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Marital Advice from the Victorian Era

Posted Aug 26 2008 4:37pm


I’m a bit of a history buff and love to read about life in the “olden days.” I’m always fascinated by how people lived without TVs, telephones or cars. So, I was delighted when I stumbled across a little book at the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Florida. The Flagler Museum is actually a 55-room, 60,000-square-foot Gilded Age mansion called Whitehall built by Henry Flagler for his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler, as a wedding present. Flagler made his fortune in oil alongside John D. Rockefeller, and then through building the railroad system and several hotels in Florida. Whitehall was merely a winter retreat, used from 1902 until Flagler’s death in 1913. (You can read more about the fascinating Flagler family and Whitehall at www.flaglermuseum.org .) It’s a great place to visit, and they have a wonderful gift shop filled with historic items, such as a little book called The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette . A collection of works published by Professor Thomas E. Hill between 1873 and 1890, it provides advice on “the rules of conduct that govern good society” and “Professor Hill’s guide to love and marriage.” So, since being a good parent is always aided by having a strong marriage, I thought we could all benefit from (and be amused by) Professor Hill’s advice on being good wives and husbands. Here is what he had to say:



The Wife’s Duty in Marriage: “Never should a wife display her best conduct, her accomplishments, her smiles, and her best nature, exclusively away from her home.



"Be careful in your purchases. Let your husband know what you buy, and that you have wisely expended your money.



"Let no wife devote a large portion of her time to society-work which shall keep her away from home daytime and evenings, without the full concurrence of her husband.



"Beware of entrusting the confidence of your household to outside parties. The moment you discuss the faults of your husband with another, that moment an element of discord has been admitted which will one day rend your family circle.



"If in moderate circumstances, do not be over ambitious to make an expensive display in your rooms. With your own work you can embellish at a cheap price, and yet very handsomely, if you have taste. Let the adornings of your private rooms be largely the work of your own hands. [Note from Susan: He is obviously not speaking to time-crunched mothers of multiples!]



"Beware of bickering about little things. Your husband returns from his labors with his mind absorbed in business. In his dealings with his employees, he is in the habit of giving commands and of being obeyed. In his absentmindedness, he does not realize, possibly, the change from his business to his home, and the same dictatorial spirit may possess him in the domestic circle. Should such be the case, avoid all disputes.



"What matters it where a picture hangs, or a flower vase may sit? Make the home so charming and so wisely ordered that your husband will gladly be relieved of its care, and will willingly yield up its entire management to yourself. . . .



"Whatever may have been the cares of the day, greet your husband with a smile when he returns. Make your personal appearance just as beautiful as possible. Your dress may be made of calico, but it should be neat. Let him enter rooms so attractive and sunny that all the recollections of his home, when away from the same, shall attract him back.



"Be careful that you do not estimate your husband solely by his ability to make display. The nature of his employment, in comparison with others, may not be favorable for fine show, but that should matter not. The superior qualities of mind and heart alone will bring permanent happiness.”



Now, before you men start pumping your fists and shouting, “Yeah, woman!” to these chauvinistic theories, it’s time to hear what Professor Hill says constitutes a good husband.



The Husband’s Duty: “Every grave responsibility has the man assumed in his marriage. Doting parents have confided to his care the welfare of a loved daughter, and a trusting woman has risked all her future happiness in his keeping. Largely, it will depend upon him whether her pathway shall be strewn with thorns or roses.



"Let your wife understand fully your business. In nearly every case she will be found a most valuable adviser when she understands all your circumstances.



"Do not be dictatorial in the family circle. The home is the wife’s province. It is her natural field of labor. It is her right to govern and direct its interior management. You would not expect her to come to your shop, your office, your store, or your farm, to give orders on how your work should be conducted. Neither should you interfere with the duties that legitimately belong to her.



"If a dispute arises, dismiss the subject with a kind word, and do not seek to carry your point by discussion. It is a glorious achievement to master one’s own temper. You may discover that you are in error, and if your wife is wrong, she will gladly, in her cooler moments, acknowledge the fault.



"Having confided to the wife all your business affairs, determine with her what your income will be in the coming year. Afterwards ascertain what your household expenses will necessarily be, and then set aside a weekly sum, which should regularly and invariably be paid the wife at a stated time. Let this sum be even more than enough, so that the wife can pay all bills, and have the satisfaction besides of accumulating a fund of her own, with which she can exercise a spirit of independence in the bestowal of charity, the purchase of a gift, or any article she may desire. You may be sure that the wife will very seldom use the money unwisely, if the husband gives her his entire confidence.



"Your wife, possibly, is inexperienced; perhaps she is delicate in health, also, and matters that would be of little concern to you may weigh heavily upon her. She needs, therefore, your tenderest approval, your sympathy, and gentle advice.



"When her efforts are crowned with success, be sure that you give her praise. Few husbands realize how happy the wife is made by the knowledge that her efforts and her merits are appreciated. There are times, also, when the wife’s variable condition of health will be likely to make her cross and petulant. The husband must overlook all this, even if the wife is at times unreasonable.”



Unreasonable? We’re never unreasonable, are we, ladies? Anyway, I hope you got a chuckle out of these words and took away the overall message that a little consideration and appreciation for each other can go a long way toward keeping a marriage healthy!
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