The Shocking Ignorance of Young Ladies, 1843

Oh, the youth of today, they don’t know they’re born! Says every generation at some point. This is taken from Punch, so it’s not entirely serious, admittedly. It’s a follow-up to an article on “the amount of ignorance of domestic affairs prevailing among young men generally.” This one covers the ignorance of young ladies and is printed “at the risk of creating a fearful panic in the marriage market.”

I don’t know if this article is based on real interviews with young ladies, or even if these young ladies actually existed, but it sounds like it was based on reality to me, and it’s an entertaining read, nonetheless.

Firstly, there’s Miss Mary Anne Atkins. She “has an idea she ought to know something of housekeeping; supposes it comes naturally.” She can sing, play, draw and embroider, but she’s never darned a stocking. She knows how much Brown Windsor Soap is, but not the yellow variety. She doesn’t know how much furniture is (and why should she really?) – she “should ask mama, if necessary”. She doesn’t know how much her dress cost or what the family’s annual butcher’s bill is, either. Shocking stuff.

Next up, we have Miss Harriet Somers. She “would not refuse a young man with £300 a year.” She can needlework, and she can make face washes (I like the sound of that) but “cannot tell how she would set about making an apple-dumpling.” Neither can I, but it sounds delicious. She would expect her potential husband to be ill sometimes, but would shamefully send out to the pastrycook’s for his recuperative “calves’-foot jelley” as “it never occurred to her that she might make it herself. If she tried, should buy some calves’ feet; what next she should do, cannot say.” At this point, she need only refer to any cookery book – Invalid Cookery was a hot topic in all of them at this point. She “likes dancing better than anything else” which is much the same as many young ladies now, really.

Miss Jane Briggs “looks forward to a union with somebody in her own station of life”. Of course. She “really cannot say what a ledger is,” and “has never ironed a frill”. Neither have I, and I intend to keep it that way. She has eaten fowl, but never trussed one, and is in the dark as to how you make stuffing for a duck or goose.

Miss Elizabeth Atkins “has no idea whether she is a minor or not” and “cannot say whether she is a legatee or a testatrix”. Idiot. Doesn’t know how much milk or starch cost. “Her time is principally occupied in fancy work, reading novels, and playing quadrilles and waltzes on the piano.”

Sixty more ladies were apparently interviewed in this way, and more shocking statistics follow – only three knew how to corn beef, six knew what a sausage consisted of (does anyone really know this for sure?), and a mere four could make an onion sauce. None of them could brew alcohol. Punch “shudders at the idea” of what is to become of their future husbands. The poor onion-sauce-less, crumpled-frill-wearing husbands, ill in bed with their non-homemade calves’ feet jelly.

I love this line – as true of teenagers today as then (and quite right too) – “They mostly could tell what the last new song was; but none of them knew the current price of beef.”

NB. Incidentally, you might have noticed that Brown Windsor Soap is highlighted in the article. More of this in a future post – as I’m trying to determine whether Brown Windsor Soup (SOUP, that is) is an actual, real Victorian thing, or a later invention, and mainly used for comedy purposes.

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