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Views on marital age disparity in American 1910s
lomesir22 wrote in little_details
Setting: Chicago, 1918, MCs are upper middle class
Search terms: earlier 1900s marriage customs, marriage age disparity history, sexual age disparity history, edwardian courtship customs, edwardian courtship, WWI marriages, early twentieth century marriage, average age of first marriage (and a lot of variants of wording), history of marriage in american 

The scene: MC A is a 16 year old girl from an affluent family. She ends up in a loving marriage with MC B, who is a 28 year-old son of family friends. One of the things that drives the story is the friction MC A encounters from her peers (other teenagers) for marrying someone so much older. However, I can't find anything that talks about how society at large would view such a match. Would they find it odd? Cute? Gross and abusive?

The questions:

1. How would upper middle class Midwestern America in the 1910s have felt about a 16 year-old girl marrying someone 12 years older than her?


Sorry, double posted.

Edited at 2013-01-29 09:29 pm (UTC)

I can't say for sure, but I know regarding my grandparents who married in the early 1930s (so you're about a decade off, but similar location and only a bit different time...) that fairly large age gaps were the norm.

At least in the circles they traveled in (upper middle class Irish-Americans), it was expected that the man be established in a career before he married. Meanwhile, for a woman, she just had to be pubescent. So it wasn't at all unusual for a man in his 30s to marry a woman in her late teens. (16 might be a bit young, but not that young. Marriage at 18 wasn't uncommon.)

The median age at first marriage for men in that period was 25-26, and for women, 22-23 (according to the census stats described here). Of course, this means some people married younger and others older--I don't know what the standard deviation was--there might be a little concern about her marrying so young. If she's wealthy, I'd be a little surprised at her parents agreeing to her marriage unless it benefits the family in some way, and I expect she would need parental consent (although I'm not sure).

I think it's within the bounds of social plausibility and might not raise too many eyebrows, but there might be some people who think she's a little too young for marriage, and I'd want to know why her parents agreed to the match.

For a slightly earlier reference point, Laura Ingalls Wilder started teaching school at 16, and married at 18, to a man 10 years older than her, and this seems to have raised no eyebrows among her peers or within the community. Of course, a lot can change in 25 years, but I suspect that serious objections to the age gap or the age of the bride may be modern projection. (L.M. Montgomery's books, set in the early 1900s in Canada, show young women/girls crushing on adult men and the reverse periodically, and while it's not always portrayed healthily--Dean and Emily in the Emily books especially--it's not portrayed as something incomprehensible to the girls' peers, either.)

And age of the bride aside, a twelve year age difference isn't really a big deal these days, either.

My grandparents married in the 20s in the rural south and my grandfather was 9 years older than my grandmother. I believe that the age difference was rather common, at least in the 20s.

If she were old enough to be "out" officially then I don't think the age difference would be viewed as a problem.

My grandmothers both married significantly older men at 16 and 18, respectively, in the 1940s without raising eyebrows (well, except for the fact one of them was already pregnant ;) ) There might be a few people thinking she is a bit young and wondering if she's really prepared to manage a home, but unless they're also opinionated people they'll probably keep those thoughts to themselves.

16 is a little young -- some adults may feel she's being rushed into marriage and that she should have waited to see if she got better offers, unless it's obviously a good match financially and socially. Or that they should have just gotten engaged and waited to marry until she was 18.

But given that young men from upper middle class families usually went to college or began a career before they married, and didn't have the same pressure as women did to find a spouse right away, most of her potential marriage partners are probably at least in their mid-twenties. Nobody's likely to bat an eye at the age difference.

I know the Victorians considered a ten year age gap between husband and wife to be just about right. The husband, after all, was supposed to be a guiding influence on his spouse. Considering the number of 14-16 year old girls today with 28-30 year old babydaddys I don't think society considers it a big deal now.

I've read a fair amount of contemporary fiction from the 1900s and 1910s (almost all on Project Gutenberg). Most of it is set in New York City, but I suspect that the upper class in Chicago would aspire to be like the upper class in NYC than the rest of the Midwest. From that reading, my general impressions:

Upper crust society in this time period is vitally concerned with two things: money and appearance. The "old families" are still important, but "new money" has been around long enough, and made a big enough impact, that it dominates society. It is not nearly as conservative as more rural/small town societies would be; it's just concerned with appearance. Generally: You can behave however you want, as long as you don't cause a scandal. Of course there's lots of variation, and there would be people who would not want to associate with a rumored adulterer, or a divorcee, for example; but there wouldn't be public disapproval. Granted, the books tend to give different views of high society: some show it as wholly mercenary, all marriages made for money, with love or affection even more marginal that "our grandparents" did 100 years before. Some books show it more temperately, with money always a consideration, but love and affection just as important.

As emily_shore said, if the girl was "out" in society, there really shouldn't be much objection. Being "out" meant that her guardians considered she was eligible to be married. In the books: Heroines tend to be fairly young, from their late teens to early twenties. I don't recall one who was 16, though IIRC the age 17 occurs more than once. Heroes tend to be more than a few years older, anywhere from mid-20s to mid-30s. I don't recall any societal consideration of the age disparity in those cases, neither from the girl's peers nor from society in general. (Maybe the mother would briefly protest "She's too young!" but that is an affectionate personal objection, not society's.)

Age discrepancy alone isn't really a cause for wholesale societal condemnation of a match, unless it's glaringly bad (teens with 70s). Society is more likely to look askance when the marriage is between a girl and a man much older, in his mid 40s or onward, AND money is an issue. The objections aren't really any that you suggest, though. When society as a whole objects, it's because it's perceived that the marriage was for money. And an obvious marriage for money is in bad taste, because it violates society's equal concern for appearance. In these type of novels, it's not usually the girl who is condemned. Sometimes it's her parents, if they are known to be mercenary; or it's the husband, if the girl is "poor genteel but beautiful" and it's obvious he "bought" her. Usually the girl is seen as a pawn with little of her own inclination.

Wow, my comment is too long!

One author in particular tended to pair mid-30s with late-teens girls. In most of those books the men had qualms with their own consciences about marrying the girl, but it was out of consideration for her, not for society. And that was not even New York society, which, all things considered, was the least conservative morally. It's presented as a reasonable concern for an honorable man, but only as being less suitable - not gross or abusive. Just "like mating with like," meaning similar ages.

There is no analogue today for the "coming out" of a hundred years ago: Girls go from being school girls, having their own friends and games and rarely seeing adults beyond close family friends, to being Fully Adult in one night, rubbing shoulders with their fathers' business partners and mothers' society cronies. This isn't a surprise for them; it's how their world works. And that means that all unmarried men are potential marriage partners. MC B at 28 just isn't that old; he's prime! And once she's out, she's out. Also, a 28-year-old could conceivably be a friend of an older sibling. Several books have the hero suddenly discovering that his buddy's kid sister, a long-legged creature in short skirts last year, is now a tall, lovely young woman.

Her peers' viewpoint is slightly different from society's as a whole. I can see her peers giving her a hard time, but not for him being older unless he's REALLY old; maybe if there is another objection, like his appearance (teen girls, you know!) or family or money (lack of it) or profession (if he has one), etc. A more likely cause of serious friction is if he is considered a "catch," and she, as a deb (1st year being out), "catches" him away from the belles who've been out longer.

This post made me think right away of the Emily of New Moon books by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I'm pretty sure Emily's aunts objected to her engagement to Dean Priest, but IIRC it was less because of the age discrepancy (she was about 20 and he was 40+) than because he was an "infidel" and, well, he was Dean Priest...

I've read a fair amount of contemporary fiction from the 1900s and 1910s (almost all on Project Gutenberg)

Would you mind sharing some titles? :D

Hmm, you did say upper middle class. That may affect things, but IMHO not a huge amount. Upper middle class was always looking further up, and imitating "their betters". I think there might be more of a spread of truly conservative moral types with wholly mercenary ones, but mercenary impulses as a whole would rule. And the thing about being "out" is still totally valid. 16 is on the young side for a deb, but 28 is not old.

I also forgot to add that the age of 18 and 19 for a heroine in the books seems to be favored. ;)

Definitely wouldn't expect the age difference to raise any eyebrows, especially for a relatively well-off family. Men were expected to not marry until they could be a respectable provider and had proved themselves ready to head a family, which meant basically college, apprentice to learn a trade (more common in slightly lower class families than it sounds like you're dealing with), or the military after HS (possibly with some travel in between depending on how well-off the family is), then getting into whatever your career would be and getting yourself established. Women on the other hand didn't really have any of this stuff, though. They were expected to go from their father's home to their husband's (hence the traditional "giving away" of the bride by her father), not to mention that if they were going to have lots of children it was better for them to be married and ready to start their family at a younger age. The end result is that women were going to marry closer to 18-20 and men were going to marry closer to their mid-late 20s, so a ten-ish year age difference wasn't that uncommon at all.

If you need there to be source of conflict, it's more likely to be that there's some question about whether he's the best she could do or whether he comes from a good enough family/has enough money/etc.

In a novel written about, and in, this era, there was a scene where a mother was fishing about with her son to determine how in love he is with a girl a year his junior. Fortunately not madly, because the age thing made it impossible; he had to go to college, and start his career, and by that time, the girl would probably be married with two or three babies. It's unfair to ask her to wait. The guy is a bit resentful but admits that it's impossible.

So it's not Midwest but my grandparents had friends from up north (I believe around Buffalo NY but I don't remember) the wife was 17 and she married someone who was 13 yrs older. No one said a peep, everyone was truly happy for her friends, family, etc. They were both middle class though. And it was 1911. I hope this helps.

I observe that while my great-grandmother and great-grandfather were a little earlier, she was his second wife. She married right out of school. Her oldest stepchild had been her classmate and best friend.

Part of it is that infectious disease was a much bigger killer. This meant that your odds of predeceasing your spouse were a lot closer to even than with such an age gap nowadays.

A typical age gap up to World War II was around five years. The idea was that the man needed extra time to get his career going so he could support a wife. Sixteen may be a bit young; eighteen or nineteen would be more proper.

It was so much the norm in the UK that after WWII the age of entitlement to the Old Age Pension was set at 65 for men and 60 for women - so that if both were working, they would retire together.

Oh, is that where it comes from? Fascinating, I didn't know that.

You have gotten some good replys but please remember the idea of teenagers is a modern one post 1930s if not 50s. Of course there were 15 year olds but the idea of a teen peer group is not one that would really apply

A very good point. I think I skated all around this, talking about the schoolgirl -> debutante transition, but forgot to actually state it. Thank you.

This is just what I was going to say. There used to be no such thing as a teenager; there were older children, and there were young adults, and in between there were people who were planning a débutante party or an entry into a profession or some other big transitional thing.

Typical response: "Of course, she is a trifle young to be marrying, but he's well established and it's an excellent match."

Yeah, this pretty much encapsulates it.

She'd have more pressure to finish out the season/wait until she's out. Other than that, her peers should be happy for her or jealous of her.

President Woodrow Wilson had only just remarried in 1915 to a woman notably younger than he was by about 16 years. This is kind of normal.