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The Successful Spinster vs. the Old Maid—in 1888

“An Old Maid is a woman minus something; the Glorified Spinster is a woman plus something.”

Previously, I shared my delightful discovery of lengthy article in Atlantic magazine, more than a century ago, about a successful bachelor. When the brilliant scholar Adriana Savu (who told us about singles in Romania) saw what I wrote, she tipped me off to a wonderful article in MacMillan’s Magazine from 10 years before (1888), called “The Glorified Spinster.”

“Glorified,” in the article, was not meant disparagingly. But to avoid confusion, and to underscore the parallels with the article about bachelors, I will refer to the spinsters of the article as “successful spinsters” rather than glorified ones. There is no name attached to the article, so I don’t even know if the author is a man or a woman. Throughout the article, one successful spinster who was an acquaintance of the author was quoted at length. She was not named, either.

Whereas Leon Vincent, in the Atlantic article, focused on one particularly successful bachelor, the article in MacMillan’s singles out a whole category of single women for special praise:

“Our Spinster has good health, good spirits, few worries, few restraints, and a keen appetite for amusement, which she has special facilities for gratifying.”

She is also “widely read and often highly cultured.”

The successful spinsters of the late 19th century — like the successful bachelor, Henry Crabb Robinson – were remarkable for the ways they exemplified the best of single life. We now know, based on scientific research, what was only surmised then: Single people love their freedom. They savor solitude, too, but they are also good at making and keeping friends. Many of them exercise and have good health.

Single people are often well-educated, too. In fact, among the factors used to explain the rise of single women at the time (1888) was “the spread of education, which has enabled many women to find happiness in intellectual pleasures and to care comparatively little about social environment.”

I’m not sure, though, that today’s successful spinsters have a “power of entering a tramcar without stopping the horses.”

I was saddened, though I suppose not particularly surprised, to learn that spinsters from 131 years ago were tarred with some of the same stereotypes that single women still deal with today.

The Successful Spinster Loves Her Freedom, and When It Comes to Marriage, She Is a Smug Single

The successful spinster “has tasted the sweets of liberty and independence, and would be very loth to relinquish them.”

She does not try to make nice when talking about women who marry:

“…she considers marriage as a last resort for those who lack sufficient strength of mind or body to maintain their footing in the world alone.”

That’s very different from the successful spinster:

“…her critical faculty is usually so abnormally developed that the power of idealizing human beings has gone from her, and consequently falling in love is almost impossible.”

These descriptions of successful spinsters make me wonder whether they were the “single at heart” women of the 19th century.

The Successful Spinster Cares about Her Friends

The successful spinster “prides herself on her capacity for lasting friendships and her affection for animals and children.” She would like to be classified as “Not in the marriage market” and then “be allowed perfect freedom in choosing our friends.” She would like to have some men as friends, and some successful spinsters have done so, “but custom and social prejudices are against it.”

Most friends of spinsters are women, but not just any women. Among the women that successful spinsters would eliminate from their list of potential friends are:

“All those…who are looking forward to marriage as their ultimate destiny…” as well as the Old Maids, “women who feel themselves cruelly deprived of their natural sphere of work and happiness, and becoming soured, lack strength and spontaneity to make a full and satisfactory life for themselves.”

The Successful Spinster Cares about Her Health

The spinster told the author that she walks a mile and a half to and from work every day. “I choose to live at this distance,” she explained, “because I consider the daily walk essential for health.”

Some Stereotypes of Single Women Seem to Date Back to 1888

Apparently, it is not just 21st century single people who get stereotyped as lonely and selfish. The successful spinsters of more than a century ago had to put up with that, too.

Spinsters know that other people think they are lonely

The spinster who spoke to the author of the MacMillan’s article described her typical day. It usually ended with dinner at home, some reading, and occasionally, an outing to a concert or lecture. She never uses the word loneliness but says this:

“You ask if I never crave for companionship in my leisure hours. Candidly, I do not.”

Spinsters are disparaged as selfish even as their actions demonstrate the opposite

The spinsters of the late 19th century were typically quite poor. Yet whenever they had any money to spare, they helped their relatives. Here’s the author describing the successful spinster as selfish while acknowledging in the same sentence that she is not: “in spite of the apparent selfishness of her mode of life, she readily acknowledges the claims of family.”

Again, the successful spinster knows how she is seen: “she is conscious of a conviction…that her mode of life is essentially selfish, and therefore stands condemned.” And yet, successful spinsters are also described as caring deeply about injustice and evil, and committed to doing something about them: “Her own instinct drives her to make action follow close on conviction.”

The Author’s 1888 Predictions and Recommendations for the Successful Spinster

In the author’s conclusion about the successful spinster, the distinction is again drawn between her and the unsuccessful Old Maid:

“Her contentment, on the whole, with her lot, her unfeigned thankfulness in escaping some of the trials incident to married life, her marvelous faculty of extracting happiness in apparently most unpropitious circumstances, the prolongation of youthful looks and sensations until middle age, will preserve her from the “envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness” supposed to belong of right to a woman in the unmarried state.”

The author does worry, though, that the successful spinster may become “incapable of high enthusiasms, unless some way is found of giving her a recognized place in the social and political scheme.” She or he suggests that spinsters “should find their happiness in expending for the public advantage those powers for good which in other women find their natural and right use in the family circle.” For example, they can “come to the aid of those who are already desperately struggling with the evils which threaten to overwhelm our civilization.” That would “perhaps do as much for the commonwealth as the inventor of a new torpedo.”

The Successful Spinster vs. the Old Maid—in 1888

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single," Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2019). The Successful Spinster vs. the Old Maid—in 1888. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Sep 2019
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