13 Tips for Landing a Wife (in the 19th Century)

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The advice books written around the turn of the 20th century to teach women to make men happy are plentiful. Advice books in the same vein for men are rare.

But in 1883, a Methodist minister named George W. Hudson wrote one such "advice for men" book—The Marriage Guide for Young Men: A Manual of Courtship and Marriage. It was self-published, perhaps due to perceived lack of interest in marriage manuals for men. Or maybe because traditional publishers couldn’t handle all the hard-core truth the Reverend was going to throw down.

1. DO: Make sure your intended has a lusciously bulbous head. It’s key to sexual endowment.

Oh, bless the Reverend. He wasn’t a crackpot. In the mid-19th century, phrenology was a respectable pseudo-science practiced by many physicians.

Whenever you see a woman with a good, full, round back head, combined with a good front, you may be sure that she is capable of giving a good degree of energy and pluck to her children; and better still, that full back head denotes that she is well sexed, capable of loving husband and children devotedly, and capable of giving her children a good sexual endowment.

"Whenever you find such a woman," Hudson advised, "even though she may be somewhat in the rough, you can afford to take her for the sake of your children."

2. DON'T: Marry into a family of hucksters who will try to evade arrest at your speaking engagements.

A year before the good Reverend Hudson published this book, he was hosting a revival in Maine. At some point during this session, the story goes, the Reverend returned to his cabin to find his brother-in-law, John A. Gardener, holed up on the run from the law. Some shady land deals in Minnesota had gone sour, and Gardener had fled to the most respectable family member he had.

The cabin was directly raided and his wife’s brother taken to prison. All of which was no doubt very exciting for the hundreds who had turned out to hear the famous moral leader speak. This account was found in newspapers of the day, but is not directly mentioned in Hudson’s book. Directly:

 If they are of such character as to shame you, it will be very unpleasant for you. You might move away from them, and have no intercourse with them. You might get so far away from them that the people about you would not know anything of the family into which you had married.

Not that that’s going to help you once the heat is closing in on them. They’ll still find you. And your wife will likely refuse to be sensible about tossing the blaggart into the gutter.

 But it is not likely that your wife would consent thus to give up her people. In that case they would be a constant grievance, and would undoubtedly lead to unpleasant relations between you. 

3. DO: Look for a girl who can haul things. Large hands can be an acceptable fault. Brains … ehh.

You need a woman of charm and intelligence, big bosom and sturdy head-girth. She should also be able to pull a plow should the occasion call for it:

Choose for your wife a woman with full bust and good round limbs, as well as a good, large, well-proportioned head—one who can run and walk and lift a good load. ... What if her waist be a little large, and her hands too? This is a good fault in a woman who is to become a mother.

"Brain is a good thing," Hudson concludes, "but without body it is a useless engine."

4. DON'T: Marry a cranky lady.

Chatty? Opinionated? Sarcastic? Red light, young man. She’s death and the devil wrapped up into a corset and crinoline. "Beware of a young woman of perverse disposition," Hudson writes:

[S]hun as you would shun death the woman who never agrees with anybody, and who never has a good word for anybody. ... True, you cannot always tell by appearances, for Satan often "appears as an angel of light"; but with a little care you can usually determine pretty accurately.

5. DO: Remember that sex is the most disgusting freakish thing that has ever happened to her.

Reverend Hudson was comfortably ensconced in Victoriana when he wrote this book. It was a time when women’s natural sexual appetites were not easily understood or acknowledged. The idea of a woman happily entering her marriage bed just wasn’t even on the table. So the next best thing (since sexually pleasing her was a myth propagated by whores and charlatans) was to patiently understand her revulsion.

She may seem slow to accord to you the privileges of married life, but defer to her will; do nothing rashly. It will be quite a shock to feminine modesty when she, a pure-minded maiden, shall be called upon to lie down in the same bed with a man. It will seem repulsive at first, because she will feel that that lying down robs her of her feminine prerogative, and puts her person in the power of another.

6. DON'T: Punt her.

It is a fact that woman is largely in your power. She was given to be yours. The idea prevails unfortunately, that woman's virtue is man's lawful prey—that he has a perfect right to make woman the football of his lust whenever he can. 

Football of his lust. Try as I might I cannot form a mental picture that does that sentence justice. Maybe he’s talking about soccer? Would it make more sense if it were soccer?

7. DO: Stay married and pretend to be happy.   

Divorce is almost always a trauma; in the 19th century, it was a public ordeal of shame and misery. You had to prove grounds in court, which the whole neighborhood could turn out to hear. Your wife would be all but a fallen woman. So the Reverend counseled restraint:

Command your affections steadfastly to their lawful object; you can if you will, no matter how unfortunate your married life may prove. Better that you do so, and live in a perfect purgatory, than that you incur the awful disgrace and ruin resulting from the desertion of your wife.

Maybe restraint isn’t the right word. Bloody, whip-torn martyrdom. Yes, that’s better.

 Be a martyr for your own sake, if nothing else; let the world know just as little about your wretchedness as possible; put on, in society, a cheerful exterior, though domestic unhappiness should be feeding upon your very vitals. Better that, than a home broken up, and two, or perhaps a half-dozen lives blighted forever.

8. DON'T: Marry a Woman of “Degenerate Stock.”

Nowadays the word “eugenics” has all sorts of discomforting connotations. In Hudson’s day—well, it was still a pretty ugly subject. But without good medical care or reliable aid to the needy, maybe a person could believe that declaring a woman with asthma a selfish monster to marry and become a mother was logical? I mean, I get pretty mad when the printer keeps mindlessly pumping out copies even though it’s mostly out of ink. It must have felt like that.

Why should men with good mental endowment, good physique, good lungs and sound in every part, marry poor, sickly, weak-minded, consumptive, scrofulous women, and bring into the world families of children doomed either to sink into premature graves or drag out a sickly, whining existence? 

9. DO: Let the sick marry each other and keep their creepiness contained.

"It is hard to say to the diseased and infirm that they ought not to marry," Hudson mused. "But what right have they to bring into the world a poor, weak offspring to drag out a miserable existence, or die prematurely?"

How about this, then? Freaks can marry, but only other freaks. Their offspring will surely die young and then everyone wins:

At least you have no right, if endowed by nature with health and vigor, to squander it by marrying one incapable of bequeathing it to your children. If the diseased must marry, let them intermarry, and thus shut up those fearful maladies, now preying upon our race, within the narrowest possible limits.

10. DON'T: Marry someone just because she's “nice.”

"Keep an eye to the natural qualifications of your wife," Hudson counseled. The Reverend didn’t think women were interchangeable, but he did believe compatibility was important, as well as charm and abilities. “Goodness” was an empty word:

These have a strong bearing upon your welfare. You do not want any woman simply because she is good. Many good people have very little force of character, very little ability.

Because, after all, "Sometimes 'goodness' is only another name for imbecility."

11. DO: Make sure she can cook before you propose.

"You want, first of all, a woman who knows how to manage a household," Hudson wrote. "This is almost indispensable to your personal comfort and happiness." Considering the era, that wasn’t too much to ask for, was it? Besides, a young wife could certainly learn what she hadn’t yet experienced. Right? Not so fast, Hudson warns:

You will find many who say they can learn: you may be inclined to try one of them. But suppose she should not learn! It is running considerable risk. Think of that fearful period of learning, during which your stomach must be made the receptacle for all sorts of messes, and your home remain in a chaotic state! You may die of dyspepsia, or go mad before she succeeds.

Don’t sacrifice your stomach and sanity on the altar of her ignorance. Just because a girl has never run a household doesn’t mean she shouldn’t know how to run a household.

12. DON'T: Marry an Old Lady.

A man should never marry a woman who is his senior. You will have no inclination, I trust, to do anything of the kind.

13. DO: Keep at it till you’ve broken her into the Harness of Passion.

Sometimes it’s something as simple as a word choice that really let us peek into other people’s minds. Their unsavory, creepy minds:

Beside being the universal aggressor, he (man) is obliged, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases in every thousand, to break her into the harness of passion, by dint of both stratagem and perseverance. When thus broken in, she often pays him in his own coin.

In fairness, between these lines of baffling advice, Reverend Hudson included many more lines that were sound. He did counsel kindness, respect, and fortitude along with phrenology, eugenics, and sex-harnessing.

Picking and living with a wife in a world of restrictive formality was a difficult chore, fraught with deception and confusion. Every time you met the girl you like, until about a month after your wedding, you would see only her Sunday-best self. Anything less would make her a slattern by the era’s standards. Reverend Hudson knew how tricky women could be, even the virtuous ones. He intended that his plain spoken words, however unsettling to modern ears, would help a young man find a wife worth harnessing.

All images courtesy of Getty Images.

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