The Marriage Age in the 19th Century

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marriage, 19th century, gilded age, Waxwood Series, women, men

Young married couples in the 19th century knew marriage wasn’t all hearts and flowers. They were practical as well. I’m guessing this is probably an advertisement for Domestic sewing machines.

Photo Credit: Bride & Groom: Karen Arnold/PublicDomainPictures/CC0 1.0

Not long ago, I wrote this blog post about marriage advice in the Gilded Age era. Not surprisingly, age was an important factor, for both men and women, and it’s emphasized in my upcoming book, Pathfinding Women.

Today, we’re used to women (and men) marrying at any age they like. It’s significant that many women and men choose to marry at a later age. My research revealed that the average marriage age today is 35 years old for women and 38 years old for men. I can see several very good reasons for this. Both men and women are generally established in their careers and their lives by their 30’s, so choosing to marry and have a family is a commitment that can richen their lives. Many women prefer to have a career before they take on marriage and motherhood. There is also a level of emotional maturity and intelligence that comes with age that (we hope) makes relationships and child-rearing more painless and fulfilling at later time in our lives.

This is in stark contrast to the marriage age in the 19th century. The average age for women to marry was, roughly, 20 to 22, while for men, it was 26. Why were women marrying at such a young age, nearly 15 years younger than they do today? We want to remember women were not as autonomous as they are today, especially not in the first three-quarters of the century. Due to the separate spheres, many women were dependent on others for their livelihood, and marriage was the primary way they could survive when they came of age. There was also the “cult of True Womanhood” mentality where women’s destinies were to be wives and mothers, so marriage was seen as their goal in life.

Surprisingly, upper class women took the marriage age as more crucial than middle and lower class women. You would think women with social and economic privileges would be more independent than their less privileged sisters, but, in reality, family and social expectations lay heavily upon them (a theme that comes back again and again in the Waxwood Series). Women who expected to marry into high society and/or maintain their position among the blue bloods had to marry young. In her book What Would Mrs. Astor Do? author Cecelia Tichi describes actress and model Evelyn Nesbitt, whose decision to marry the rich but abusive Harry Kendall Thaw came largely from the fact that she was “now over twenty years old, a perilous age for a Gilded Age starlet harboring hopes of matrimony” (Tichi, location 3210). How much over? According to Tichi’s book, when Nesbit married Thaw, she was 21 years old.

In Pathfinding Women, the social standing of both Vivian and her mother Larissa hinge on Vivian marrying again. Vivian and her mother and, in fact, the Washington Street blue bloods that make up their social set are hyper aware of this fact:

Vivian thought with irony of the past few days. “Yes, it would certainly be peaceful for us both if I were to become Mrs. Monte Leblanc.”

“And just what you need at this particular time in your life.”

A pain shot through Vivian. “What do you mean, Mother?”

“You always accuse me of ignoring the truth,” said Larissa. “But you don’t like it when someone else shows you the truth you’ve been ignoring.”

Vivian turned up the gas lamp on the night table and observed her mother’s face illuminated by a yellow halo. “You’ve always been shrewd, haven’t you, Mother?”

“I’m trying to make you see!”

“See what? That I’m not getting any younger?” Vivian’s eyebrows arched. “That’s what you meant, isn’t it? You think I ought to grab the first man that asks me like Cousin Emma did.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as that.” Her mother’s voice was reasonable. “But twenty-six is an age where a woman can begin to expect little out of life if she’s not married.”

You make twenty-six sound like ninety-six,” said Vivian, realizing she was starting to sulk.

Vivian is considered, by the standards of the 19th century, to be well above the marriage age, though she is still young, and this puts her in an awkward position matrimonially, and one that her love interest, Monte, who is considerably older than she is, doesn’t fail to grasp and try to use to his advantage.

Pathfinding Women is the third book of the Waxwood Series and will be out on September 13. But you can grab a preorder copy now at a special price here. To find out more about the series, please go here.      

Want more fascinating information about history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Want in on exclusive sneak peaks, giveaways, and polls? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

Works Cited:

Tichi, Cecelia. What Would Mrs. Astor Do? The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age. Washington Mews Books, New York University Press, 2018. Kindle digital file.

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Marriage Advice From the Turn of the Century

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Photo Credit: Portrait of a man and woman, possibly wedding photo of husband and wife, probably from around the 1890s, photographer unknown, Wakefield 1 High Street, Ealing: whatsthatpicture/Flickr/Public Domain Mark 1.0

If you’re a fan of my work, you know I’m not a romance writer, per se. I have nothing against historical romance, and I love classic romances like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Austin’s novels, but I’m just not in that vein.

However, my upcoming book, Pathfinding Women, does have a romantic subplot. And for this, I went searching for information on marriage and love in the Gilded Age. A very interesting article on the Click Americana website cropped up in my research titled “Tips for a happy marriage: Advice for newlyweds, from the 1900s“. It’s actually a series of articles published in the early 20th century by the San Francisco Examiner, so the advice given is actual “real time” suggestions for newlyweds. 

Needless to say, the marriage advice is about what I expected. Although the first few decades of the 20th century were somewhat more progressive than the prior century, there was still a lot of Victorian baggage left from the separate spheres when it came to relationships. The passage that interested me (there are a few included in the article) was written in 1901, just at the beginning of the new century. The advice begins with the obvious: “‘First select a MAN’” (Wheeler Wilcox, par 2). At first glance, this might seem like a “well, DUH” kind of thing. But I think it’s interesting to note Wheeler Wilcox uses the word “select”. Sadly, many women in the 19th century didn’t really chose a marriage partner — their circumstances often made marriage imperative, and they sometimes had to go with whatever was available. But the Gilded Age was the era of the New Woman, so women had choices, even in marriage partners. 

Also interestingly, Wheeler Wilcox was no fool when it came to the personality of the Gilded Age man. She warns women, “[o]f course, he will be more or less selfish. That is the way parents rear their sons to be” (par 3). Her solution to this problem is for the wife to show patience and tolerance, and teach him to be a considerate, kind human being by modeling that behavior.

Some of the advice is actually quite sound, though. For example, Wheeler Wilcox suggests that, when a husband chides a wife about one of her faults, she ought to remind him he has faults as well and enter into an agreement with him so that they can both work on themselves (“‘Let us enter into a Mutual Improvement Society. I want to be everything you admire — you want to be everything I admire. I will try and do my part and you must do yours’” (Wheeler Wilcox, par 6)). There is the assumption here that men and women are equal partners in a marriage and therefore, must compromise and work together to make the marriage a happy one. This wasn’t exactly the attitude the Victorians had toward marriage (as you’ll see later).

Unfortunately, Wheeler Wilcox’s advice sort of goes downhill from there. Wives are told to be prepared to make sacrifices, stroke the husband’s ego, and please him as much as she can. She should create a happy, harmonious home, always having the house clean and looking her best. Wheeler Wilcox even suggests bad behavior (including alcoholism and adultery) should be accepted as a given for some men:

“Of course, we must make allowances for the occasional lawless and drunken mariner who sends his ship on the rocks and the worthless husband who does not appreciate life’s best gifts. There are men whom no woman on God’s earth could keep loyal or honest; but they are exceptions” (par 15)

Nevertheless, the attitude toward marriage and especially a woman’s role in it has clearly shifted from the Victorian period. Although the woman is still expected to play her role as the angel in the house, she is also advised to voice her displeasures in the marriage and expect more of her husband in terms of love, affection, and respect. Such, sadly, was less the case a century before. In another article by Click Americana, we get a taste of pre-Civil War marriage advice. There is no assumption that the woman is equal to the man in marriage. She is the subservient and should always remain so, abiding by her husband’s law in the home, never contradicting him (heaven forbid!), and centering her world around him.

In Pathfinding Women, Vivian is in a thankfully more progressive state of mind than that. Though she’s not quite a New Woman, she has her own ideas about what she wants in marriage, some of which she expresses in a scene with Monte Leblanc, the love interest in the book, and in the company of a Miss Sowberry, who is quite young but has been taught all the virtues of Victorian womanhood by a rather domineering mother:

“There are times when women are a burden to men.” Vivian cast her eyes across a table with the silver-gilled carp. “Just as sometimes men are a burden to women.”

“You have modern opinions about marriage, then?” [Mr. Leblanc] asked.

“Some,” Vivian admitted. “I believe, like Mrs. [Lucy] Stone, that women should keep their maiden names after marriage, if they wish. That’s one reason why I went back to being Miss Alderdice when my husband died.”

“A girl ought to make a home for her husband, wherever it is,” said Miss Sowberry but she sounded as if her opinion were being dictated by someone else.

To read more about Pathfinding Women, which will be out on September 13, check out this webpage. And to learn more about the series, you can go here.     

Want more fascinating information about history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

Works Cited:

Wheeler Wilcox, Ella. “Love, sense, & patience: The 3 most important things for a happy marriage (1901).” From “Tips for a happy marriage: Advice for newlyweds, from the 1900s.” Click Americana. Synchronista, LLC, 2011-2020. Web. 29 July 2020.

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