“The disparity in years between you”: A random letter about marriage from nineteenth century Philadelphia

In 15 years, she will be in the prime of life – and you will, most probably, be a feeble old man.

While combing through collections in archives I often come across random letters and documents that may be interesting independent of their relevance to the project at hand. One such letter was in the Malcolm Hay Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I came across it during a fellowship with the Library Company and decided to transcribe the letter and present it here in its entirety for those who might be interested in questions related to marriage, reputation and social etiquette in nineteenth century Pennsylvania.

The letter in question was sent by Peter Hay in July 1858 to his son Henry Hay. The collection is named after Henry’s brother, Malcolm. A prominent family of lawyers, the Hays were influential Democratic Party members at both a local and state level. Elegantly written, the letter is essentially a warning to Henry from his father to break-off a whirlwind romance with a much younger girl, aged seventeen. Peter warns his son that this blossoming romance and the imminent wedding might be a “mistake”, a possible “false step”, and that the disgrace of such a marriage would not only reflect upon the couple, but also upon Henry’s children and “indeed on all your relatives”.

His father’s reflection on the union grows ever more pessimistic as the letter continues and he dwells further on the age gap between the pair. He notes that his son, aged forty-two, was a full twenty-five years older than his seventeen-year-old fiancée. Despite the girl’s mother having given her approval of the marriage Peter appeals the their greater life experiences stating that both he and his future mother-in-law should understand the differences in ages means there will be difficulty on the physical side of their relationship, if not immediately then in the near future. He cleverly explains this in a story about another colleague who married a woman twenty years younger, and, when asked if she is happy she reportedly replied she was as happy as could be expected “considering the difference in our ages” (emphasis in original), a fairly overt, if polite, reference to their sex lives.

Peter saves his most devastating argument for last noting that “Mrs. R” will be his children’s mother as well as his wife and questions how she is expected to fulfil this duty when his own children are as old as her. How can a young and inexperienced girl act as “their moral instructor and the guide and director in household matters”? He continues and writes that:

…the willingness of a girl of that age after a few weeks acquaintance with a gentleman nearly old enough to be her grandfather, to assume such a fearful responsibility, would of itself satisfy me, that she has no adequate conception of the position she decrees to occupy…

Upon first reading the letter might seem overly harsh, and though the message was delivered in a blunt manner, it was also couched in affectionate and diplomatic language. The letter opens with the father acknowledging that he cannot dictate his son’s actions simply advise him as “a father and a friend”. The final paragraph is quite touching and he tells his son the letter is not designed to “wound your feelings” and if there was anything in the letter that caused offence, “I trust you will forgive me”. It is hard to imagine that his son was not hurt by the letter, but still, Peter simply seems to be telling him what everyone else in society was thinking, trying to make him aware about the reality of their situation.

Further research reveals some interesting background to the letter and Henry’s decision on the engagement. Henry Hay’s first wife, Mary Ann Hay was only three years younger than himself. She died in her early thirties from an unknown and drawn out illness, probably tuberculosis. They had an Irish domestic servant in the US census of 1850 with the unlikely name Biddy Kline. There are two possible explanations, the first is that the census taker misheard her surname. Possibly he heard an Irish surname like Kane and wrote a name he was more familiar with, Kline. The second, and less likely explanation, is that the domestic servant is pretending to be Irish in order to gain employment in the household. Irish women, although caricatured for their tendency to work as domestic servants, were generally sought after because they spoke English, and thus held a significant advantage over other female continental European immigrants to the United States. The second explanation would also explain the weird appearance of the letter P on its own just before Ireland in the birthplace column for Biddy, and might indicate he was about to write Poland. A more likely cause is that the census taker was about to write Pennsylvania as he did for the previous six entries before he was corrected that Biddy was born in Ireland.

The next census in 1860, taken two years after the letter was sent reveals that the marriage went ahead despite Peter’s objections and the couple were living in Bristol Township in Pennsylvania. The census also reveals that certain details in the letter are accurate. Peter was not exaggerating when he said that the children would be older than their mother-to-be. Their ages in the census reveal that Henry’s eldest son, Henry Junior, was nineteen at the time of the letter, a full two years older than his fiancée. Emma, the first name of “Mrs R.”. She was actually pregnant at the time of the census and would give birth to another Emma (they weren’t very creative when it came to children’s names) in December of that year. This child grew up, married and eventually died in the same area, passing away at home with her husband, Otis Vroom, caring for her in a house a few short miles from where she was born. The cause of death was Uremia, and the date of her passing, aged 54, was almost one hundred years ago, on 14 June 1915. It would be nice to think that centenaries might allow us to contemplate equally on the lives of the vast bulk of humanity as well as the massacre of hundreds of thousands in a futile conflict. This letter, a random letter I came across by chance, would have meant the world to Emma Hay Vroom, whose existence hinged on the decision of her father and mother to fly in the face of familial reputation and social convention in the year 1858.

The letter in its entirety follows.

Philadelphia July 7th 1858

I felt it my duty, a few days ago, frankly to express my regret at your contemplated marriage, and have some of the reasons upon what that sentiment was founded. I have since concluded, in order to avoid misapprehension, to present them in a more condensed & desirable form, for your serious consideration. I assume no right to dictate to you on that or any other subject. I only claim the privileges of a father and a friend to offer my best advice. It is for you to accept or reject it. You are my first born son, and are the only surviving offspring of the wife of my youth. I have almost reached the ordinary limit of human life, and in the course of events, I expect soon to be called hence. I have looked to you as the friend and counsellor of my children after my death; and feel that any false step made or any disgrace incurred by you would cast its reflection on them- and indeed on all your relatives.

I repeat, what I said to you the other day that in my judgment your own happiness and that of your children required that you should be married – and the sooner the better; but that the utmost caution should be used in selecting a suitable person to occupy the position of wife and mother. A mistake on this point will be fatal. Your happiness and the present and future destiny of your children are involved in the issue. Do the conditions that are absolutely required for an able and satisfactory discharge of their duties, meet in Mrs. R.? I think, not. Look at the disparity in years between you. By the record you are nearly 42 years old; in constitutional vigor, not less than 50. Mrs. R. I have reason to believe, is under 17. In 15 years, she will be in the prime of life – and you will, most probably, be a feeble old man. This is a grave consideration for both parties.

Will she be willing to be tied for years to a man as good as dead? Are you willing, for the sake of a temporary gratification, to expose a young woman to the temptation, and your own honor to the risk of such a state of things? Consider the matter well. I have been told, in substance, that her mother has expressed it as her daughters sentiment, that if she loved a man she did not care about his age – even if he were 70! In the young lady this may be ignorance or romance, and a few short years, or even months would forever dissipate the illusion; but her mother and you know better…

A distinguished gentleman of this city, with whom you are personally acquainted, at the age of 46 or 48, married a beautiful and accomplished young lady of about 20, now deceased – A short time after her marriage, a lady acquaintance of mine called on her, and after the usual compliments, inquired how she liked married life? She relied that her husband was as kind, affectionate and attentive as possible, and that she was as happy as could be expected, “considering the difference in our ages.” The feelings, tastes and habits of early youth and mature age are different. Nature intended them to be so; and we cannot violate her laws with impunity. This lady was a faithful wife; has her children now nearly grown up; but I doubt whether she was ever happy. Her husband is, even now, a hale, vigorous old man.

You have a family of seven children – one of whom is little more than an infant, and three of them will require the constant and vigilant supervision of a discreet, intelligent and experienced woman, during the next few years, the most critical period of their lives, within which their character, for good or evil, is to be found.

The long continued illness of their mother and your inability from absence to devote the necessary time and attention to their education (I mean education in the largest sense) have greatly increased the difficulty of the task that will devolve on the lady to whose care they may be committed – a task, which I repeat without the fear of contradiction, no girl of 16 or 17, unless possessed of very extraordinary mental and educational endowments is at all competent to fulfil; [sic] and the willingness of a girl of that age after a few weeks acquaintance with a gentleman nearly old enough to be her grandfather, to assume such a fearful responsibility, would of itself satisfy me, that she has no adequate conception of the position she decrees to occupy, and is so anxious to be secure and comfortable home as to risk every thing else, regardless of consequences. I presume that Supt. R. Is a respectable, industrious, and attractive in appearance; but still she is a mere girl, who instead of being places at the head of a large family of children, some as old as herself, ought to be at school- a girl not a whit superior if indeed she is equal in intellect and experience to several of your children, of whom you are thinking of selecting her as their moral instructor and the guide and director in household matters. I should suppose, that by the time you were so far awake to the sober realities of life, as to be in no danger, in view of all of your responsibilities of being fascinated by the smiles or the pretty face of a mere girl- so far at least as to be driven to abandon all the proprieties of life. Am I mistaken?

So far as I can learn, all your relatives by blood or affinity, without exception, regard the step you propose taking, with the deepest regret and mortification. They view it as in every way unsuitable, and fraught with disaster to yourself and your children; and in this sentiment, it appears to me that every right minded man or woman, not blinded by prejudice or passion, will concur.

I have written to you thus, my dear son, with a sad heart- not to wound your feelings, or to inflict or injury on any human being; but under a solemn conviction, that it is my duty to warn you of what I verily believe is an impending danger, and to implore you not to do an act which, I feel opposed, will be a continual source of the deepest regret and remorse as long as you live. This is the first time in your life that I have ever appealed to you on any subject. You know that it is not my course to do so, and that I am not easily moved. If I have said any thing that you may think harsh of unkind, I trust you will forgive me. I have no motive in addressing you but to guard you against a threatened evil and to promote your best interest and that of your family, with which my own [cross] and that of these I love are closely identified. Your affectionate father, Pete Hay To Henry Hay esq.


Malcolm Hay Papers #1788 Box 104 Folder 3. 1850 U.S. Census, Middletown Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, p. 307. 1860 U.S. Census, Bristol Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, p. 33. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, File No. 13762.

This research was facilitated by the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company of Philadelphia.

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Filed under Memory, Nineteenth Century

One response to ““The disparity in years between you”: A random letter about marriage from nineteenth century Philadelphia

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