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

Advertisements

Personal Ads from the Past

Nineteenth century singles hungered for love just as much as they do now. Personal ads – sometimes known as “lonely hearts” ads – flourished in Britain in the late 17th century when an entrepreneurial pamphleteer realized that love would likely sell just as any other commodity. American editors, too, seized on the possibilities of love, advertised.

Slate’s history blog Vault recently posted a selection of vegetarian personal ads from The Water-Cure Journal, the primary voice of the hydropathy, or water cure, movement, one of the most popular 19th century irregular healing systems. Hydropaths believed in the healing power of cold, pure water, and prescribed an intense regimen of bathing, showering, soaking, wrapping, and drinking (of water, of course) to heal disease. Patients received treatment either through a stay at a residential water cure or by following the instructions in any number of DIY water cure manuals.

Americans of all kinds were drawn to take the healing waters, though most were of a reforming bent. Hydropathy was often only one of a panoply of reforms and causes its followers championed. And they looked for the same in a mate.

WaterCurebgad

Personal ads under the heading “Matrimony” appeared in many back pages of The Water-Cure Journal. 

Jennie, a resident of the country, is twenty-four years of age, 5 feet 2 Inches in height, has dark hair and eyes, rather dark complexion. Is a thorough reformer, in every sense of the word ; detests tea and coffee, and will never marry a man who uses tobacco. Is a firm believer in Hydropathy, and practices as well as preaches it. (July 1855)

Jennie wasn’t alone in her distaste for stimulating hot beverages. Many followers of irregular healing, including hydropaths and homeopaths, believed that coffee and tea interfered with healing and in some cases, might even make you sicker.

Gertrude was quite the catch:

Am 28 years of age, neither handsome or a “singing angel;” but understand the music of the pudding-slice. Am in no hurry about marrying; but think I should like to find my partner as soon as 31. Am 5 feet 4 inches in height, and must be mated phrenologically and spiritually, or not at all. Should wish one who could do without tea, coffee, pork, beef, mutton, and feather-beds; a practical anti-slavery man, anti-tobacco, and I care not if anti-razor – in short, one who acts upon principle rather than policy. Age anywhere between my own and 40. (March 1855)

Phrenology’s appearance in Gertrude’s ad is far from surprising. The journal’s publisher, Fowler and Wells, were well known advocates and practitioners of phrenology and also published the main phrenological journal. Phrenology posited that character could be scientifically read on the bumps of your head. Brothers Orson and Lorenzo Fowler believed that the answers to nearly all life’s questions could be found in phrenology, from career paths to marriage prospects. Lorenzo had himself determined the suitability of his own wife Lydia Folger through an early courtship head reading.

Like Jennie, Gertrude, too, prefers a man who doesn’t drink tea or coffee, though I’m not sure what she has against feather-beds. It may suggest a type of luxury thought immoral to the pious reforming type.

She’s also willing to date a man with a beard – “I care not if anti-razor.” Beards had not yet reached the hairy, be-mutton-chopped heights of the Civil War. For much of early American history, a beard marked a man as an unconventional rebel or outsider. Though facial hair was generally unpopular, Gertrude was willing to look past it for love.

 

 

Marketplace of the Marvelous News

photo

It’s been a busy few weeks bringing the stories of irregular healing and 19th century medicine to the airwaves and print. Some highlights:

I love history books (no surprise) and here are a few I recommend in this “Just Read It” feature.

Salon ran an excerpt from the conclusion while The Atlantic ran an excerpt from the phrenology chapter (a personal favorite).

Loved talking with Simon Moncrieff on Newstalk Ireland from Dublin (if only I could have done the interview in studio).

Doctor Radio with Dr. Ira Breite on Sirius XM was a lot of fun.

The Wisconsin State Journal ran a nice Q&A with me at the end of January.

And Madison’s alt-weekly Isthmus ran a profile under the headline “Textual Healing,” which cracked me up. Should I have called the book that instead?

You can hear me talk about the book on The Larry Meiller show on Wisconsin Public Radio.

The Boston Globe featured the book in their nonfiction book briefs.

 

This week, I’ll be speaking at Boswell Books in Milwaukee on Tuesday, February 11th at 7PM. And on Sunday,  February 16th, I’ll be at one of my favorite places, Arcadia Books in Spring Green, speaking at 2PM. Hope to see you there!