I was recently rather amused by a chapter in an 18th-century advice manual for women, entitled ‘On being over-fond of animals’. This anti-pet diatribe comes from a 1756 publication called The Wife, which also features charmingly-named chapters such as ‘The danger of living in the same house with any Relation of the Husband’s’, ‘Sleeping in different Beds’, and ‘The great indiscretion of taking too much notice of the unmeaning, or transient gallantries of a Husband’.
‘On being over-fond of animals’ rails against what the author sees as the excessive fondness of well-to-do women for their pets.
‘Among all the various foibles of which the softer sex are but too justly accus’d, I know of none more preposterous than the immoderate fondness shewn to monkeys, dogs, and other animals; – creatures which were not made to be caress’d, and have no higher claim from nature than barely not to be abus’d or mercilessly treated.
‘Yet the privileges, the immunities, the indulgences which they enjoy under some mistresses, are such as are far from being granted to servants of the human species – a monkey may tear to pieces a fine brussels [lace] head-dress, and be prais’d for his wit, while the poor chamber-maid has a slap on the face, is call’d oaf, awkward monster, and a thousand such like names, if not turn’d out of door [fired], only for having stuck a pin awry, or misplacing a curl’.
Not least among the pet-owning woman’s enormities is the fact that her pet will prevent her from fulfilling the wifely duty of listening to her husband:
‘But in how odd a light must the husband of that woman appear, who, while he is entertaining her perhaps on some important affairs, instead of answering him, is all the time playing with her lap-dog, and after he has been talking for half an hour altogether, cries out, ‘What did you say, my dear – I protest I did not hear you’ – on which he is oblig’d to repeat all he has been speaking, and ’tis very likely with as little success as before’.
Worst of all, the author disapproves of a pet sharing the marital bed, recounting an anecdote which implies that a wife’s insistence on co-sleeping with a beloved pet will inevitably lead to adultery on the part of the husband.
‘…he made many remonstrances to his lady on the inconvenience of lying three in a bed; but all he could urge on that subject was ineffectual, she would not consent to be separated one moment from her dear [dog]; on which he resolved to sleep in another chamber, and accordingly did so, where, ’tis more than whisper’d, he prevail’d on the chamber-maid to supply her lady’s place’.
Marriages for money, although they had been criticised on moral and practical grounds for centuries, were still very common in eighteenth-century European society, particularly among the wealthy and landed classes. Even in Jane Austen’s supposedly romantic novels, money is always a consideration when deciding whom to marry, to the point that some of her characters contract entirely loveless matches in order to escape the horrors of penurious spinsterhood.
Mercenary marriages were, however, bound to continue so long as ladies were financially dependent on men and so long as gentlemen, idle or otherwise, felt that their present income was not enough to fulfill their social ambitions. Marrying a wealthy woman was simply one of the easiest ways for cash-strapped gentlemen to indulge their expensive tastes, given that in almost all cases the wife’s money would become her husband’s to spend as he wished. This matrimonial strategy was particularly necessary for the younger sons of peers and landowners, as they were often financially short-changed by the inheritance system which favoured older brothers. Marrying an heiress might have seemed more palatable than a career in the law, the military or the Church, which were the standard options for men in their position.
Yet how were men supposed to work out how much money a potential wife really had? There was, after all, no point in wasting time and effort courting a lady who might turn out to have little or nothing to her name. Word of mouth on this matter could be unreliable. In fact, the plots of not a few contemporary novels turn on the realisation that a lady has less money than her suitor believed, thus placing the match in jeopardy (see, for instance, Catherine and the younger Tilney brother in Austen’s Northanger Abbey).
But lo! help was at hand to save fortune-hunting men from confusion and misery, in the shape of a 1742 pamphlet entitled A master-key to the rich ladies treasury. Or, the widower and batchelor’s directory. Compiled by a Mr B. M–n (who, tellingly, signs himself as “a younger brother”), its purpose is made abundantly clear in the prefatory address ‘To all Widowers and Batchelors’:
“There are undeniably several Widowers, but many more Batchelors in the perplexed Situation [of finding a wife]; some want Acquaintance among the Ladies, others want Introduction; and hence it is that the poor Maidens themselves often sympathise; for I make no Manner of doubt, but Numbers are willing to meet either Widower or Batchelor half Way; now could any Method have been found more expedient to remove these Stumbling-blocks in the Road to Fortune and Matrimony than the following? […]
“Thus Gentlemen, have I in the following sheets I think, opened a fair Field for Action for you; a fine Choice, and a fine Collection of Ladies; – Open the Campaign directly then yourselves, that my next [publication] may be a new Sett. I heartily wish you all Success”.
This handy document is essentially a list of the wealthiest women in Britain, listing their names, places of abode, reputed fortunes and the amount they had in the stocks. The main body of the text is charmingly divided into ‘widows’ and ‘spinsters’, the latter category covering young unmarried women as well as old ladies. Many distinguished family names are to be seen in the lists – Byron, Cecil, Cavendish, Howard, Seymour, Walpole, Grosvenor and Curzon, among others. Even the Prime Minister’s daughter, Maria Walpole, is listed; her address is given as Downing Street, and her reputed fortune as £80,000 (circa £7,000,000 in today’s money).
Most fortunes in this list are in the thousands to tens of thousands of pounds, with the exception of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, to whom the author assigns a reputed fortune of ‘Millions’ – an absolutely staggering amount of money at the time. Incidentally, this would have been referring to the first Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, who was 82 years old at the time this pamphlet was published. Not a conquest for the fainthearted, then.
In the case of there being more than one daughter, aristocratic sisters are listed separately. For commoners, the author merely inserts the number of sisters beside the family name to indicate that an address contains multiple marital targets. Thus we see the Misses Mabbott of Ormond Street, who had £15,000 apiece, listed simply as ‘Mabbott (2)’. Picking a family with many daughters might increase the odds of finding a beauty among them, but these young ladies were also less attractive to fortune-hunters as the parental inheritance was generally spread more thinly. Witness for instance the eight Misses Barker of Chiswick, or the seven Corbett sisters living in Mayfair, each of whom had the misfortune to come with only £5,000, as opposed to some of their contemporaries with tens of thousands of pounds. Indeed, having a large number of daughters posed quite a financial problem for all but the wealthiest parents, as each young lady was expected to provide a dowry and perhaps be entitled to some inheritance upon the deaths of her dear mamma and papa. Their families often got little in return, unless they managed to contract politically or socially useful alliances.
One might think, faced with all this, that A master-key is a cynical, even callous production, aiming shamelessly at the financial and emotional exploitation of women. While this is true, its author was at least more honest about the sordid material concerns which lay behind many contemporary marriages than the many sentimental novels of the time.
It’s often said that World War Two was liberating for women in Britain and North America because the shortage of manpower allowed them to take on work traditionally performed by men. Whilst this is true to an extent, it shouldn’t be assumed that the prevailing views of gender roles and characteristics, which put men and women into very different spheres, just disappeared. During, before and after the war, women in the workplace were often seen as ‘different’ and consequently patronised. We can clearly see this in a guide published in the July 1943 issue of Transportation magazine, which provides advice for male employers on how to manage their female employees. You can find blurry scans of the original article here, but I have copied out the entire text and added several photographs which show American women at work from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, women who were quite possibly treated in the way the article suggests.
ELEVEN HELPFUL TIPS ON GETTING MORE EFFICIENCY OUT OF WOMEN EMPLOYEES
There’s no longer any question whether transit companies should hire women for jobs formerly held by men. The draft and manpower shortage has settled that point. The important things now are to select the most efficient women available and how to use them to the best advantage. Here are eleven helpful tips on the subject from Western Properties:
1. Pick young married women. They usually have more of a sense of responsibility than their unmarried sisters, they’re less likely to be flirtatious, they need the work or they wouldn’t be doing it, they still have the pep and interest to work hard and deal with the public efficiently.
2. When you have to use older women, try to get ones who have worked outside the home at some time in their lives. Older women who have never contacted the public have a hard time adapting themselves and are inclined to be cantankerous and fussy. It’s always well to impress upon older women the importance of friendliness and courtesy.
3. General experience indicates that “husky” girls – those who are just a little on the heavy side – are more even tempered and efficient than their underweight sisters.
4. Retain a physician to give each woman you hire a special physical examination – one covering female conditions. This step not only protects the property against the possibilities of lawsuit, but reveals whether the employee-to-be has any female weaknesses which would make her mentally or physically unfit for the job.
5. Stress at the outset the importance of time, the fact that a minute or two lost here and there makes serious inroads on schedules. Until this point is gotten across, service is likely to be slowed up. 6. Give the female employees a definite day-long schedule of duties so that they’ll keep busy without bothering the management for instructions every few minutes. Numerous properties say that women make excellent workers when they have their jobs cut out for them, but that they lack initiative in finding work themselves.
7. Whenever possible, let the inside employee change from one job to another at some point during the day. Women are inclined to be less nervous and happier with change.
8. Give every girl an adequate number of rest periods during the day. You have to make some allowances for feminine psychology. A girl has more confidence and is more efficient if she can keep her hair tidied, apply fresh lipstick and wash her hands several times a day.
9. Be tactful when issuing instructions or in making criticism. Women are often sensitive; they can’t shrug off harsh words the way men do. Never ridicule a woman – it breaks her spirit and cuts off her efficiency.
10. Be reasonably considerate about using strong language around women. Even though a girl’s husband or father may swear vociferously, she’ll grow to dislike a place of a business where she hears too much of this.
11. Get enough size variety in operator’s uniforms so that each girl can have a proper fit. This point can’t be stressed too much in keeping women happy.