In the 19th, and even the early 20th centuries, age was an important factor for both men and women when it came to marriage. This is especially true of women. Pretty much any woman who didn’t get married early was sneered at behind closed doors as being well on her way to spinsterhood (which, today, isn’t stigmatized like it was then).
In the 21st century, many choose to marry at a later age. I can see several reasons for this. Both women and men are generally established in their careers later in life, so they choose to marry and have a family once they feel they’ve “gotten it together”. Many women prefer to start their careers 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 fulfilling. And there is no denying the pandemic and economic downturn in the last three years has something to do with people waiting a little longer to get married.
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
This is in stark contrast to the marriage age in the 19th century. The average age for women to marry was, roughly, 20, while for men, it was 26. Why were women marrying at such a young age? We want to remember women were not as autonomous as they are today. 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. This is even true in the early 20th century when the New Woman. Keep in mind that, as independent and career-oriented as the New Woman was, she was still positioned as offering no threat to the “cult of True Womanhood” in her ultimate purpose in life (marriage and children).
Surprisingly, upper class women took the marriage age more seriously 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 my 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” (location 3210). How much over twenty years? 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 hinges 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 use to his advantage.
Pathfinding Women, the third book of the Waxwood Series, is at a very special price right now. Find out about the book here. And don’t forget that Book 1, The Specter, is free here
If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!
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.