefferson.
At a meeting in Philadelphia, Varle writes, Jefferson — then vice-president — suggested that someone should compile a book of English translation of some European words and phrases often found in American newspapers. Varle was at the gathering and he not only took Jefferson’s challenge to heart, he turned the idea into a more comprehensive self-help guide — as the book’s subtitle purports.
The 301-page eclectic collection contains: snippets of contemporary speeches; colloquial maxims; quotes from Shakespeare, the Bible and ancient philosophers; and dozens of translations of internationalisms.
To get a glimpse into what one slice of American society resembled in the 1830s, here are some excerpts — in abecedary form and with original spelling — from Varle’s section labeled: “Rules of behavior for Young Ladies, partly extracted from this work and the most celebrated books on Ladies education.”
- Avoid every thing masculine.
- Be not too often seen in public.
- Consult only your own relations.
- Don’t even hear a double entendre.
- Endeavor to write and speak grammatically.
- Fondness for finery shows as bad a taste, as neatness and simplicity imply a good one.
- Form no friendship with men.
- Give your hand, when necessary, modestly.
- If you talk in society, talk only about those things which you understand.
- Know that a man of good sense will never marry but the pious, industrious and frugal.
- Let not love begin on your part.
- Make no great intimacies with any body.
- Never be afraid of blushing.
- Pride yourself in modesty.
- Read no novels, but let your study be History, Geography, Biography and other instructive books.
- Sympathise with the unfortunate
- Trust no female acquaintance, i.e. make no confidant of any one.
- You cannot be too circumspect in matters of love and marriage; and remember that whereas the character of a young lady is considered angelic, any blemish in it, would withdraw the respect men have for you.