Marriage Advice From The 1800s

Posted by Editorial Staff in History On 21st February 2017

When her daughter came to her with fears about her wedding night, Queen Victoria is infamously quoted as telling the young bride to simply, “Lie back and think of England.” Women were treated like children for pretty much their entire lives and were expected to never cause a fuss. That opinion obviously extended to married couples, too, where the husband was deemed in control of both their lives, making all of the decisions, even when it came to his wife’s own body. It’s certainly shocking to see just how drastically things have changed since then, with marriages now focusing on a true partnership between the pair.

#1 Keep Your Rank Or Lose Your Friends

Social class was very important when choosing a spouse. Men rarely married a woman from a lower class, and if they did, they risked losing their family, friends, and fortune. For the women, it was even worse. Elizabeth Lanfear, who wrote Letters to Young Ladies on Their Entrance into the World in 1824, wrote that, “She who weds with one of an inferior rank in life has no right to expect that her friends will associate with her husband, or treat him with that respect which she may think his due.”

#2 Say Yes To The First Offer

Women were expected to say "yes" to the first man who popped the question. As Elizabeth Lanfear describes it, 'she may end up poor, alone, and the butt of everyone's jokes' if she didn't accept the offer that was at hand. She says that people scorned the 'old maid' or 'antiquated virgin'. Many women were forced to marry someone they did not even like because of this theory.

#3 Give Him Warning If You Want Any Rights

In a 1918 handbook for young women by Bernarr Macfadden called Womanhood and Marriage, a new idea was set forth for those planning to wed. The responsibility on women to let their future husbands know if they’d like to retain the rights of their own body was something they had to state in writing before the man wed her. “It has been for so long a time an accepted idea that the husband’s right over the wife’s body was inherent, it is advisable for any young woman who takes the other point of view to make her attitude thoroughly understood by her future husband before she definitely takes upon herself the obligations of the marriage state.”

#4 Don't Complain If He's Not Great

Women didn't date or court their eventual partners. It was first come, first served, and there was no complaining about what you were handed. It was luck of the draw. Lanfear recommended a “fake it til you make it” approach to hopefully hone your hubby into a better spouse. She wrote that women should follow their husband's rule and eventually they would rise above the disappointment. When the husband was not happy with his wife, she suggested that the woman just work harder to make it work. By such conduct, she will also secure the respect and esteem of all around her, and possibly in time regain the heart of her husband.

#5 Let Him Win Every Argument

There were no arguments as we know them today. Women just didn't disrespect their husbands. Ladies were considered wise to take the vow to “obey” their husband very seriously back then, as Lanfear says, “A sensible woman, to preserve the peace and secure the affections of her husband, will often sacrifice her own inclinations to his.”

#6 Never Wear Makeup

Only women of a certain reputation would be seen in makeup and that “nothing would humiliate a man more than for his wife to appear of easy virtue.” This was written in 1889 by another author on Victorian marriage and relationships. Makeup was not something common to start with, but only people in theater and prostitutes were said to wear it.

#7 Always Look Good — But Not Too Good

Wives were expected to appear clean and pure with the emphasis on a plain aesthetic. This wasn’t just to make sure a wife appeared chaste but also looking out for his funds by being “not too fashionable so that she strained her husband’s pocketbook or appeared to be putting on airs.” Women were expected to reuse and redesign their old outfits and clothing, sometimes for years and years. For special events and occasions, the husband would purchase a new item she could use in her wardrobe like a feather a broach, or lace.

#8 Plan Meals With The Bedroom In Mind

Dr. James Ashton gave a lecture in 1861 emphasizing the importance of eating on schedule saying, “The proper time for sexual indulgence is an important consideration, inasmuch as carelessness in this respect may tend to dyspepsia, indigestion, and other affections of the stomach. Persons who are predisposed to such diseases should never have sexual intercourse just before eating, nor very soon after a full meal.”

#9 Find The Right Position

Dr. Ashton also had other thoughts on the couples sex life. He believed a woman’s life could be in danger if they weren’t properly situated between the sheets. “Any unnatural performance of this act is apt to impair the health of the female, and many women have been seriously injured and rendered miserable for life by the beastliness of their husbands in this respect.” In other words, there was no experimenting in the bedroom and the wife was always to be available for business.

#10 Don't Make Love Under The Influence

Women with any class or reputation were never allowed to drink in general, especially in a public setting. However, while no sex while under the influence is probably solid advice in general, Oneill adds that it was all about baby making with folks believing that “‘idiocy and numerous nervous maladies were transferred to the child” if conceived while intoxicated. Which meant that a couple who got drunk, had sex and then had a child, were at risk of having a child with abnormalities.

#11 See A Doctor If You Feel Too Frisky

Women were always being identified as mentally unfit or crazy, or even witches for behaving in a manner that was out of the ordinary. If they were very sexual, they were quickly marked as being under 'hysteria'. This so-called affliction descended on women who were apparently too lustful to be satisfied by their husbands, and as Walter Gallichan explains in Sex Knowledge for Men, they should seek treatment from their doctor.

“Every intelligent physician knows that conjugal life is the salvation of many women. Every specialist in the nervous and psychic disorders of women is aware that a healthy vita sexualis is the remedy for many troubles of the brain.”

#12 Let Him Step Out All He Wants

While the woman was labeled hysterical, it was fine for the husband to seek pleasures elsewhere if he desired. Men with wandering eyes and other appendages were perfectly free to roam. As Oneill says, it was considered “in a man’s nature to go searching for a new version of the girl you used to be before you bore him seven children and made the comforts of his home the envy of the neighborhood.”

In other words, they did what was expected of them by their husband and society and got shoved to the rear by a better opportunity. Not much unlike what happens today in marriage.

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