A Colonial Woman's Bookshelf represents a significant contribution to the study of the intellectual life of women in British North America. Kevin J. Hayes studies the books these women read and the reasons why they read them. As Hayes notes, recent studies on the literary tastes of early American women have concentrated on the post-revolutionary period, when several women novelists emerged. Yet, he observes, women were reading long before they began writing and publishing novels, and, in fact, mounting evidence now suggests that literacy rates among colonial women were much higher than previously supposed.
To reconstruct what might have filled a typical colonial woman's bookshelf, Hayes has mined such sources as wills and estate inventories, surviving volumes inscribed by women, public and private library catalogs, sales ledgers, borrowing records from subscription libraries, and contemporary biographical sketches of notable colonial women. Hayes identifies several categories of reading material. These range from devotional works and conduct books to midwifery guides and cookery books, from novels and travel books to science books. In his concluding chapter, he describes the tensions that were developing near the end of the colonial period between the emerging cult of domesticity and the appetite for learning many women displayed.
With its meticulous research and rich detail, A Colonial Woman's Bookshelf makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the complexities of life in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America.