Old Maids & Old Bachelors: An Assembly of Undateables, 1743

These two companion prints, published in 1743, illustrate the wares on offer for those who have found it difficult to find a match, whether owing to their age, vulgar behaviour, illness – or simply the unfortunate arrangement of their facial features.

In the eighteenth century, to be so obviously considered unsaleable goods was something of an embarrassment, and both unmarried men and women fell prey to a little public ridicule. However, as the verses printed below each image illustrate, the reality of such a fate was much harsher for women, unless they happened to command a large independent fortune and a good deal of respect.

Let’s take a closer look, and see what we can learn from these poor neglected creatures.

The Old Bachelors

lwlpr01117Ten decaying old gentlemen sit in a rather fine-looking room, presumably to debate the political hot topics of the day and bemoan the infirmities that come with age. Only one looks at all comfortable with his lot – the stout, sly-looking fellow on the left – and all are showing visible signs of advancing decrepitude. Half of them require a walking stick, one being crippled with gout, and another seafaring gent lacking a leg and an eye. It isn’t difficult to believe that they have been somewhat overlooked by the ladies – some scrawny, some putting something of a strain on their waistcoats, one with an uninviting snuff habit and none with any attractiveness to boast about.

The portraits behind them cast a slightly different light on the gathering – the central painting implies that love of drink and debauched lifestyle may have led them to their present circumstances, and those on either side depict foxes. These animals had long been associated with lechery, and ‘fox-tail’ was slang for penis – it might be worth noting that all of the foxes in the portraits have drooping, unimpressive tails, or none at all. (George Chapman’s Jacobean play All Fools mentions a gaggle of “superannuated bachelors” who bemoan the idea of marriage, “who, like the fox, having lost his tail, would persuade others to lose theirs for company” – see the right-hand portrait.)

The chosen verse – excerpts from Dryden – runs thus:

The Bloom of Beauty other Years demands,
Nor will be gather’d with such withered Hands:
This Impudence of Age, whence can it Spring.
All you expect, and yet you nothing being:
Eager to ask when you are past a Grant;
Nice in providing what you cannot want.

All of this hints that perhaps the bachelors have had some hand in choosing their circumstances, rather than simply being left on the shelf. And that they’re not talking politics at all, but more likely railing against marriage and / or lamenting their lost virility. They have actively eschewed the life of the honest husband for that of the old letch.



 The Old Maids


So, what have we here? A quick glance at our female line up is enough – a huddled group of twelve grinning, gurning, gossiping old spinsters. ‘Take Me Out’ this is not.

Although most look quite content with present company, this is probably due to their feminine simple-mindedness – they are more concerned with idle chatter and their pampered lapdogs. Most are balding, grinning inanely or showing a distasteful amount of ample bosom.

We find no eloquent poetic lament, but a brutally abusive verse apparently penned especially for the occasion:

What odd sort of commical Creatures are here?
Old Maids do you call them I believe so they are,
For sure never Man in his Senses would chuse
With Creatures so frightful to join in a Noose.

Such Mouths and such Faces when ere they are seen
Are enough in all Conscience to give me the Spleen;
That they are true Virgins their Faces may vouch,
For who but the Devil their Bodies could touch?

Their failure to attract a man is entirely their own fault – their bodies are simply too vile. Not only have they been unable to find someone with whom to “join in a Noose” (a charming reference to marriage), the women have never even succeeding in tempting a man into their beds! Their ugliness is proof enough of that.

For the women, then, the inability to secure a husband was no choice, but a failing indeed.



Images: ‘The Assembly of Old Batchelors’ and ‘The Assembly of Old Maids’ by Louis-Pierre Boitard (1743). Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library.

If you are interested in the reputations of bachelors and old maids in the Georgian era, you can do no better than to follow the work of @Amanda_Vickery, including this fascinating talk on Georgian bachelorhood, ‘What Did Eighteenth Century Men Want?


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