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Thursday, December 24, 2009

I've said before that it's rare to find lengthy ads from women, probably because they cost so much . Also, I think, it was so wildly inappropriate for a woman to put herself forward so much in the nineteenth century as to go out soliciting a husband. Women were supposed to sit around the house waiting for the right man to come a'courting. So when I ran across this one recently, you can only imagine my surprise:

A widow lady, with no encumbrance but one darling child, wishes to find in marriage, a friend and a protector. She is eighteen years of age, and her husband was lost at sea nearly a year ago. She is educated, accomplished, handsome, and of unquestioned character and position, and moves in the first circles of society. The advertiser is moderately independent, but would marry no one who could not support her in a moderate style of living. She will marry a middle aged gentleman of position, or even one of more advanced age, and will endeavor in return for kindness and protection, to make him a happy home. The advertiser will give to a suitable applicant the most satisfactory references as to her own standing and position, and she would require the same from any gentleman who may entertain matrimonial views under these circumstances. The applicant must be one whose character is unquestioned, and who can give satisfactory proofs of his integrity, and also that he possesses a kind and amiable disposition. A proposition coming from such a source will be sacred, and will meet with serious and prompt attention. The applicant may address a note to Mrs. Florida E., box 4,533 Post Office, communicating such information as may lead to a personal acquaintance.

Gosh! Where to begin!? This is so fascinating it makes me want to add a whole new chapter to my dissertation! Okay, first of all, how sad that there's this eighteen-year-old girl who's already a widow with a child. Can you imagine how horrible that would be?

It's interesting to me because on the one hand she seems like she's in an okay position: she's moderately independent, and she moves in the "first circles of society," so it's not like she's cast out alone in the world. "Moderately independent," of course, doesn't mean she could live off her own savings indefinitely, but she just doesn't seem to be in terrible straits or on the verge of destitution. But on the other hand, her ad does have a whiff of desperation. She wants to marry a middle-aged man, but wants to get married badly enough that she'll consider someone older. And she's looking for "a friend and a protector." That's what really intrigues me. It's very clear, and I don't think she's even trying to hide this, that this is something of a marriage of convenience she's proposing. She's not talking about love: in exchange for taking care of her and being kind and respectable, she'll do her best to provide a happy home. That's all she's offering.

And that's sort of sad. Given that she has some money of her own, I think there's more going on here than she's letting on. The whole idea of needing a protector suggests to me that she's in some kind of trouble. I wonder how many men would answer this ad? I think most people recognized that women had to marry someone with money since they couldn't earn their own (at least in the middle class; working class women never had the kind of luxury to imagine they might not have to have a source of income), so her stipulation that she must meet a man who could support her wouldn't necessarily be a turn off. But at the same time, I don't think any man could read this without having the same impression that I do - and who wants to marry a woman who has a kid they'll have to raise and who is in some kind of a bind?

I guess there were a lot of lonely men out there who worked all day and couldn't meet a woman (so many previous posts I could link to but I'm too lazy) who might want a wife badly enough that they'd be willing to make the best of it with a pretty, respectable girl. I hope so. Ads like this make me so sad.

And on that cheery note, I want to wish everyone who celebrates it a very happy holiday! I won't have time to post tomorrow, and I doubt a lot of you will be checking anyway, but maybe over the weekend. Merry Christmas!

Having trouble reading the ads? Click one to enlarge!

©2009 Pam Epstein


Anonymous December 24, 2009 at 12:30 PM  

Possibly she was in an unpleasant family situation. She might be forced to live with parents (or in-laws), she might be being pressured to make a really undesirable match, there might be a possibility of the child being taken from her as there is no father... There are many reasons such a young woman would find it desirable to marry again.

Pam December 24, 2009 at 4:15 PM  

I agree.

Mario December 27, 2009 at 3:35 AM  

I've been dashing through Lillian Schlissel's "Women's Diaries of the Western Journey" for a project and in the west, it seems, such a thing wasn't uncommon. (I dunno if the Schlissel is still read at all--it's nearly 30 years old and I found it by accident.)

Is there something more that speaks to desperation beyond the length? I don't read that in it, but it's certain that I'm not picking up on key phrases--time will do that...

Pam December 27, 2009 at 12:20 PM  

Mario - I almost wrote a chapter on mail-order brides for the dissertation, but it was getting to be too much. Some really interesting things about that, though.

Where I see a little bit of desperation is where she says she'd like to meet a middle-aged man, but would be willing to marry someone more elderly; she says she's looking for a protector; and that she seems, in my opinion, to be in a bit of rush. I could be misreading, but the signs are there.

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