The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

All the Single Ladies: Deliberate Spinsterhood in the 19th Century

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, I thought I'd take a closer look at some letters related to courtship and marriage that recently caught my eye. The Fay-Mixter family papers at the MHS include correspondence by the very witty Maria Denny Fay (1820-1890) of Cambridge, Massachusetts. In a letter to her brother Joseph Story Fay on 15 Nov. 1846, Maria began by discussing their mother's health and the recent death of Salem merchant Dudley Leavitt Pickman. Speculation about the marriage prospects of Pickman's children, Eliza and Dudley, prompted Maria to remark:

I agree with you in thinking it desirable for every body to be married, and I should be the first to set the example if I were not an only daughter as it were, and if I was not assured that having been created entire, I need not expect a better or worse half.

Maria Denny Fay was the sixth of seven children of Samuel P. P. and Harriet (Howard) Fay. She did, in fact, have two sisters, but all of her siblings were married by this time, and Maria was the last still living at home. Was it solicitude for her parents that compelled her to stay single? It's impossible to say for sure, but her breezy dismissal of matrimony (and not-so-subtle dig at married couples) suggests a deliberate choice. At 26, she was, by all accounts, attractive and accomplished, and she must have been under some pressure to find a suitable husband. But she had other priorities. Her mother Harriet had written to Joseph the previous year about Maria's romantic apathy:

Maria has her new piano which is a source of endless pleasure to her, and she is also very much engaged in the study of the german language. She therefore stays at home, goes to no parties, and enjoys her music and study more than the conversation of beaux.

The less generous among us may wonder if she lacked for offers. Apparently this was very far from the case. Just three months after Maria's letter, her mother passed along this juicy gossip:

We have had a little variation to our domestic affairs by a love affair of Maria, except, as is always the case with her, the love was all on the other side. I mention the circumstance lest you should think her remaining single was on the principle of “sour grapes.” The case in question would offer a most unexceptable [i.e., unobjectionable] connexion, if she had the least disposition to marry. The gentleman is a resident in Cambridge, of suitable age, a scientific man and is one of the most prominent literary men of the day, has sufficient property and a good income, has urged his suit with great zeal, and renewed his offer after an interval of several days, in the hope to gain her consent. But she is very decided, and declined giving him any encouragement. I do not mention his name, because his conduct was very honorable and frank, and it would therefore be wrong to expose him to the mortification of having it known that he [has] been refused.[...] I presume there is not another lady in Cambridge would have refused so eligible an offer. Maria has no wish to marry and therefore a man must have great attractions to win her heart.

Who was the disappointed suitor? I wasn't able to identify him, but I hope Maria let him down easy!

Maria's cheerful and confident self-sufficiency is very refreshing. Not exactly “conscious uncoupling,” but maybe “conscious never-coupling”? I found no sign of resignation, despair, or loneliness in her letters. The 19th-century author Catharine Maria Sedgwick wrote in her novel Hope Leslie (1827), “Marriage is not essential to the contentment, the dignity, or the happiness of woman.” Sedgwick was not only one of the most popular authors in America during the first half of Maria's life, but also another “spinster.” The MHS holds an extensive collection of Sedgwick's papers, including a large amount of correspondence devoted to her ideas on marriage and “maidenly independence.”

As a child, Maria Denny Fay had been educated at the Ursuline convent in Charlestown before it was burned in 1834. As an adult, she traveled widely, eventually returning to Cambridge and living in the family home, known as Fay House. This became the first building owned by Radcliffe College when Maria sold it to the school in 1885. A scholarship was also endowed in her name after her death.

Here's to Maria Denny Fay, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Esther Howland (“Mother of the Valentine”), and all of the other “singular” ladies of the 19th century on this Valentine's Day.


permalink | Published: Wednesday, 11 February, 2015, 11:03 AM


Feb 14, 2015, 10:00 am

Roberta Marchi

I can well imagine that despite the enormous pressure on single young women to marry in the 18th and 19th centuries, many must have harbored enormous anxieties about the prospect. In addition to the very real pain and peril of early death in childbirth faced by women of all classes, there was also the risk of giving up all one's earthly possessions including one's physical self, to the control of a mate who might well turn out to be a sloth, drunkard, gambler, abuser or other form of blackhearted character.

If one was born into a happy and economically comfortable family situation, it might have seemed much more desirable to remain single and in control of one's own fate if a woman looked at all the negative possibilities inherent in matrimony despite the strong emotional and societal pressures put upon women to marry in those times, as evidenced by her mother's writings. It took a strong and independent will to stand up to these cultural biases. Good for Maria. I hope she had a happy and fulfilling life.

Feb 18, 2015, 3:52 am

Barb B.

Susan B. Anthony was also single by choice, despite several offers of marriage. She chose her life's work over becoming a 'Mrs.' She knew single women lost all of the very few rights they had once married. She also knew there was no birth control. These were sacrifices she consciously made in order to work literally all her life for abolition of slavery, temperance, & of course women's rights, specifically suffrage. "Aunt Susan" she became, but not a wife. :-

Commenting has closed for this post. Thank you for participating.