Choosing a Husband

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. 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. The anonymous author of The Daughter’s Own Book may or may not have actually been a father, but the book’s advice reflects widely held nineteenth−century beliefs about marriage.

Transcription of Primary Source

The event of marriage marks an important era in the life of a young female. It introduces her to some new and most interesting relations. It devolves upon her a set of cares, and duties, and responsibilities, to which she has hitherto been unaccustomed. It usually lays the foundation for increased happiness, or for bitter, and enduring, and unavailing regrets. I begin my advice to you on this subject, by suggesting a caution against forming this connection prematurely…The consequence of this is, that she is only imperfectly educated, and not unfrequently, is subjected through life, by her deficiencies, to serious inconvenience and mortification. She enters the conjugal state miserably qualified to sustain its responsibilities…I advise you, therefore, as you value your prospects of happiness for life, that you leave all matrimonial arrangements to a period subsequent to the completion of your education…

Another evil which you should avoid…is that of forming this relation, or pledging yourself to it, without due deliberation…Bear in mind that the decision which you form on this subject is to affect vitally your interests for life; and not only yours but at least those of one other individual… Another point of great importance, connected with this subject, is the character of the man with whom you are to be united. There are some qualities which may be desirable enough, but are not indispensable: there are others which should be regarded as absolutely requisite, and the opposites of which as absolutely disqualifying for this connection.

I regard fortune as it stands related to the marriage of a young lady, in nearly the same light as family. Great riches are desirable only as a means of doing good…It is certainly desirable that there should be a competence* on one side or the other; so much as to furnish adequate means, in connection with the avails of some honest and honourable calling, for the support of a family; but within this limit any lady may reasonably circumscribe her wishes.

Do not marry a fop*. There is in such a character nothing of true dignity; nothing that commands respect, or ensures even a decent standing in the community. There is a mark upon him, an affected elegance of manner, a studied particularity of dress and usually a singular inanity of mind…To unite your destiny with such a man, I hardly need say, would be to impress the seal of disgrace upon your character, and the seal of wretchedness upon your doom.

Do not marry a spend thrift. No, not if he have ever so extensive a fortune; for no degree of wealth can secure such a man from the degradation of poverty… Do not marry a miser. Such a man may be rich, very rich, but you could expect from his riches little else than misery…

Do not marry a man whose age is greatly disproportioned to your own…I am constrained to say that such connections present, at least to my own eye, a violation of good taste, and seem contrary to the dictates of nature…There must needs be in many respects an entire lack of congeniality between them. He has the habits and feelings of age, she the vivacity and buoyancy of youth; and it were impossible that this wide difference should not sooner or later be painfully felt…

Do not marry a man who is not industrious in some honourable vocation. It is bad for any individual to be without some set employment: the effect of it is very apt to be, that he abuses his talents, perverts his time to unworthy purposes, and contracts a habit of living to little purpose but that of selfish gratification…A habit of industry once formed is not likely to be ever lost…Moreover, it will impart to his character an energy and efficiency, which can hardly fail to render him an object of respect…

Do not marry a man of an irritable, violent, or overbearing temper. There is nothing with which domestic enjoyment is more intimately connected, than a naturally amiable and affectionate disposition; and the absence of this is sure to render a delicate and sensitive female, in no small degree, unhappy.

Do not marry a man who is deficient in understanding, or in mental acquisitions. I do not mean that you should look for an intellect of the highest order, or that you should consider yourself entitled to it; but I mean that a woman of decent intelligence can never be happy with a fool… Do not marry a man of questionable morality. However correct may be his moral and religious opinions, if he be addicted to only a single species of vice, you have no security that he will not sink into the vortex of profligacy…

Having said thus much in relation to what should be avoided, and what should be desired, in the character of a husband, I shall close this chapter with a few brief directions in respect to your conduct previously and subsequently to your forming an engagement.

If a gentleman address you on the subject of marriage…it is proper that you make his proposal a subject of immediate and serious consideration. In ordinary cases, it is unnecessary to ask the advice of any besides your parents. It is due to filial respect that they should be consulted; and as they are most deeply interested in your happiness, you could not fail to regard their opinion with suitable deference. The two great questions which you have to decided in order to form your ultimate conclusion, are, whether, on the whole, you are satisfied with his character, and whether you are susceptible of that degree of affection for him which will justify this connection…

If it be that you decline his proposals, make it known to him in a manner which will least wound his sensibility, and let the secret of his having addressed you never pass your lips…

If, on the other hand, the result be that you accept his proposals, modestly and affectionately inform him of it, and from that period consider yourself sacredly bound through every vicissitude* to become his wife.


  • competency − sufficient means for the necessities and conveniences of life
  • fop − a man who is very concerned with his appearance and clothes
  • vicissitude − difficulty or hardship

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
The Daughter’s Own Book
144−145, 156−159
Edited by Old Sturbridge Village. Copyright Old Sturbridge Village.
A Father to His Daughter
Lilly, Wait, Colman, and Holden
Place of Publication: 
Boston, Massachusetts
Old Sturbridge Village