“A Small, but Well Chosen Library”: Or, A History of Rural Reading Communities and Gendered Consumption Patterns in Virginia Planter Society During the Early Republic

Alicia Tucker

Advisor: Cynthia A. Kierner, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Rosemarie Zagarri, Jennifer Ritterhouse

Horizon Hall, #3223
June 06, 2024, 02:00 PM to 05:00 PM


Using Virginian Jean Skipwith’s library as its point of departure, this dissertation seeks to explore the importance of print culture in creating rural reading societies, consumer networks and gendered consumption patterns in Virginia planter society during the early republic. Jean Skipwith’s library was one of the best documented Virginia libraries, allowing for a detailed exploration of how Virginians living in the most rural and remote areas of the state interacted and participated in a growing print culture during the early republic. The existence of invoices and letters between Jean Skipwith and her booksellers enables a study of her library in context with changes to her family and American society. Such evidence allows the opportunity to examine how Skipwith obtained books while living far from urban centers and to place her library within the framework of other women’s reading in Virginia, the United States, and Britain. Such documentation allows for an examination of how Skipwith built her library and interacted with her books over time.


Skipwith’s library provides evidence that elite and middling American women in rural areas actively participated in the print culture revolution with a similar enthusiasm as their urban and British counterparts. Her library expands our understanding of how British and American print culture shaped concepts of gender, domesticity, and culture in rural Virginia between 1786 and 1826. An examination of Skipwith’s library, reading practices, and literary consumption patterns offers insights into concepts about refinement, children’s education, and family relationships within a slave society. Her library also offers an opportunity to explore the similarities and differences between men’s and women’s reading as well as the importance of shared familial reading. Finally, this study offers a comparison between provincial reading communities in Virginia and those in urban regions, both in the United States and Great Britain. This work attempts to understand the complex historical forces that shaped Americans’ concepts of family, gender, marriage, education, sociability, and refinement in the early republic through an examination of Jean Skipwith’s library.