This subject is very near to my heart, as in doing research on spinsters, I discovered that I have been a spinster for years now and didn’t even know it! So I am very grateful that I no longer have to follow any of these stupid rules.
Spinster is a word that means “one who spins,” like, spins wool for thread because what else could you possibly do if you aren’t married. Interestingly, it was a legal term for any unmarried woman until the early 1900s and you sometimes see it as a designation on marriage documents. From the early 1700s, it’s common use was a woman who was unmarried beyond the normal age for it.
Spinsters created a great problem in etiquette for a long time, because in many ways, they had to be treated like a young girl.
Edith Ordway’s Etiquette of To-day from 1918 instructs spinsters:
Even the spinster of recognized professional standing finds herself somewhat restricted in social pleasures. She cannot go out socially with one man more than occasionally; she has little pleasure in going unattended; she can entertain but infrequently and in a small way, if at all, and never without an older married woman to assist her. She may, however, have her regular afternoon or evening “At Home,” provided she has with her this friend; and with that friend present, she may entertain a gentleman caller until ten o’clock in the evening, but she may not offer him cigarettes, nor any beverage but tea, coffee, chocolate, or lemonade.
However, a 1901 etiquette book, by Annie Randall White Twentieth Century Etiquette gives “elderly girls” a bit more leeway:
When a lady passes the age of thirty and has not yet married she is entitled to a matron’s freedom. This is also in a measure true when one has reached the age of twenty five. She is now considered able to judge for herself and knows when to shun the temptations of the world. She however cannot do everything she might wish to without violating some rules of etiquette. In traveling she should either be accompanied by her father brother or a lady friend and should be especially particular regarding her dress. So many charming women are single from choice either because their sweetheart died young or because of the giving up of one’s life to become the matron of the father’s home that to them should be accorded all respect due to a married woman. Many of our bachelor girls live together and are the happiest people imaginable It takes a very superior woman to be an old maid.
It was actually not uncommon to glorify old maids- an editorial called “Honorable Often to Be an Old Maid” in Peterson’s Magazine argued that marrying a man you do not love in order to have a home, security, and to escape being an old maid was a perversion of the sacred institution of marriage.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that spinsters weren’t stigmatized. A 1932 issue of the Vassar Miscellany News quotes another article from The Forum in which the author Ellis J. Ballinger argues that women’s colleges are “booming spinsterhood, encouraging marriage failures.” He suggests appointing a national marriage bureau to make matches and recommends bringing in beauty, style, and etiquette experts to the colleges to teach those girls how to catch a man. In the end, he says, if after all this, a woman chose to be a spinster “I am sure that she would be a happier old maid than the kind we are turning out today.”
Another fun tradition for friends of spinsters was to throw an “Old Maid’s Party,” apparently a New England tradition in which on a woman’s 25th birthday, all of her friends would come over with tea and cakes and genealogy charts to find the old maid the perfect husband. They might even play the card game “old maid.” Charming.
Thankfully, these days, old maids can pretty much do whatever they want, except avoid questions about when they are planning on getting married.