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20 Things Nineteenth-Century Advice Gurus Knew About Love That We’ve Forgotten


Human beings have been pairing off into couples for a long, long time, and nearly every culture has its tales of faithful lovers who overcame tremendous obstacles to be together. Love is awesome. I can attest personally to the deep joy that accompanies committing wholeheartedly to the man who has taken it upon himself to love me back, no matter what. It is delight. It is security. It is to have a home in a big, wide, tumultuous world. Who wouldn’t want that?

Yet love, of course, is never easy; and some societies are better than others at helping nurture it. In modern-day America, one of the biggest obstacles to true love is the idea that we each have a moral right—even, perhaps, a moral duty—to always seek our own happiness first. Unfortunately, selfishness isn’t very romantic. It’s a real relationship-killer.

We don’t have to let the blinders of modern culture keep us stuck on the me-me-treadmill. One of the best ways to recognize modern eccentricities is to compare and contrast them with the values of other times and eras. It isn’t that the past was necessarily superior, but that by looking through someone else’s eyes we can see our own attitudes in a new light.

An excellent way to do this is to read nineteenth-century etiquette and advice manuals. These authors—the self-help gurus of their day—pulled no punches in dry quips and spirited exhortations. The language is historic enough to be charming but modern enough to be easily understandable. Some of the values fit our own, and some challenge us to question our priorities. Here is a sampling of what advice gurus of the nineteenth century believed about love.

1. Romance Is About Finding Someone to Love for Life

Lydia Child, a nineteenth-century political activist and author of numerous popular advice manuals, favored marriage. In 1831, she pointed out, “The unchangeable laws of God have made reciprocated affection necessary to the human heart.”

In 1890, a different author was a little more pointed: “A man who avoids matrimony on account of the cares of wedded life, cuts himself off from a great blessing for fear of a trifling annoyance. He rivals the wiseacre who secures himself against corns by having his legs amputated.”

These writers didn’t just tell young people to buck up and get married. They also provided careful advice about the morals and etiquette of courtship, engagement, and matrimony.

2. Loving Feelings are Not Enough

The character of our prospective true-love is crucial. After all, as Richard A Wells argues, “No doubt there is such a thing as love at first sight, but love alone is a very uncertain foundation upon which to base marriage.”

Child proposed three questions to ask before taking the plunge: “1st, Has the person good principles? 2d, Has he, or she, a good disposition? 3d, Is there a strong, decided, deeply-founded preference?”

3. Communicate Your Interest, But Don’t Be Creepy

In 1873, Cecil B. Hartley told suitors to pursue ladies but to avoid being creepy: “True courtship consists in a number of quiet, gentlemanly attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, not so vague as to be misunderstood. A clown will terrify by his boldness, a proud man chill by his reserve, but a gentleman will win by the happy mixture of the two.”

Some years later, Frederick H. Martens acknowledged that “The suitor, generally speaking, ‘pays court’ to a girl; and the role is not supposed to be reversed, though it sometimes is in practice.”

4. Sit Up Straight

Hartley has a piece of practical advice for young men: “Lazy, lounging attitudes in the presence of ladies are very rude.”

5. Bring Flowers

Martens reminds would-be-lovers that “The gifts of courtship should be impersonal—flowers, candy, one’s photograph, books, and trifles associated with sports or other activities shared in common.”

In return, young ladies should not abuse the system to acquire loot: “[A]ny girl of average intelligence is aware that [a stream of gifts from a young man] indicates more than a merely ‘friendly’ feeling on the giver’s part. Hence the first duty of the young woman…is to let him know–nor need it be in words–whether or not his attentions are acceptable.”

6. A Word on Getting Engaged

Etiquette manuals did not attempt to provide scripts for the actual proposal. Wells merely recommends that it be conducted in-person if at all possible, and points out that “The mode in which the avowal of love should be made, must of course, depend upon circumstances.”

Martens has a word for the ladies: If a girl refuses a proposal of marriage, she must express polite regret, “not coupled with the banal promise that you will ‘be a sister’ to him.”

7. Skip the Triumphal Chains

We’ve all known girls who are annoying to be around right after they acquire a new boyfriend. This phenomenon is apparently nothing new, because a writer who dubbed herself “Daisy Eyebright” pointed out tartly, “And if you have accepted the addresses of a deserving man, do behave sensibly and honorably, and not lead him about as if in triumphal chains, nor take advantage of his love by playing with his feelings.” She also made it clear that although the gentleman should look after his lady, “he need not keep close to her side as though held there by an invisible wire.”

8. Watch Out for Too Much Control

No discussion of engagement would be complete without the reminder that it provides an opportunity to further evaluate the character of a prospective true-love. Wells states, “No lover will assume a domineering attitude over his future wife. If he does so, she will do well to escape from his thrall before she becomes his wife in reality. A domineering love will be certain to be still more domineering as a husband; and from all such the prayer of wise women is, ‘Good Lord, deliver us!’”

9. Build a Happy Marriage

Nineteenth-century advice manuals usually have much longer chapters about proper conduct in married life than they do about how to behave during the courtship phase. The advice might sound discordant to modern ears. It is so very gendered that, at first glance, it can appear unjust. Yet a closer read reveals that even if the members of the couple are not always told to do the same thing, the task of both is difficult. Both are supposed to give up their own desires and their own way.

10. Wives, No ‘My Way or the Highway’

Wells’ words are “…we beseech [wives] to avoid all bickerings. What does it signify where a picture hangs, or whether a rose or a pink looks best on the drawing-room table? There is something inexpressibly endearing in small concessions, in gracefully giving up a favorite opinion, or in yielding to the will of another; and equally painful is the reverse.”

11. Husbands, Listen to Your Wives

He doesn’t let husbands off the hook, though, either: “Wives generally have much more sense than their husbands, especially if the husbands are clever men. The wife’s advices are like the ballast that keeps the ship steady. They are like the wholesome, though painful shears snipping off the little growth of self-conceit and folly.”

12. Wives, Don’t Whine About Your Husbands to Others

In the words of Wells, “Confidants are dangerous persons.” Enough said.

13. Husband, Don’t Come Home Grumpy

Hartley has no patience for so-called gentleman who leaves his manners at the door: “The man who is a rude husband, son, and brother, cannot be a gentleman; he may ape the manners of one, but, wanting the refinement of heart that would make him courteous at home, his politeness is but a thin cloak to cover a rude, unpolished mind.”

In 1858, another writer addressed himself to husbands who come home after a long day. The same advice could be equally well applied in the reverse to the stay-at-home mom who thinks her husband has it easy because he gets to escape all contact with toddlers by going to work.

[The husband] is apt to think that when he has been absent through the day, diligent in his work and harassed by the cares of business, his duty is done. He expects a ready and loving smile to welcome him, a warm and cordial greeting–and he should have it. But he must remember that the wife has had her cares too. If of a different character, they may be equally harassing. The wife has had her labor to perform as well, and when the night comes, she may be as weary too. Does she not deserve as much consideration and kindness? No toils of business and no cares of life should be allowed to come in to prevent that kind and grateful intercourse which makes up the good of life. The burden should be equally borne. The joy should be shared together, and the quiet rest of domestic life should belong to both alike.

14. Wives, Put on Some Makeup for Him

In the words of Wells, “Never let your husband have cause to complain that you are more agreeable abroad than at home; nor permit him to see in you an object of admiration as respects your dress and manners, when in company, while you are negligent of both in the domestic circle.”

15. Husbands, Buy Flowers (or Dark Chocolate)

Hartley doesn’t want husbands to stop bringing their wives little gifts. “These trivial tokens of regard certainly make much way in the affections of a woman of sense and discernment, who looks not to the value of the gifts she receives, but perceives in their frequency a continued evidence of the existence and ardor of that love on which the superstructure of her happiness has been erected. The strongest attachment will decline, if you receive it with diminished warmth.”

16. Pay Off Your Credit Cards Every Month

Debt is a problem in any era. Wells knows this: “Two things are essential to happiness in married life: first, to have a home of one’s own; and second, to establish it upon a scale as to live distinctly and clearly within one’s means; if possible, not quite up to them, and by no possibility beyond them.”

17. Learn How to Manage a House

It has become almost a cultural expectation that women perpetually bemoan the chaos of their home. This would not meet the approval of Woodbury, who insisted that ladies should possess the domestic skills needed to make such work easier and more manageable. “That mistress of a household, who is not thoroughly cognizant of what is called housekeeping, will find many a bitter trial for herself and her family. She. . . . becomes a mere drudge, if servants she has none. . . An ill-kept table, untimely meals and poorly cooked food, are as fatal to sentiment as to digestion.”

18. Go to Church Together

Wells does not approve of husbands who stay home on Sunday morning. “It seems unmanly, certainly most unkind, to let your young wife go to church on Sunday without you, for the common-place satisfaction of lounging at home.”

19. Learn Things Together

Period advice books defy the stereotype that nineteenth-century couples, denied the option of divorce, were expected to simply put up with each other. Instead, couples are urged to cultivate their relationship. Hartley even says, “Study some easy science together, and acquire a similarity of tastes, while you enjoy a community of pleasures. You will, by this means, have many pursuits in common, and be freed from the necessity of separating to find amusement; endeavor to cement the present union on every side.”

20. Make Love

Martens was writing in the 1920’s, chronologically later than most of these other authors, but at a time that was still largely in cultural sync with them. He declares that “The natural instinct of a man is to seek his mate. On her he depends for an orderly and lawful indulgence of his sex demands. The greatest longevity and best health are to be found among happily married fathers and mothers.”

He assumes that the husband will be the one most desirous of frequent love-making, but also points out that “The individual cravings of husband and wife must be reconciled by mutual good will and forebearance if they are to be happy.”

Phrases like “mutual good will and forebearance” tend not to be part of our modern lexicon when we talk about romantic love. Rather than forebear, at least extensively, we tend to leave. This makes it hard for true love to grow. Love is not primarily a feeling. It is a commitment. It is action. It is forgiving and sacrificing. If we hope to experience the tremendous joy of true love in our own lives, we ought to pay attention to our forbearers. They definitely knew something that our popular culture has forgotten.