Single Ladies – 19th Century Style

Long before Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte brought singledom to the television, real women known as “bachelor girls” were doing the same in American cities. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, women were expected to marry. They had no social identity without marriage and motherhood.

But in the late 19th century, some single women with respectable ways of earning money came to regard marriage as unnecessary for self respect or financial stability. They didn’t oppose marriage but set certain standards for suitors to meet to gain their hand. “A great many bachelor maids are not living alone because they so choose, but have been unable to find a suitable companion,” declared Helen Gould, a self-proclaimed bachelor maid. Women like Gould formed social groups, known as Bachelor Maids’ Clubs, first in New York and Washington D.C., and then in cities and towns around the country. Sixty women, “banded together by an ‘all-for-one-and-one-for-all’ compact that would make the Musketeers themselves pale with envy,” formed the inaugural membership of the New York Bachelor Girls’ Club. The women first considered calling themselves “The Old Maids’ Club” but the bad feelings associated with spinsters – “corkscrew curls and a tabby cat” proclaimed one bachelor girl – led them to embrace bachelorhood.

The generations of women born between 1865 and 1895 had the highest proportion of single women in history. Before this time, a single woman who didn’t have to work to support herself would likely have resigned herself to a boring life in her childhood home with her parents. Not these ladies. Instead, they pursued higher education, fulfilling work, and independent living.

In 1907, the Washington Herald began publishing a popular column “Bachelor Girl Chat” that soon found a home in the women’s pages of newspapers across the country. Written by Helen Rowland (the “Carrie” of the past), the columns featured an ongoing conversation between the “Bachelor Girl” and the “Mere Man.” The Mere Man clearly wants to marry the Bachelor Girl but his interest gets subsumed beneath talk of feminism and patriarchy. Complaining of new laws barring women from smoking in New York City, the Bachelor Girl proclaims, “The moment you find anything amusing, you discover that it’s unladylike. Her reputation is the white woman’s burden. It takes all the fun out of life to have a good reputation.”[1]

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some of the most visible and influential women in the United States were unmarried: Susan B. Anthony, leader of the suffrage movement, Frances Willard, president of the WCTU, and Jane Addams of Hull House in Chicago. Reformers and progressives often cast independent women as the vanguard of women’s struggle for equality.[2]

Even though most bachelor girls would end up at the altar, their existence and that of the newspaper column show that views of women were beginning to shift in the early 20th century. Single women now had options, and they dared to reach out to claim them.

[1] “New York Girls Organize Club,” The St. Louis Republic (22 June 1902), part 1, pg 6; Elizabeth K. Stratton, “The Bachelor Girl Confesses,” New York Tribune (4 April 1909); “Bachelor Girls Find Defender,” The Washington Herald (26 July 1912), pg 5; Helen Rowland, “Woman’s Rights and Man’s Privileges,” The Washington Herald (1March 1908)

[2] Trisha Franzen, Spinsters and Lesbians: Independent Womanhood in the United States (New York: New York University Press, ) 5

The Original Ice Bucket Challenge

It was the summer of the ice bucket challenge. Dumping icy water (or just ice. Or just ice to make a stiff drink) on your head to raise awareness for ALS while challenging others to follow suit.

One hundred and fifty years ago, people poured ice cold water on their head or bathed in it as a medical treatment itself. Hydropathy, or the water cure, promoted the benefits of pure cold water to good health. Many people took the cure at any number of water cures that opened around the country in the 1840s and 1850s. Most cures were located in beautiful spots alongside streams, lakes, or beside mountains. But the best time to come wasn’t summer but winter when the water was colder and the breezes strong and chilling. Water cures often advertised their winter amenities to people looking to be well.

Hydropathy’s founder Vincenz Priessnitz maintained that the water “cannot be at too low a temperature.” The “lower the temperature,” he claimed, “the more efficacious it will prove.” As a result, many water cures charged more in the winter than for a summer visit.

V0011765 A man is treated to a cascade of water in the name of hydrop

Unsurprisingly, winter brought its own hazards to those taking the cures. Icicles sometimes formed around the head of the outdoor shower, sending icy daggers along with cold water down on the head of the patient below. Outdoor bathers sometimes found themselves floating beside chunks of ice.

While critics of the water cure delighted in these tales of peril, patients loved it. Reformer and teacher Catharine Beecher declared hydropathy “the safest and surest methods of relieving debilitated constitutions and curing chronic ailments.”