Advice on Choosing a Wife

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

In the years after 1800, books of advice and instruction began pouring off American presses. “How−to” manuals in all their various forms achieved high popularity among readers in the early nineteenth−century United States—a popularity that they retain today. William Alcott of Massachusetts—a physician who rarely practiced and a teacher who gave up the classroom for the pen—was the first American author to make a living as a writer of advice publications. In the 1830s, 40s and 50s he wrote dozens of books offering advice to mothers and fathers, young men and women, children, husbands, and wives. Alcott had many colleagues and competitors. In a rapidly changing American society an increasing number of young people faced situations—in work, courtship, health, household management, marriage or motherhood—to which their parents’ traditional experience did not apply. In the new world of the city, the commercial village, the office, the factory, the market for advice books grew. Many advice books focused on courtship and the choice of a marriage partner. Alcott’s advice in The Young Man’s Guide reflects mainstream nineteenth−century opinion in assuming a subordinate role for women in marriage.

Transcription of Primary Source

Female Qualifications for Marriage.

1. Moral Excellence.
The highest as well as noblest trait in female character, is love to God…Indeed there are very few men to be found…who do not prefer pious companions of the other sex…

2. Common Sense.
Next on the list of particular qualifications in a female, for matrimonial life, I place COMMON SENSE…By common sense, as used in this place, I mean the faculty by means of which we see things as they really are. It implies judgement and discrimination, and a proper sense in regard to the common concerns of life…It is very different from genius or talent, as they are commonly defined; but much better than either. It never blazes forth with the splendor of noon, but shines with a constant and useful light. To the housewife—but, above all, to the mother—it is indispensible…

3. Desire for Improvement.
Whatever other recommendations a lady may possess, she should have an inextinguishable thirst for improvement. No sensible person can be truly happy in the world, without this; much less qualified to make others happy. But the genuine spirit of improvement, wherever it exists, atones for the absence of many qualities which would otherwise be indispensable…with it, every thing else is rendered doubly valuable… With the fond, the ardent, the never failing desire to improve, physically, intellectually, and morally, there are few females who may not make tolerable companions for a man of sense;— without it, though a young lady were beautiful and otherwise lovely beyond comparison, wealthy as the Indies, surrounded by thousands of the most worthy friends, and even talented, let him beware!…

4. Fondness for Children.
Few traits of female character are more important than this…A dislike of children, even in men, is an unfavorable omen; in woman it is insupportable; for it is grossly unnatural…Wo[e] to the female who is doomed to drag out a miserable existence with a husband who ‘can’t bear children;’ but thrice miserable is the doom of him who has a wife and a family of children, but whose children have no mother!… No home can ever be a happy one to any of its inmates, where there is no maternal love, nor any desire for mental or moral improvement. But where these exist, in any considerable degree, and the original attachment was founded on correct principles, there is always hope of brighter days, even though clouds at present obscure the horizon. No woman who loves her husband, and desires to make continual improvement, will long consent to render those around her unhappy.

5. Love of Domestic Concerns.
Without the knowledge and the love of domestic concerns, even the wife of a peer, is but a poor affair… I am, however, addressing myself, in this work, to persons in the middle ranks of life; and here a knowledge of domestic affairs is so necessary in every wife, that the lover ought to have it continually in his eye. Not only a knowledge of these affairs—not only to know how things ought to be done, but how to do them; not only to know what ingredients ought to be put into a pie or a pudding, but to be able to make the pie or the pudding… If a young farmer or mechanic marry a girl, who has been brought up only to ‘play music;’ to draw, to sing, to waste paper, pen and ink in writing long and half romantic letters, and to see shows, and plays, and read novels—if a young man do marry such an unfortunate young creature, let him bear the consequences with temper… It is cold comfort for a hungry man, to tell him how delightfully his wife plays and sings. Lovers may live on very aerial diet, but husbands stand in need of something more solid; and young women may take my word for it, that a constantly clean table, well cooked victuals, a house in order, and a cheerful fire will do more towards preserving a husband’s heart, than all the ‘accomplishments’ taught in all the ‘establishments’ in the world without them.

6. Sobriety.
…By sobriety, I do not mean a habit which is opposed to intoxication, for if that be hateful in a man, what must it be in a woman?…By the word SOBRIETY in a young woman, I mean a great deal more than even a rigid abstinence from a love of drink…I mean sobriety of conduct. The word sober and its derivatives mean steadiness, seriousness, carefulness, scrupulous propriety of conduct . Now this kind of sobriety is of great importance in the person with whom we are to live constantly…When they [girls] are arrived at an age which turns their thoughts toward a situation for life; when they begin to think of having the command of a house, however small or poor, it is time to cast away, not the cheerfulness or the simplicity, but the levity of a child… This sobriety is a title to trustworthiness; and this, young man, is the treasure that you ought to prize above all others. Miserable is the husband who, when he crosses the threshold of his house, carries with him doubts, and fears, and suspicions. I do not mean suspicions of the fidelity of his wife; but of her care, frugality, attention to his interests, and to the health and morals of his children…He is the happy husband who can go away at a moment’s warning…no more fearing to find, on his return, any thing wrong, than he would fear a discontinuance of the rising and setting of the sun… But in order to possess this precious trustworthiness, you must, if you can, exercise your reason in the choice of your partner…

7. Industry.
Let not the individual whose eye catches the word industry, at the beginning of this division of my subject, condemn me as degrading females to the condition of mere wheels in a machine for money−making; for I mean no such thing… Still if woman is intended to be a ‘help meet,’ for the other sex, I know of no reason why she should not be so in physical concerns, as well as mental and moral…The woman who does not actually prefer action to inaction—industry to idleness—labor to ease—and who does not resolve to labor moderately as long as she lives, whatever her circumstances, is unfit for life, social or domestic…It is not for me to say, in what form her labor shall be applied, except in rearing the young… But, who is to tell whether a girl will make an industrious woman?…There are…certain rules, which, if attended to with care, will serve as pretty sure guides. And, first, if you find the tongue lazy, you may be nearly certain that the hands and feet are not very industrious...The pronunciation of an industrious person is generally quick, and distinct; the voice, if not strong, firm at the least... Another mark of industry is, a quick step, and a somewhat heavy tread, showing that the foot comes down with a hearty good will. If the body lean a little forward, and the eyes keep steadily in the same direction, while the feet are going, so much the better, for these discover earnestness to arrive at the intended point...

8. Early Rising.
Early rising
is another mark of industry…Where a living and a provision for children is to be sought by labor of some sort or other, late rising in the wife is certain ruin; and rarely will you find an early−rising wife, who had been a late−rising girl…

9. Frugality.
This means the contrary of extravagance. It does not mean stinginess; it does not mean pinching; but it means an abstaining from all unnecessary expenditure, and all unnecessary use of goods of any and of every sort. It is a quality of great importance, whether the rank in life be high or low…Some of the indications of extravagance in a lady are ear−rings, broaches, bracelets, buckles, necklaces, diamonds, (real or mock,) and nearly all the ornaments which women put upon their persons...To marry a girl of this disposition is really self−destruction. You never can have either property or peace…

10. Personal Neatness.
…There never can exist, for any length of time, ardent affection, in any man towards a woman who neglects neatness, either in her person, or in her house affairs... How much do women lose by inattention to these matters!…Beauty is valuable; it is one of the ties, and a strong one too; but it cannot last to old age; whereas the charm of cleanliness never ends but with life itself…So the most beautiful woman, if found with an uncleansed skin, is, in my estimation, the most disagreeable.

11. A Good Temper
...By ‘good temper,’ I do not mean an easy temper, a serenity which nothing disturbs; for that is a mark of laziness. Sullenness, if you be not too blind to perceive it, is a temper to be avoided by all means… Querulousness is a great fault…An everlasting complaining, without rhyme or reason, is a bad sign. It shows want of patience, and indeed, want of sense. But the contrary of this, a cold indifference, is still worse… Pertinacity is a very bad thing in anybody, and especially in a young woman; and it is sure to increase in force with the age of the party. To have the last word, is a poor triumph; but with some people it is a species of disease of the mind…A fierce disputer is a most disagreeable companion… Still, of all the faults as to temper, your melancholy ladies have the worst, unless you have the same mental disease yourself…

12. Accomplishments.
By accomplishments, I mean those things, which are usually comprehended in what is termed a useful and polite education… Mental cultivation, and even what is called polite learning…are a most valuable acquisition, and make every female, as well as all her associates, doubly happy. It is only when books, and music, and a taste for the fire arts are substituted for other and more important things, that they should be allowed to change love or respect to disgust…

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
The Young Man's Guide
263−265, 268, 273, 279−282, 288−289, 291−295, 297−298, 301−305
Fourteenth edition. Edited by Old Sturbridge Village.
Alcott, William A.
Perkins and Marvin
Place of Publication: 
Boston, Massachusetts
Old Sturbridge Village