The Scandal of Spinsterhood (Snippets 41)


A painting of Wapping by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, from the early 1860s.

In 1726 a series of unusual books were published, titled The British Apollo, which contained ‘two thousand answers to curious questions in most arts and sciences, serious, comical, and humorous, approved of by many of the most learned and ingenious of both universities, and of the Royal-Society’.  The text takes the form of questions and answers on an enormous variety of topics.  In Volume 3, one in particular caught my eye, as it is such a sad reflection of the discrimination against unmarried women of a certain age at the time, cruelly known as ‘old maids’.

Q. I have had the hard fate and misfortune to enter into the list of old maids, and consequently to be slighted and despised by all. They say our very looks and qualities differ from the rest of womankind; pray, gentlemen, inform me what is the cause of this change, and whether marriage now I am grown so stale, would have any effect upon me? But alas! I need not talk of that, for I am almost in despair of a husband. Therefore good Mr. Apollo, you that know all things, pray put me in a way, for in short, I wou’d do any things to be rid of the scandal of an old maid.

A. It is no wonder if crosses, vexations, teasings and disappointments, shou’d alter the looks and qualities of a person: The only remedy we can propose to your forlorn condition, is that you immediately take a lodging at Wapping, and wait the arrival of a West or East-India fleet; and if there be any compassion left in humane nature for the most obsolete of your sex, you are most likely to find it amongst the tars, after their long lent.

So the only advice offered was basically: go and find a sailor.  Attitudes changed over the years, and by the 19th century it was not quite so ‘scandalous’ to remain single, and it was considered a little more sensible to wait for the right person than marry in haste for reasons other than love.  However, opinions have always been mixed, and there is little doubt that a certain degree of social stigma remains to this day.  In an attempt to combat this, the term ‘spinster’ was abolished for registrations of marriages in England and Wales in 2005, with previous marital status listed simply as ‘single’ from that point onwards.

Coming soon on Windows into History: a series of Christmas History articles.  There is not quite enough time before the end of this month to cover another travel journal in sufficient depth, so there will instead be a few more ‘snippet’ articles for the rest of November.  If you would like to be kept informed of new posts on Windows into History, please click the ‘follow’ button on the right of the screen.


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5 Responses to The Scandal of Spinsterhood (Snippets 41)

  1. I like that painting. Almost Renoir!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Of course, there is still the problem that women “of a certain age” effectively become invisible, married or single.

    Liked by 1 person

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