Spinsters of Yesteryear–And Book Giveaway!


 Being an old maid is like death by drowning, a really delightful sensation after you cease to struggle.

– Edna  Ferber


In 1861 fifty ladies of the first Church of Milford in New York formed a society of old maids. It cost five dollars to join the group and members had to vow never to marry. The interest earned from the money paid for the annual dinner, with the principal going to the woman who remained unmarried the longest. 


According to an article in the New York Times thirty years later in 1891 all but fifteen of the original fifty had married.  By then the prize money had risen to a thousand dollars.  I’ve not been able to find the winner’s name—and I sincerely hope there wasn’t one— but the best part of being a writer is where real life fails, inspiration takes over.  That’s how the idea for my new series The Brides of Last Chance Ranch was born. The first book Dawn Comes Early will be out in March.


My heroine Kate is a disgraced dime novelist who has the chance to inherit a cattle ranch in Arizona territory.  However, she must first sign a legal document forbidding her to marry—ever! 


Before I could write the book I wanted to find out why anyone—and especially a group of church women—would choose not to marry?  In the 1800s such a decision would be considered unnatural and even shameful.


There would be more spinsters marrying if other women didn’t marry so much!


I wasn’t able to track down information on the Milford church ladies but I did learn some interesting facts.  In the 1800s a woman was considered a spinster if she was still unmarried at age 25 and in some cases, younger.  The word spinster literally means one who spins.  In Dutch households no woman was fit to wed until she had spun table and bed linens. Thus  the task of spinning was relegated to unmarried women. 


 So why were there so many Victorian Spinsters? 


  • Some women balked at the idea of losing ownership of assets. When a woman wed land, money–everything, even patents–had to be put in her husband’s name.  (Elias Howe credited his wife with inventing the sewing machine but of course the patent was in his name.)   


  • Some professions such as teaching required a woman to remain single. During the early 1900s British telephone operators were not allowed to marry. And we’ve all heard stories of the spinster librarian deemed to love only her books.


  • College educated women had a difficult time finding men with similar educations.  In Dawn Comes Early Kate Tenney is a college educated woman and Luke Adams a “simple blacksmith.”  It makes for an interesting conflict as he doesn’t even know what she’s talking about half the time.


  • Many women lost fiancés or beaus during the Civil War. More than 62,000 men died and this created a generation of southern women doomed to spinsterhood.  


  •  Women entering the paid workforce in the 1860s became more independent.  No longer did a woman have to marry for financial security. There was little possibility of combining motherhood with a career and a woman who couldn’t be a mother was considered to be no woman at all.


  • The war on suffragettes:  Newspapers were filled with disparaging remarks about the Spinster Suffragette.  “Her clothes and physical appearance emphasize that she is a failed woman and wannabe man. The lady wants to vote because she couldn’t get a date.”


  • Family responsibilities sometimes prevented marriage. Some women (usually the oldest daughter) were so burdened with caring for parents or siblings there was no time for a private life.


  •  The Glorified Spinster:  This movement was called a new model for the Old Maid which allowed women to pursue independence through voluntary (gasp!) spinsterhood.



So why would a beautiful young woman like Kate Tenney agree to sign a document forbidding marriage?  You’ll have to read the book for that answer.  Right now if you want a chance to win a copy of Dawn Comes Early  tell us about your favorite spinster.  Mine is Rosie in African Queen.   




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48 thoughts on “Spinsters of Yesteryear–And Book Giveaway!”

  1. Interesting post as usual. I can see why a woman wouldn’t want to get married back then. Today, it is more of a case that women don’t need to be married to have a good life.

    I will second your choice for a feisty spinster. AFRICAN QUEEN is one of my all time favorite movies. Katherine Hepburn did a fantastic job with the role. Rosie wasn’t afraid to face the world and take it on. When a little romance came her way she grabbed it. I would have loved to meet her. (Yes I know she was a fictional character, but you know what I mean.)

    I’d better get to bed. Love the cover for DAWN COMES EARLY. I look forward to reading it.

  2. Patricia, thank you! You talked me into watching the movie again. Recently I hiked the old Corrigan Ranch. Many westerns were filmed there and so were parts of African Queen. I could almost hear Charlie say, “Well I ain’t sorry for you no more, ya crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid!

  3. There are always such interesting things to learn from this blog…
    I loved Katherine Hepburn’s role as Rosie!!

  4. Very interesting, Margaret. I never thought of why there were so many spinsters in the late 1800’s. I’m sure for the most part it was a lonely life. I think everyone yearns for companionship of some sort. And to my amazement there were often more than one spinster in a family.

    Congratulations! Love the cover of the new release! Can’t wait to read it. I’m wishing you much success.

  5. Loved all of the facts!

    My favorite spinster would have to be Essie Sprecklemeyer from DeeAnne Gist’s “Trouble” novels. 🙂 She eventually got married at the ripe age of 34(a younger man: gasp!), but was deemed the town’s spinster up until that.

  6. I’d have to say my favorite spinsters in are the Baldwin sisters in The Waltons. They were such a hoot with their moonshine making LOL

    I have to say I’ve had Dawn Comes Early on my calendar since I first saw it appear on Amazon. It just looks fantastic!!!

  7. Loved the heroine of Courting Trouble and its’ sequel by Deeanne Gist. Or the heroine in The Gamble by LaVyrle Spencer.

  8. Great post! I had never thought about why there was so many spinsters back then but you can’t blame them. From what I have read men worked their women pretty hard as they will today if you let them. Your book sound fabulous and I would love to read it.

  9. No names are coming to me… but I am familiar with some that were stated above… you have me really curious about Kate and her story… hoping everyone has a wonderful weekend!

  10. Your posts are always filled with very interesting information. Just finished ‘A Lady named Sarah’. (Found it in the Library).
    My favorite spinsters are two that nobody outside our valley has ever heard of. They aren’t famous or in anybody’s book. They lived 15 miles north of my town. Twins. They would come to town in an ancient car and shop at the only grocery store around. They wore dresses that looked like turn of the Century or early 1930’s. And they were rich. They are gone now, but they always caused a stir when they drove to town. Fiesty, too. Had to be, I guess, to be able to live as long as they did. Don’t know how the family got their money. Here in the valley it could be cattle or mining. They were just fascinating to watch. (From a distance. Nobody likes to be stared at.).
    And, as an aside, Loved the book about Sarah.

  11. Margaret I love the post. So funny. And I love Dawn Comes Early. I’ve already read it (neener neener neener)

    What popped into my mind was my mother in law who married in 1939 or 40. She said a working woman was absolutely expected to quit her job if she got married.
    It was considered selfish to keep making money when she had a man to support her. It was an insult to the husband, as if he couldn’t take care of her.

    To say, “I do.” Was to say, “I quit.” It was understood and the woman knew it as well as the men did.

  12. Mary, thank you for being one of the first readers of my book–and for saying such nice things about it. It means a lot coming from you.

    What you said about married women was true. Loved the I do, I quit part. Seems like there should be a book title in there somewhere.

  13. My great aunt was my favorite spinster. She lost her fiance to WWI, and spent her life running a restaurant, then caring for her parents. And she always had a smile on her face.
    Love your books, Margaret, and I’m looking forward to this new series!

  14. My first thought was Katharine Hepburn. Her mother was a suffragette (and her father a doctor). She was taught to stand up for herself and I consider her a strong woman and I guess they would have called her a spinster although she doesn’t seem to fit the mold (at least to me).

  15. I have to say I found this article a bit offputting. I had just heard about “Petticoats and Pistols” and being a keen reader and with a great love of the Old West, I was interested. I found this article patronising and very old fashioned. I am in my late 40s and have been engaged twice, choosing myself not to go through with it, with a few other serious relationships along the way.
    I “have” someone now but am still not keen on marriage. If you had to find out why anyone “would choose not to marry”, maybe you should have thought because it is the year 2012, not 1912, or 1812. There is no “have to” now. I am disappointed as I was interested in this group, hopefully you don’t all have such out-moded ideas.

  16. I agree with Rosie in African Queen.

    A number of religious sects–Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, Lutherans, Jains, Buddhists, Taoists, and Hindus–have nuns/sisters. Shakers, both male and female, were celibate.

  17. Andrea,sorry you feel that way. This article was of course based on attitudes and behaviors of the 1800s. Marriage and motherhood was considered to be the only choice. So it took one brave woman to buck society. Fortunately, that attitude no longer prevails.

  18. Andrea, You seem to have missed the point of the post. Margaret was talking about the 1800’s, not current times. She was referring to the research she did “to find out why anyone—and especially a group of church women—would choose not to marry?” This had nothing to do with the current decisions and options open to contemporary women.

  19. Margaret, what a brilliant post! I enjoyed every word, and am so grateful for the strong, independent women who came before us. God bless the suffragettes. My favorite “spinster” is Louisa May Alcott. She didn’t even want Jo in Little Women to marry…the publisher advised her to have Jo marry. I myself love being married in this day of conveniences and cleaning ladies, but back then, “Abba” March, in her daughter’s opinion, lost herself and her intellect in the drudgery of housework and being a wife/mother, and a husband who was of no help at all.

    Liz, I’m curious. I was raised Lutheran and I never heard of the denomination having sisters.

    Margaret, I can’t wait to read this book! oxoxox

  20. Tanya, oh, yes, we can’t forget Louisa May
    Alcott. I didn’t know that she meant Jo not to marry, but given her independent character it makes sense. But then of course she wouldn’t have been able to write Jo’s Boys.

  21. I don’t really have a “favorite” spinster but have always loved the “Baldwin Sisters”. They were such a hoot with their “recipe”.
    My mother-in-law used to tell the story of her friend who taught school with her in the 1930’s a time when teachers who married automatically lost their job. Mom said she was afraid someone would find out her friend had married secretly in the middle of the school year because she(my m-i-l) would also lose her job because she knew and didn’t tell anyone.

  22. I’ve always loved reading Miss Marple stories so I guess she could qualify as my favorite spinster. It’s something I never thought about till now!
    i enjoy Margaret’s books so would love to win this latest book. Thanks for giving one away.

  23. Just got back to the house. Margaret, thank you for reminding me about the Strohmyer sisters being a good subject for a story. I have been so busy doing stories about military adventures and shoot-em-ups, that I completely overlooked these two. Thnks for the reminder.

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