27 April 2009

Love & Marriage in America’s Past: Singular Problems

Marriage may be an honorable state, but throughout US history it took the law or public censure to persuade many Americans to indulge.

Be married, or be fined. So said the city council of Fort Dodge, Iowa, when, in 1907, it passed a law requiring everyone between the ages of 25 and 45 to wedor else.

As extreme as the measures seemed at that late date, however, it would have been entirely normal in Colonial America, where public censure ensured that unmarried adults remained a rarity. In 17th century New England, “antient maids” of 25 were labeled a “dismal spectacle.” And in North Carolina, one newspaper declared them “never-to-be-pleased, good for nothing creatures.” Single women usually had no choice but to live with relatives, where they might spend their lives spinning flax and wool for the family; hence the name spinster. The epithets thornback, stale Maid, and antique virgin also were commonly applied.

Bachelors fared every bit as badly. Viewed as suspect or even criminal, they were spied upon by the local constabulary and penalized to make sure they would enjoy less freedom as bachelors than they would if married. Unattached men were taxed in Maryland and Connecticut. And in 1695 the (evidently) bird-infested burg of Eastham, Massachusetts, required that “every unmarried man in the township shall kill six blackbirds or three crows while he remains single.” On the other hand, town fathers in New England sometimes sweetened the deal for bachelors, offering them free home sites if they succumbed to wedlock.

blackbird noun [countable] = un merle
crow noun [countable] = un corbeau
constabulary noun [British - countable]
the police of a particular place
dismal adjective
very bad
a dismal performance/record
ensure verb [transitive]
to make certain that something happens or gets done
Our new system ensures that everyone gets paid on time.
fare verb [formal]
used for saying how well or how badly someone does something
We now have a much better picture of how schools are faring.
The party didn’t fare as well in the local elections.
fine verb [transitive]
to make someone pay an amount of money as punishment for breaking the law
She was fined £250 for speeding.
flax noun [uncountable] = le lin
hence adverb [formal]
used for introducing  something that is a result of the fact that has just been stated
His grandfather was Greek, hence the last name.
Alcohol can cause liver failure and hence death.
label verb [transitive]
to use a word or phrase to describe someone or something, especially one that is not completely faire or true
We shouldn’t label these boys as criminals so early in their lives.
Her latest movie has been labeled a disaster by the critics.
or else expression [mainly spoken]
used for threatening someone; used when you do not say what you are threatening to do
You’d better do as we tell you, or else!
relative noun [countable]
a member of your family, especially one who does not live with you,  for example a grandparent or a cousin
We spent the week visiting the relatives.
single adjective
not married, or not in a romantic relationship
Please state whether you are single, married or divorced.
spectacle noun [countable]
an embarrassing event
Congress is keen to avoid the spectacle of sending government workers home.
spin verb [intransitive/transitive]
to twist fibers of a material such as cotton or wool into thread in order to make cloth
She spins all her own wool.
succumb verb [intransitive]
to lose your ability to fight against someone or something, and allow them to control or persuade you
First they said no, but eventually they succumbed.
She succumbed to temptation and ordered a glass of wine.
sweeten verb [transitive]
to make something such as an offer or a deal seem more attractive in order to persuade someone to accept it
town father / city father noun [countable]
a member of a city or town’s council
unattached adjective
not married or not having a boyfriend or girlfriend
wed verb [transitive/intransitive]
to marry someone
wedlock noun [old-fashioned – uncountable]
the state of being married
He was born out of wedlock (= his parents weren’t married)
wool noun [uncountable]
thick hair that grows on sheep and some other animals

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