So you want to get married? by Mel Robertson
Now that 'Spring has Sprung' and "Summer is icumen in" several traditional things are said to happen. The Bible tells us that "The voice of the turtle is heard in the land", an early English poet states that "Lhude sings cucu" and Tennyson suggests that a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love". However, since neither turtles nor turtle-doves seem to be saying much these days and the only cuckoo is in my clock, we are left with "young men's fancies (or in our day of sexual equality -young people's fancies).
Young people contemplating marriage in the latter part of the 20th century tend to consult clergymen, marriage counselors, pop-singers or "How-to-do-it" books before taking the step. If this approach is successful depends upon one's attitude toward modern morality, as well as birth and divorce rates. Personally, I pass no judgement one way or another. However, it may be interesting to note how young people of only 80 years ago went about preparing for marriage.
To begin with, people 80 years ago had an entirely different attitude toward love and marriage. Getting married then was not regarded as "role-playing" or something that could be made successful by studying explicit pictures or getting "do-it-yourself" kits. People thought of marriage as the natural thing to do and as something that . just happened without much instruction from parents or anyone else. "Natural ignorance" was considered to be a "Tender flower" that should be cherished in an atmosphere of romantic idealism. As a result, there were no marriage counselors or courses on married happiness. What marriage information there was tended to be a combination of idealism, romanticism and fantasy with a bit of common sense and gossip thrown in here and there.
The chief source of many types of information in 1900 was "The Doctor Book". These were huge volumes of information on everything from the diagnosis of every known disease to recipes for cleaning pigeon droppings from silk hats. "Doctor's Books" were valuable adjuncts to family life 80 years ago as long as they stuck to problems of health but when they embarked into the area of love, marriage and child-rearing, the authors, like so many authors of the time, felt duty-bound to 'improve' the minds of their readers.
One popular 'Doctor Book' of the early 1900s was "The New Vitalogy" which was published in the United States by a couple of
physicians who described their work as "An encyclopaedia of medical knowledge". This book was very popular in the Burford area and no doubt some sections are still in use. The book encompassed 947 pages and covered everything from "Adulteration of Food" to "Young Men and Alcohol". It is full of common sense answers to many medical problems. However, as soon as it enters the field of love, marriage, etc., good sense flies out the window.
In choosing husbands and wives 80 years ago, "The New Vitalogy" based its criteria on the Bertillon System of identifying criminals. This system declared that criminals could be identified by measurements of the human body and certain facial or body features. Consequently, girls were warned against "restless" men, men whose eyes were close together, men with receding foreheads or chins, men with a short space between nose and lip and men who were heavy-jawed under the ears. Such men, the book warned, would fail as businessmen or if labourer "were prone to go on strike". Men with "slouchy" postures and gaits were thought to be unreliable while men with lank hair, shaking hands, pale faces and shifty eyes were condemned as victims of "vile practices" who not only would make poor husbands but also were doomed to become inmates of "insane asylums".
For their part, men were warned against women with flat chests "as such women are only interested in clothes", women "with crisp wavy hair" were thought to be "generally obstinate" and "women who hand_ around millinery shops and dry-goods stores" were branded as "skittish". Great stress was placed on the identification of "Man Haters" who, the book claimed, were out to marry men in order to make their lives miserable. Mothers and sisters were urged to be on the constant watch for such women and to whisper in the ear of their sons or brothers "The Dreadful Secret" if they saw them becoming interested in such a woman. It says much for the attitude toward women generally that the book gave no information on how a girl could identify a "Woman Hater" among men. Presumably, in a male chauvinist world the word didn't apply.
Both men and women were warned against "Degenerates" as poor prospects for marriage. In men a "Degenerate" was someone with a "Fierce and restless" look or someone with low eyebrows. In women a "Degenerate" was identified as
follows "these slim, narrow-hipped, narrow-shouldered, trim, vivacious, nervous, sexually - underdeveloped women.. .predominate in cities...and make the poorest kind of wives...and mothers" - a disgraceful description and conclusion which is rendered even more disgraceful by its endorsement by some female doctors of the day.
The ideal wife was described as a stout, cheerful, motherly woman of from 25 to 35. Such women were recommended as wives "provided that they do not wear corsets or breast pads". Stoutness was the desired feature and in order to achieve it the book provided a section on "How to Get Plump"; the chief gem of advice being to eat slowly in the company of cheerful people. Presumably to get thin one was expected to eat quickly among grumpy people.
Other warnings were that two tall people, two short people, two fat people, two thin people or two people of similar complexion should not marry. However, the strangest warning of all was that two people of similar electrical nature should not marry, or in any case should not sleep together. The result of such a meeting would be the enfeeblement of one and the strengthening of the other. On the other hand, it was suggested that a good way to gain strength was to sleep with a strong, virile person of opposite p& virile person- of-—opposite" polarity (and let us hope, of opposite sex). Unfortunately the book neglects to explain how a young man or woman would check the electrical nature of their intended spouse prior to marriage in order to prevent a short circuit or a blown fuse later on.
The final test for selecting a mate made the most sense of all for it recommended that a girl have her prospective husband checked out by babies, old ladies and dogs who would be able to detect any unkindly attitudes. Men were urged to avoid any girl who was feared by dogs and cats.
For some reason the "Doctor Books" had little to say about marriage presumably because this was really a social event that was covered by the many "Etiquette" books that were in vogue. Marriage customs and superstitions are so complex and lengthy that a whole article could be devoted to them and I have been unable to find any that would appear to be unique to the Burford area. Private church marriages were the usual thing locally 80 years ago although one Burford doctor used to say that more marriages took place in his
office than in many churches; which seems to have been a rather unusual place to perform "Hymeneal Rites" as the papers chose to describe them. Chiravaris were mandatory and the only way to avoid them was for the groom to visit the local hotel and buy a box of cigars that were given by the bar-tender to local loungers. The more affluent left money for free drinks but if the groom was opposed to smoking or drinking a fullblown charivari had to be endured.
While avoiding advice on the marriage ceremony, the "Doctor Book" was strong on hints for happy marriage and when perusing these hints one has to wonder how those who followed the lofty admonitions managed to stay happily married. The "ideal" marriage advocated by the "Doctor Book" was, of course, a platonic one based on such a high plane of ethereal and spiritual love that one wonders if the young couple ever addressed each other by their Christian names after they married. Great warnings were given against what was described as "natural vice" and "animal propensities". For example the book thundered "Late suppers strongly tend to excite animal propensities which directly predispose to vice" and "Smoking excites the animal propensities of men beyond their normal balance and tends to debase the moral character and make men more animal and less intellectual". Based on this advice the vice that would be generated by a late supper and a good cigar is almost too horrible to contemplate.
Smoking came in for other condemnation. Young men were warned that smoking would give them a heavy look around the jaw and thus lessen their chances of marriage. "If single, the book said, girls will shun your company and if married your wife will refuse your marital overtures" (try that on your piano). Nothing was said about women smoking as such a faux pas was apparently beneath notice. However, as late as the 1920s there were elderly women in Burford and the township who smoked pipes and some rather socially-advanced girls in Burford smoked what were called "Cubeb" cigarettes allegedly to cure bronchial problems although I understand that on close examination the cigarettes were of the ordinary variety. In order to maintain love in marriage the "Doctor Book" recommended separate sleeping apartments for husband and wife thus seeming to negate the joys of electricity mentioned previously, but the book does go
on to say "in order to retain some of the romance of courting days a husband should look his wife in the eye now and then". This casual gesture would seem to have been the only erotic action permitted a husband. For some reason the "look in the eye" was not recommended for wives. Presumably, such a look was thought to be "fast" if practiced by women. Instead, wives were urged to take time from their crocheting and knitting to bone up on the daily paper. Then when the tired husband came home in the evening sick over the decline of Jugoslavian dinar, the bright young wife could give him the answer. This, said the book would create "love and admiration". However, if the husband did not mention why he was worried the book advised the wife to "leave him alone" for "he will love you the more for it" (or more likely wonder why you are so indifferent).
The subject of having children lifted the authors of "The New Vitalogy" to almost indescribable heights of literary blah, ethereal excess and childlike unreality. In this the book would almost have the young man or woman believe in the "Under - the - Gooseberry -bush" theory of childbirth with almost no participation by either husband or wife. Indeed, the book advocated most strongly that physical relations were bad for marriage and that there should never be such relationships without prior physical training, deep thought and a long period of reading noble books and listening to eloquent public speakers. Without this preparation, the book warned, any child born would be mentally deficient whereas if the advice and pre-training were followed a little genius would result.
Great stress was placed by the "Doctor Books" on the ability of parents to predetermine the sex of their unborn child. Several 'sure' methods were advocated. For example, if a couple wanted a male child the father was advised to eat substantial meals, take moderate exercise and pass his time in the company of gay women. For her part, the prospective mother was urged "to eat sparingly", "to fatigue herself every day" and pass her time "in the dry company of old women". Presumably, the reverse would be true for ensuring the birth of a girl but one has to question the value of any advice which would advocate that a woman spend her time in the company of gay men. If all this noble advice failed to produce a child the book suggested that the man was impotent and recommended that a good charge of electricity would
solve the problem one way or another.
On the question of women's rights and marital property "Th^ New Vitalogy" was both progressive and regressive. On the positive side the book recommended that all property be shared between man and wife on a 50-50 basis. However, having said that, the authors spoiled things by adding "While a woman is bearing children she is entitled to good pay for her services" - a demeaning statement if there ever was one. It is also interesting to note that whereas the book espoused the idea that "a woman's place is in the home" it went on to say that a wife should take time from her child-rearing, housekeeping, crocheting, fancy-work and reading of noble books to engage in some task that will add to the family income. It is difficult to explain these anomolies other than to point out that the same authors recommended that the best way for a woman to cure a headache was to walk backwards around a room for ten minutes.
In its advice for child-rearing "The New Vitalogy" and other "Doctor's Books" showed quite advanced thinking for a time when many parents thought that brains, brawn, bravery, obedience, good manners and gratitude could be instilled in a child only through constant beating. The advice in "Doctor's Books" was completely opposed to this treatment but rather recommended kindness, example and reason in handling children. Obedience and gratitude were thought to be the most desirable attributes for a child although on the question of gratitude one gets the impression that a child was expected to almost crawl on its hands and knees in order to thank its parents for any kindness shown. On the rearing of boys the word "manliness" was the " buzz -word" that seemed to include everything from celluloid-collared bigotry to the quick-fisted ability to punch anyone who refused to follow the unrealistic 'noble' standards espoused by the boy. Indeed, the only recourse to whip or "black-snake", recommended by the "Doctors Book, was to make a timid boy "plucky" enough to "pitch into" anyone who insulted him. In the rearing of girls much stress was placed on what is now called "Role-playing or doing things that women expected to do. Much emphasis was placed on creating an unrealistic "noble" character. Other times create other attitudes by looking back, one is bound to feel that any girl who was raised by the advice given in Doctor Books would have been a door-mat to her husband and a bore and prig to all her acquaintances.
The curbing of the use of slang or profanity in a child received much attention in the "Doctor's Book" as along with pride this was thought to be an abominable thing. Children were to be taught to say "potato" when tempted to say "darn" or "drat" and other casual expressions were to be rigorously expunged from a child's vocabulary. The use of profanity received frightening scare tactic treatment which seems ridiculous today. One of the horror tales used to discourage the use of profanity was told by a doctor in the Southern States who testified that when he was walking by a river one day he happened to jostle a young lady on the foot-path. Instead of an apology the doctor noticed that an oath "escaped from her lips". The next time the doctor saw the young lady she was dying from a "loathsome disease" that was clearly evident. Of course no one condones profanity but when we read further in the Doctor Book The connection
we find that the "terrible" words were something like "Holy Smoke".
In reviewing the advice given to prospective brides and grooms 80 years age the words "Purity" and "Nobility" persists. No one will argue against such goals but unfortunately one gets the impression that the concept of these words 80 years ago was not, let us say, that of the Bible but rather that of the 3rd rate Victorian novelist or of phoney medieval knight gallantry. It was an idealism devoid of reality and bound to have a disasterous effect on those who strove to give it slavish obedience. Fortunately, most young couples soon found that the ethereal dreams offered by the "Doctor Book" had to be tempered with practical reality. Those who did not come down to earth deserved what they got.
In comparing the marriage advice of 80 years ago it is easy to draw the erroneous conclusion that the high divorce rate of
to-day proves that the advice of "the good old days" was best. However, in drawing that conclusion, one must remember that in the early 1900s grounds for divorce were very limited and heavily weighed in favour of men, as a result, there were fewer divorces. Unhappily married couples either "suffered it out" quietly or lived together in embattled isolation until they became accustomed to each others oddities. Fortunately, the vast majority of young couples had the good sense to accept the rough with the smooth otherwise many of us would not be here to-day. In the latter part of the 20th century realism has replaced idealism in marriage, for better or worse. However, if you happen to have a pigeon drop something on your silk hat don't expect to find the answer in the clergyman's study or in the Do-it-Your-self" marriage manuals but rather try to find someone who still has a copy of an old "Doctor Book".