Featured Image: Courrier de la Mode Fashion Plate (1872)

Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.  She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.  Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.  --Proverbs 31: 25-28

Girls were taught from childhood the ideals of perfection and submission. Early indoctrination may have been why this ‘ideal of perfection’ wasn’t challenged. Parents, churches, schools, book, and magazines all conveyed this idea: “Be a lady and you will be loved and respected and supported. If you defy the pattern and behave in ways considered unladylike you will be unsexed, rejected, unloved, and you will probably starve.” [1] Love was not the basis for many marriages in this society. Many marriages were based on proximity, consideration of land, family connections, or the fear of being an old maid. [2]

Girls began keeping a hope chest preparing for marriage in middle Georgia where many of the families were planters. It was common for many of these girls to marry at fourteen or fifteen years old. [3] The girl who had many suitors was envied; and the households pitied that had ‘old maids.’

Young southern girls were rarely trained to keep house. Education for girls at home and academies focused on intellectual and artistic accomplishments. The skill of sewing was taught in the form of samplers and ornamental needlework rather than practical everyday application. These young girls were taught that God’s had created them for the sole purpose of being a wife and mother. [4] Parents, boarding schools, and advice books also gave instructed girls to accentuate their influence using manners, charm, virtue, and “accomplishments.”

Brides and Bridesmaids ~ Godey’s Ladies Book– December 1860
We give a view of the preparation for a most graceful and unusual festival- a triple wedding.
Fig. 1- First bride-is dressed in a white reps silk, with triple skirt; a heavy satin cord stand out from the silk like a Bayadere stripe. Each skirt is looped with barbes of point Duchess, arranged as bows; the same ornament fastens the collar and loops the sleeves. Rich undersleeves and veils of point Duchess. Wreath of jessamine and orange-buds, drooping to the right.
Fig. 2- Bridesmaid of First Bride, in pale brown, one of the new and fashionable shades. The dress is of silk, trimmed with plisses of ribbon the same shade. Wreath of Marguerites and field grass in the hair.
Fig. 3- Second Bride – Plain dress of white corded silk. The principle point in this figure is the novel arrangement of the veil, which is divided, a part falling over the back of the head, and the other portion attached to the wreath in front,
Fig. 4.- Bridesmaid to Second Bride. Dress of sapphire blue silk, now shade. Hair in puffs, with a wreath of single blossoms of the wild rose, without foliage.
Fig. 5- Third Bride- Dress of plain white silk, of rich texture. The trimming is alternately a plisse of the same and a row of rich lace; corsage and sleeves follow the same style. Fine wreath of orange-buds. Plain illusion veil.
Fig. 6- Bridesmaid for Third Bride. Dress of rose-pink silk, the skirt trimmed by seven narrow puffs around the bottom; plain corsage, with point sleeves in a single puff; bertha and upper skirt of rich lace; parne of Cherokee roses, grass, and leaves.
Fig. 7- The “friend of the family,” in a rich blue dress (dew shade of Mazarine), with a light sorlie de bal trimmed with swan’s-down.

George Fitzhugh, nineteenth century American social theorist, writes:

So long as she is nervous, fickle, capricious, delicate, diffident and dependent, man will worship and adore her. Her weakness is her strength, and her true art is to cultivate and improve that weakness. Woman naturally shrinks from public gaze, and from the struggle and competition of life … . In truth, woman, like children, has but one right, and that is the right to protection. The right to protection involves the obligation to obey. A husband, a lord and master, whom she should love, honor and obey, nature designed for every woman… [5]

Women, along with children and slaves, were also expected to recognize their proper and subordinate place; and to be obedient to the husband, Master of the Plantation. [6]

This submissive wife’s duty was to love, honor, obey and occasionally amuse her husband, to being up his children, and to manage his household. Physically weak, and “formed for the less laborious occupations,” she depended upon male protection. To secure this protection she was endowed with the capacity to “create a magic spell” over any man in the vicinity. She was timid and modest, beautiful and graceful, “the most fascinating being in creation … the delight and charm of every circle she moves in. [7]

Part of a wife’s charm was her innocence. Her sensibility and intuition were highly developed, but she lacked logical reasoning. Her nature was to be self-denying and she suffered in silence. She was thought to be “most deeply interested in the success of every scheme which curls the passions and enforces a true morality.” [8] A woman “was a natural teacher, and a wise counselor to her husband and children.” [9]

Author Thomas Nelson Page’s (1853-1922) Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War remarks:

Her life was one long act of devotion, - devotion to God, devotion to her husband, devotion to her children, devotion to her servants, to her friends, to the poor, to humanity. Nothing happened within the range of her knowledge that her sympathy did not reach and her charity and wisdom did not ameliorate. She was the head and front of the church an unmitred bishop in partibus, more effectual than the vestry or deacons, more earnest than the rector; she managed her family, regulated her servants, fed the poor, nursed the sick, consoled the bereaved.

Who knew of the visits she paid to the cabins of her sick and suffering servants! often, at the dead of night, "slipping down" the last thing to see that her directions were carried out; with her own hands administering medicines or food; ever by her cheeriness inspiring new hope, by her strength giving courage, by her presence awaking faith; telling in her soft voice to dying ears the story of the suffering Saviour; with her hope soothing the troubled spirit, and lighting with her own faith the path down into the valley of the dark shadow. What poor person was there, however inaccessible the cabin, that was sick or destitute and knew not her charity! Who that was bereaved that had not her sympathy!

The training of her children was her work. She watched over them, inspired them, led them, governed them; her will impelled them; her word to them, as to her servants, was law. She reaped the reward. If she admired them, she was too wise to let them know it; but her sympathy and tenderness were theirs always, and they worshipped her. [10]

Role as the Mistress of the Plantation

The plantation mistress performed the role of housekeeper, subjugated to her husband’s demands, and the tasks connected with childcare. Gracious, conscientious homemaker, household budgeter, and being able to handle financial matters were part of the traits needed to be a successful matron. Other important tasks such as gardening, salting pork, preserving fruits and vegetables, making candles, and soap kept the matron of the house busy. Sarah Gayle’s diary details her strenuous life: “29 June 1832 … I do not know if I have any positive disease, but I have my own proper share of nervousness, weakness, swimming in the head and a dull sleepy sensation … My family claims untiring attention.” [11] The Sabbath was the only day of rest for these overwhelmed women.

Many plantation wives did their own spinning, weaving, and sewing. David Gavin, lawyer and owner of a plantation, writes in his diary:

Saturday, 13 May 1856 … my mother spun, wove cloth, cooked and occasionally went to the cow pen to milk the cows, father plowed and drove the wagon, made shoes and did other work, My mother always seed to her cooking and did a great deal if it, had her spinning and weaving done for the whole plantation white and black, no cloth or negro shoes were bought whilst father and mother lived, father made his own negro shoes and mother the clothes… [12]

The mistress of the plantation, no matter how large or wealthy the establishment, was expected to “understand not only the skills of spinning, weaving, and sewing but also gardening, care of poultry, care of the sick, and all aspects of food preparation from the sowing of the seed to the appearance of the of the final product on the table.” [13] Other duties included: supervising hog butchering; drying fruits and vegetables for the winter; making yeast, lard, and soap; set the hens; and make sill enough skill for a slave or ballgown for themselves. [14]

Margaret Ann (“Meta”) Morris Grimball, mistress of Grove Plantation in South Carolina, wrote the following words in her diary:

29 December 1860 … A Plantation life is a very active one. This morning I got up late having been disturbed in the night, hurried down to have something arranged for breakfast, Ham, & eggs … Had prayers, got off the boys to town. Had work cut out, gave orders about dinner, had the horse feed fixed in hot water, had the box filled with cork: - went to see about the carpenters … where there are men mending chimneys, white washing, & these carpenters Mr. Grimball told me he wished me to see about every day, & now I have to cut out flannel jackets, and alter some work. [15]

The wife allocated duties among the household servants. The mistress of the plantation “was often responsible for dealing out weekly rations to all the slaves, and for making sure that they were clothed according to the standards of the plantation. [16]

Motherhood was glorified and romanticized among women in this society, but there was an absence of the ‘darker side’ of maternity. [17] Women faced endless pregnancies and the fear of childbirth. Many women died in childbirth. When a woman survived, they tended to have large families.

Victoria Clayton was the wife of a farmer in Georgia. Before his death, he asked her to “make record in this way of her experiences, and she feels that his wishes in the matter should be respected. And, therefore though utterly unaccustomed to literary effort, she tries to fulfil his desire.” [18] She writes, “My duties, as will be seen, were numerous and often laborious; the family on the increase continually, and everyone added increased labor and responsibility. And this was the case with the typical Southern woman.” [19]


[1] Anne Firor Scott, The Southern Lady: from Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 20-21.

[2] Scott, 24.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Scott, 23.

[5] George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South: or, The Failure of Free Society (Richmond: A. Morris, 1854), 214-215.

[6] Scott, 17.

[7] Scott, 4.

[8] Scott, 4-5.

[9] Scott, 5.

[10] Thomas Nelson Page, Social Life in Old Virginia (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897), 38-42.

[11] The Journal of Sarah Haynsworth Gayle, 1827-1835: A Substitute for Social Intercourse. Bayne and Gayle Family Papers, 1798-1963. The Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

[12] David Gavin Diary, 1855-1874, in the David Gavin Diary #1103-z, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 30.

[13] Scott, 31.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Margaret Ann Meta Morris Grimball Diary, 1860-1866 (page in the Margaret Ann Meta Morris Grimball Diary #975-z, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 10-11.[16] Scott, 36.

[17] Scott, 37.

[18] Victoria Virginia Hunter Clayton, White and Black Under the Old Régime, (Milwaukee: The Young Churchman Co., 1899), 14.

[19] Clayton, 124.

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