In the late 1800s, getting married was one of the signs of adulthood and marriage was certainly one of the foremost things on the mind of young women and men. Men liked marriage because it gave them a steady sexual partner and women like marriage because it allowed them to have a companion and they could create a warm, welcoming home.
A certain Victorian gentleman by the name of Mr. Finlayson created a table showing a woman’s chance in 1,000 of marrying for every year of her life from the ages of 14 to 39. One Australian newspaper came across it and published it in 1880 under the title of “Hints to Unmarried Ladies.” Here is that article almost verbatim:
This most precious document should be posted I think, on the doors of all our churches, and if, after such pointed admonition, young girls trifle away their time, the blame is entirely made their own. The calculations were made, I understand, upon 908 cases, but for the sake of greater perspicuity let us enlarge the denominator to 1000. Of 1000 married women, taken without selection, it is found that the number married at each age is as below. Or if (by an arithmetical license) we call a woman’s chances of marriage in the whole course of her life 1000, her chances in each two years will be shown in the table.
Now this table, it will be seen, tells us that one-half of a woman’s chances of marriage are gone when she has completed her twentieth year; and mind you what the consequence of this. She must then, as seamen say, “carry less sail,” and shoot at a lower mark. At 23 she ought to be “very reasonable,” for three-fourths of the golden opportunities are gone, never to return. At 26 you will see at a glance that sauciness is out of the question, for your hopes, if the case should be yours, fair reader, will be shrunk to the small fraction of an eight. Possibly you may then think the poor fellows you once despised fine “catches.” At 31, despair should begin to wrinkle your brow for when that age comes and finds you single, pray remember that if you have in the circle of your acquaintance forty marrying men (a rare contingency) you have just one solitary chance among them all. When you stand on the dred verge of 36, it is “quiet too awfully terrible” to reflect that of the thousand chances with which you started, three only remain–a miserable remnant of three. It is now high time to bespeak lodgings for a single lady, and to procure a couple of cats. Therefore, carpe diem, or in plain English, improve your time. There are plenty of “Barkisses” about.
AGE CHANCES AGE CHANCES 14-15 32 28-29 45 16-17 101 30-31 18 18-19 219 32-33 15 20-21 133 34-35 8 22-23 165 36-37 2 24-25 102 38-39 1 26-27 67 1000
(Although Finlayson’s figures seem to support the idea people married young in the late 1800s, according to the 2010 U.S. Decennial Census American Community Survey, the median age for a first marriage of an American women in 1890 was about 23.5 and for a man about 26.5. Additionally, in France, between 1880-1889 the age for a women’s first marriage was 23.9 and reached 24.1 between 1900-1909, whereas a man’s age for this same time period was 28.)
- Cherry, Andrew and Mary Dillon, International Handbook of Adolescent Pregnancy, 20002
- “Hints to Unmarried Ladies,” in Clutha Leader, 28 May 1880
- The Decennial Census, in United States Census