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In my last column, I reviewed What a Young Wife Ought to Know (1901) by Emma Drake. It was part of a “sex and self” series that focused on what a young woman should do to establish a successful Victorian-like home at the turn of the last American century and one of two books my wife plucked off the shelf at a used book store. She spent eight dollars for the pair. I may have mumbled about more antiquarian books coming into the house but that ended right after I found a copy of Young Wife selling on eBay for thirty-eight dollars.

The other of the pair was a companion volume, What a Young Husband Ought to Know (1897) by a then prominent Lutheran pastor, Sylvanus Stall. Young husbands are of much less interest to me than young wives but the outcry from readers”well, one reader”for a review of Young Husband was so great, I must oblige.

I did not enjoy Stall nearly as well as Drake. Whereas Drake had a few silly medical ideas and some really ungenerous notions on heredity, Stall is awash in both. He is also heavy on moralistic preachments (a hazard, I guess, of being a preacher). While Drake’s goal was to produce successful women, in Stall’s account the young wife appears to be little more than a dependent in need of guidance and care and company and, golly, just everything. A wise young husband will provide it.

He intersperses his commentary with old wives tales regarded as veritable and self-evident truths. His notions on pregnancy and the effects external influences have on unborn children, for example, are outrageously, um, Victorian. An expectant mother who saw a child with a sixth finger and dwelled on it obsessively gave birth to a child with the same condition. A pregnant woman could not dismiss from her mind the image of her brother-in-law who had lost a hand by amputation and the child was born missing a hand. A Jewish mother once smelled fried pork during pregnancy and ached to taste it. The child born was colic and would not nurse unless first given some bacon to suck on. Pregnant women, Stall concludes, who entertain “low” and “base” thoughts during pregnancy risk birthing children of “low” and “base” appetites. For healthy, hygienic (a favored Victorian word), and intelligent children the mother must have “elevated” thoughts of a “refined” sort.

Nonsense, of course, but dangerous nonsense for the possible mental mischief such ideas imposed upon women. But such were the times that Stall’s Young Husband carries a strong endorsement by one Dr. Paul F. Mundè, at the time a Dartmouth College professor and gynecologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital.

Before erupting in mocking laughter, however, I recall contemporary advice on creating a comfy ambience for the gestating baby, all to produce a precociously gifted child. Placing headphones over mommy’s tummy and playing Mozart concertos, for example, was supposed to insure higher test scores. Prenatal flash cards were all that was missing. Of course, employing American Sign Language for non-verbalizing toddlers today has gained traction among some and comes about as close. Maybe we are not as far removed as we would like from the notions Stall and Mundè endorsed.

Yet for all the ridiculous stuff Stall offered, there is something yet to take away. If Stall saw the young wife as something of an object to be tended and Drake saw her definitely as the equal of the husband, both were nonetheless keen to create the home as the center for both their lives.

This is where I start to like the guy. A young husband, Stall admonishes, should continue to court his wife. He should, in dress and attire around the home, remember he has but one woman to captivate by his “manly charms” (I think he uses that in an ironic sense), and, being a man, it will likely require continuous effort. A father should be prepared and able to care for the children while his wife is out, and a proper one will find time to play with his kids. A real husband should be home after work, avoiding bars and clubs, and he should quiet the house when he gets there so the wife can get an hour’s rest. He should keep the house trim and the yard clean; even a modest house will benefit from male attention.

In Stall’s view being a successful young husband comes down to being a husband who will “sacrifice his personal luxuries and self-indulgences” for his wife and the family, “a man who will scorn the saloon . . . give up his cigar, and spend his time and his money” for the happiness of his family. He crosses a line of course with the cigar thing, but I’m with him on the rest of it. I even hear a Lutheran’s echo of Martin Luther in here, who once talked of God and angels smiling in approval as a father washes diapers.

Russell E. Saltzman is a Lutheran pastor, an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays . His previous On the Square articles can be found here .


What a Young Husband Ought to Know

Luther on diapers in The Estate of Marriage

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