essential that the British “restore by emigration of women that proportion between the sexes in the old country and in the newer ones.” The difficulty, he imagined, would be “chiefly mechanical. It is not easy to convey a multitude of women across the Atlantic or the Antipodes by an ordinary means…. Totransport the half million from where they are redundant to where they are wanted at an average of 30 passengers a ship would require 10,000 vessels, or at least 10,000 voyages.” (To clarify, the only transport of women out of Great Britain for reasons of marital status had occurred years earlier, when “purchase brides” had been shipped to the Virginia Colony for the “price of transport.”)

Gregg was ready for his critics. Should his scheme fall through, he had another, more practical solution for surplus waste. Under this plan, redundant women would be trained to behave like courtesans, thus attracting more men. Those too stubborn or proud to do so would, as promised, live out their miserly unadorned and childless lives as social lepers.

It should be noted that “stubborn and proud” in this situation referred at least in part to those women— educated, politically astute, or rebellious—who believed that a surplus of women existed only because nobody before had bothered to count them. Victorian men, as many saw it, lived to count, to document, to arrange and to name every detail of the physical world. This generation had drawn a map of the universe allowing for every phylum and genus; unmarried women fit no known categories.

In many ways, England offers up a textbook case history in spinsterism: A creature found in folklore and literature—the old maid—is dredged up, her traits grafted onto a segment of the female population that has become threatening—in this case, all those seemingly unwilling to wed. These women are assigned a subsecondary status and become, as a group, a cautionary icon for younger females: This Could Be You.


Early America, early New England specifically, still holds the record for extreme intolerance toward single women. For years after the Salem hysteria, Americans regarded the unwed female, whether she was outspoken or mysteriously shy, with grave suspicion. The Puritans herded women into marriage, viewing it as a holding pen within which to grow the population and keep a firm lock on those deemed potentially threatening to it. Puritan doctrine preached that a woman possessed her own soul, as opposed to a soul meshed with her husband’s. She would be judged alone for her acts in this life, and it was her husband’s responsibility to be sure she remained true to God and that she behaved chastely for the greater good of the community. It was a job that required close scrutiny.

Throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, an unwed Boston woman of twenty-three was labeled a “spinster”; at twenty-six she plunged into the leprous zone of the “thornback,” a name derived from an ugly spiny-backed fish. If a thornback belonged to no family—and life spans were so short, many girls at twenty-six were on their own—then she needed to seek out a well-respected, churchgoing male whose wife was schooled in female piety. She would live with them, doing chores and, like a moral orphan, studying Bible and proper conduct. She would never leave the property unless escorted by an adult family member or a male of good repute.

To quote a Boston bookseller, circa 1788, who’d seen his share of thornbacks: “Nothing can exceed it and [it is] look’d on as a dismal spectacle.”

Outside New England there seem to have been few such complications. One British traveler, Nicholas Crestell, called late-eighteenth-century America “a paradise on earth for women.” Excluding Massachusetts, a place with three times the usual number of spinsters, the colonial life was “luck incarnated.” Crestell wrote home: “That great curiousity the Old Maid, the most calamitous creature in nature, is seldom seen in this country.” So rare was this creature that she was called, so Crestell wrote, an “ancient maid.”

The phenomenon of the ancient maid was due largely to the “westward trek,” the monumental task of fulfilling America’s manifest destiny. Now here was a mighty concept that appealed to many men and drew thousands away from New England. As one historian would later put it: “Wives were as scarce in Idaho as husbands were in New England.”

Put another way, very few unwed New England women were inclined to trek after men into the wilderness. The self-educated spinster, in particular, understood just what was in store for her “out there.” At least one in twenty-five pioneer wives died in childbirth, and they were quickly replaced—the farms had to run; more children were needed to work the farms—and these next women, if they died, were quickly replaced and often replaced again.[2]

Back in the East, spinsters were evolving an early singular culture, based in friendships, books, teaching jobs, and tea parties that begin to suggest parlor scenes out of Henry James’s The Bostonians. Officials were quick to reassure the city’s men (of course some had stayed behind) and safely married women that these “other” women represented an aberration. To quote from an issue of the Farmer’s Almanac, 1869, “They’ve been left behind, as they are always left behind, and as they have diminished resources… they become diminished goods.” One very literal example: reputable Boston doctors began to report that spinsters were likely to develop shriveled ovaries, a natural occurrence, it seemed, if one did not make good use of them early on. (Sperm, God-blessed, was safe.) The 1855 census confirmed that the aberration was far more widespread than suspected: There was a surplus of forty-five thousand females in the New England states. Rather than ship them off to Canada—the Massachusetts governor’s initial declaration—politicians, essayists, and concerned married women decided it was time to clarify just what it was a spinster might do, and what natural restrictions could be applied to her actions.

This first public etiquette for American spinsters called for a muted surrender, as if a spiritual hysterectomy had been performed, leaving behind as scars an insecurity and chronic melancholia. [3] Typically spinsters helped with the chores at home and moved between the homes of married siblings who needed help. And as in England, they hired themselves out as paid companions, tutors, schoolteachers or assistants, and seamstresses. Within the household, even if this was her original family household, she was made to seem unimportant and childlike—for a woman’s adult life began at marriage—and she was expected to keep herself well occupied and out of the way. One force-fed book, The Afternoon of Unmarried Life (1858), suggested that the maiden female not engage in any taxing physical activity, including walks, unless they were limited to the periphery of one’s property. The poor thing might wander off and happen upon a preacher, some itinerant revivalist who might excite her, and as this and other manuals explained, these women, naifs, were prone to outbursts of ecstatic piety. “She must never risk to be made enthusiastic by religious fervour… or agitated,” warned the author, hinting obliquely at sexual arousal. But an “industrious, independent, cheerful” spinster (the words of a bishop) need not be treated like a neutered pet (my own). She made an excellent companion for aging parents; in short, she was like a walking retirement benefit.

Of course “spinsters,” having perfected this meager act, still hoped for future union—whether with like friends or, still, yes, perhaps a man. Consider this excerpt from an 1867 “storiette” (a very short story, usually romantic, published in early magazines and compilations). In this one, a thirty-eight-year-old woman awaits the arrival of a man she was once engaged to, a man who went off to find fortune and has now returned. Here she is before her looking glass:

“A lavendar gown,” said Miss Cambron, with a stiff and critical survey of herself in the glass… quite suited to thirty eight; some lines about the mouth and eyes; a mere ghost of color… a look not specifically young. He won’t come again! He’ll want some little blue eyes—with pink cheeks and a coral necklace! It’s not his fault [still] she stood at her mirror contrasting the image it gave her with another from the deepening glass of her memory—that of a young girl.

She goes on at some length about her lack of “bloom,” the rosy-colored cheeks that define a woman as happy and young. (The concept of “bloom” figures heavily into many nineteenth-century spinster novels; in Jane Austen’s Persuasion it is mentioned twenty-one times.) Once it goes, the skin is pallid, symbolizing inevitable and rapid decay.

But it is important now to pause and state that not all women shared this belief in slow evisceration or found it at all relevant to their futures.

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