Self-Help Manuals

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Books intended to provide instruction that would allow individuals to advance socially, financially, or educationally proliferated during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The popularity of this genre might best be explained by what the historian Thomas Schlereth has called a "cultural ethos . . . [of] striving" that characterized the period (p. 254). While Schlereth specifically identifies this attitude as the basis for self-improvement programs sponsored by groups like the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (p. 253), it was also the basis for the philosophy of success articulated by and about America's self-made men of the period. While the designation "self-help manual" is most typically used to denote handbooks on business success like the journalist Orison S. Marden's The Young Man Entering Business (1907), manuals on topics as diverse as household maintenance, etiquette, physical education, proper dress, conduct, and choosing and reading books also fall within the parameters of this genre.

The thousands of titles aimed at self-improvement appealed to nineteenth-century Americans, who generally believed quite strongly in the individual's potential to advance through self-discipline and self-education. Illiteracy fell from 20 percent to 6 percent in the years between 1876 and 1915, and with rising literacy came a demand for a variety of texts on a variety of topics (Schlereth, p. 253). At the same time, traditional ways of obtaining skills—apprenticeship and home training—were breaking down as people moved from rural to urban areas, leaving artisanship, the farm, and small trades behind. "How-to" books became a practical way to gain knowledge. Self-help manuals, whether treatises on success or instruction in decorating the home, held out the promise of advancement in a social class structure believed to be open and fluid. As the historian John Kasson has pointed out, the proliferation of instructional literature during this period made knowledge once reserved for the gentry available to all: "With proper drive, knowledge, and success, an individual or family might climb the social ladder to new heights" (p. 43). Yet as Kasson and others have shown, the manuals served cultural functions beyond those that appear on the surface.

During this period, members of the urban upper class were at the center of power, but a new class of managers, planners, clerks, engineers, financial experts, and other professionals was demanded by an expanding entrepreneurial capitalism. With this new white-collar middle class ever aspiring upward, success manuals, as well as etiquette and dress manuals, helped point the way. Changes in the workplace in combination with other trends like consumption and the formation of middle-class neighborhoods came to provide this new class with a distinct social identity. Because these groups often had wealth but little or no land, their efforts to carve out a social identity entailed distinguishing themselves from the working class, a process often propelled by aspirants' own working-class roots. Conduct, manners, and dress became marks of distinction, helping to define the middle class, and readers of the period sought within self-help manuals both instructions for advancing and assurances that, while life was changing, traditional values still prevailed.


Among the better-known self-help manuals of the nineteenth century were manuals for success, which instructed young men in the virtues and mind-set of the self-made businessman. Following in the tradition of Cotton Mather's Two Brief Discourses, One Directing a Christian in His General Calling, Another Directing Him in His Personal Calling (1701), which argued that men should succeed at their vocations in order to secure salvation, these manuals viewed self-improvement as next to godliness. The historian Irvin Wyllie has noted the precursors of nineteenth-century self-help in his analysis of the genre, including both Mather and Benjamin Franklin, whose Poor Richard's Almanack (1732–1757), Autobiography (1791), The Way to Wealth (1758), and Advice to Young Tradesmen (1748) publicized the maxims-to-prosper-by and philosophy of thrift, hard work, and rise that has made Franklin America's quintessential self-made man. The 1850s saw the publication of titles like Freeman Hunt's Worth and Wealth (1856), Edwin Troxell Freedley's Practical Treatise on Business (1852), and Charles C. B. Seymour's Self-Made Men (1858), documenting the lives and paths to success of American men of wealth. From the 1880s through the 1920s self-help advocates published hundreds of books and articles, all with the aim of explaining the tenets of success to a public eager to rise. Before the turn of the twentieth century, these "apostles of self-help," as Wyllie calls them, forwarded a gospel of success and wealth that focused on character and the development of willpower, industry, perseverance, and frugality. According to these writers, self-improvement implies moral superiority, and the young man aimed toward success must display moral deportment, punctuality, reliability, indispensability, obedience, and thoroughness even as he begins working his way up from messenger boy to clerk to manager to owner.

Among the most influential of the late-nineteenth-century self-help writers were representative Protestant clergymen who proposed that success came from God, whose gifts to all included the opportunity to rise. These latter-day Cotton Mathers saw economic salvation as analogous to spiritual salvation, and they modeled their books on sermons, logically organizing their arguments and presenting in detail the virtues needed for success. Instruction always appeared on how to resist temptation, including weaknesses of the flesh and the propensity to speculate on the stock market, which these moral leaders equated with gambling. Among the clergy who headed up the cult of self-help were Daniel Wise, who wrote Uncrowned Kings (1875); Francis E. Clark, who wrote Our Business Boys (1884) and Danger Signals: The Enemies of Youth from the Business Man's Standpoint (1882); Lyman Abbott, who wrote How to Succeed (1882); and Wilber F. Crafts, who wrote Successful Men of Today and What They Say of Success (1883). All major Protestant denominations offered a clerical spokesperson who saw no schism between the pursuit of wealth and Christian virtues.

While many of the self-help writers of the late nineteenth century abandoned the sermon form in favor of biography combined with advice, traditional values continued to prevail. Some, themselves self-made businessmen, revealed the supposed secrets of success as they related their own experiences. Thomas Mellon, the founder of the Mellon banking fortune, for example, offered Thomas Mellon and His Times (1885), while John D. Rockefeller offered Random Reminiscences of Men and Events (1907), a variation on the theme of wealth through virtue. The most often quoted of these texts, Andrew Carnegie's "The Gospel of Wealth" (1889) and The Empire of Business (1902), outlined the traditional values of self-help. Carnegie likened an honest day's work to prayer, and he advocated a philosophy whereby the wealthy would endow libraries and museums that would benefit the common good. Other writers offering advice alongside biographical sketches and anecdotes of the rich and successful were journalists turned self-help proponents. The most prominent of these were Edward W. Bok with The Keys to Success (1898) and Successward (1895) and Orison S. Marden, whose Pushing to the Front (1894) went through 250 editions.

The historian John Cawelti explains all of the above nineteenth-century texts in terms of their underlying purpose, that of explaining to their readers "the dynamic changes of American life in terms of badly shaken traditional verities" (p. 47). During this period urban centers were growing at a staggering rate, and an economy of abundance made material objects increasingly important in the day-to-day lives of people in all social classes. Amid all this change, Cawelti contends, the proponents of self-help eased the public's fears about the breaking up of the traditional social order, which brought new groups into power. They coupled economic success and traditional values, a rhetorical move that made change much less threatening. "Perhaps these works of popular ethics," Cawelti writes, "constituted a literature of reassurance rather than of inspiration and guidance" (p. 55). At bottom, he argues, the gospel of self-help allayed fears as it preserved the traditional social hierarchy.


Sometime during the first decade of the twentieth century a subtle shift in advice and purpose occurred in these self-help manuals, making them less focused on traditional values and more focused on the pursuit of wealth. Identifying this shift, Cawelti argues that while writers before 1900 balanced religion and secular values, showing a direct relationship between individual effort and the resultant product, their philosophy was warranted by their view of a static society of farmers, artisans, and petty capitalists that in actuality no longer constituted the dominant culture. Cawelti argues that nineteenth-century philosophies of self-help gradually gave way to a philosophy of success, a stance that implies competition and the successful man as a dynamic competitor. Because the large corporation had prevailed over the small business—over fifteen thousand of the latter had failed in 1893 alone (Schlereth, p. 33)—and because corporation needs were quite different from those of the small business, new kinds of self-help literature emerged.

While character and the development of moral superiority were the centerpieces of nineteenth-century self-help manuals, those of the early twentieth century had as a central theme the importance of personality. The historian Walter Susman summarizes his reading of manuals by Orison S. Marden written in 1899 and 1921. The 1899 text, he says, stresses "the basic values necessary in a producer-oriented society, including hard work and thrift" while the 1921 manual urges men to develop "the aura and power of personality that can 'sway great masses'" (p. 279). Susman has gleaned the following list of characteristic words from his reading of manuals from the early twentieth century: the nouns efficiency and energy and the adjectives fascinating, stunning, attractive, magnetic, glowing, masterful, creative, dominant, and forceful (p. 277). According to Susman, "The social role demanded of all in the new culture of personality was that of a performer" (p. 280). Manuals on effective speech, grooming and beauty, clothing, and personal appearance supplemented the reading of men bent on success. Confirming Susman's view, Cawelti shows that the idea of "personal magnetism" replaced the ideal of self-improvement, and energy, initiative, and confidence replaced the more traditional emphasis on industry and perseverance. Self-help titles that reflect these post-1900 attitudes include The Progressive Business Man (1913) by Orison S. Marden, The New Day (1904) by Russell Conwell, Personality: How to Build It (1915) by Henry Laurent, and Power of Personality (1920) by B. C. Bean.

Andrew Carnegie's essay "The Gospel of Wealth" appeared in the journal North American Review in June 1889. Following in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin and other purveyors of advice on success, Carnegie linked wealth with superior character. Viewed as a classic, the essay advocated that the wealthy use their riches for the good of society.

The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship. The conditions of human life have not only been changed, but revolutionized, within the past few hundred years. In former days there was little difference between the dwelling, dress, food, and environment of the chief and those of his retainers. The Indians are to-day where civilized man then was. When visiting the Sioux, I was led to the wigwam of the chief. It was just like the others in external appearance, and even within the difference was trifling between it and those of the poorest of his braves. The contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer with us to-day measures the change which has come with civilization.

Andrew Carnegie, "Wealth," North American Review 148, no. 391 (June 1889), pp. 653–654.


The spirit of striving that infused self-help and success manuals for men likewise infused the manuals written for and consumed by women. Focusing on the particulars of housewifery and motherhood, many works bear titles illustrating the traditional roles fulfilled by the majority of women of the period: Common Sense in the Household: A Manual of Practical Housewifery (1873) by Marion Harland, Perfect Womanhood for Maidens-Wives-Mothers (1903) by Mary Ries Melendy, MD, and Household Elegancies: Suggestion in Household Art and Tasteful Home Decoration (1875) by Mrs. C. S. Jones and Henry T. Williams. This self-help literature for women represented the home as both haven from the public sphere and the carrier of morality and cultural values. Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe addressed this function in The American Woman's Home (1869) when they wrote that the "aesthetic element" of a home "holds a place of great significance among the influences which make home happy and attractive, . . . and contributes much to the education of the entire household in refinement, intellectual development, and moral sensibility" (p. 84). Other self-help manuals, however, suggest the changes besetting women's lives as colleges for women opened their doors and as women began entering the professions. Titles like The Woman's Book: Dealing Practically with the Modern Conditions of Home-Life, Self-Support, Education, Opportunities, and Every-Day Problems (1894) and Lida Rose McCade's The American Girl at College (1893) appealed to the New Woman, the term used to suggest the self-assertiveness, independence, and energy of the new generation of women interested in education, athletics, social reform, or pursuing a professional life. Books like Know Thyself; or, Nature's Secrets Revealed (1911) gave instruction in "self-development with right conduct toward others" (p. 3) as well as instruction on birth control or "limitation of offspring" (p. 177). Manuals for women cut both with and against the grain of traditional women's roles, allowing modern-day readers a clearer understanding of the competing versions of womanhood during this period.

Whether written for aspiring businessmen or for women assuming traditional or nontraditional societal roles, self-help manuals provide a lens for examining the lives and aspirations of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Americans. While the texts for success strike contemporary readers as repetitious and formulaic, they enable historians and literary scholars to understand the cultural mind-set that made these books among the most popular of their day. By reading these texts, twenty-first-century readers come closer to capturing that "ethos of striving" that might otherwise prove elusive.

See alsoSuccess


Primary Works

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. 1791. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1996.

Franklin, Benjamin. Poor Richard's Almanack for 1733. 1933. Bedford, Mass.: Applewood, 1969.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Way to Wealth. 1758. Bedford, Mass.: Applewood, 1986.

Hunt, Freeman. Worth and Wealth: A Collection of Maxims, Morals, and Miscellanies for Merchants and Men of Business. 1856. The Making of America project, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1996.

Marden, Orison S. Pushing to the Front. Petersburg, N.Y.: Success Company, 1894.

Marden, Orison S. The Young Man Entering Business. 1907. New York: Lightening Source, 2003.

Seymour, Charles C. B. "Self-Made Men." The Making of America project, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1996.

Secondary Works

Cawelti, John G. Apostles of the Self-Made Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Kasson, John. Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990.

Schlereth, Thomas. Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1875–1915. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Susman, Walter I. Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century. New York: Pantheon, 1984.

Wyllie, Irvin G. The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1954.

Carolyn L. Mathews