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VIII. maiden aunts.

That admirable patriot, John A. Andrew, the War Governor of Massachusetts, was emphatically a man of impulses, and he never used a phrase more impulsive and more questionable than when, in speaking of the single women of his own State, he characterized many of them as being “anxious and aimless.” He did not mean the remark as ungenerous, but it was founded on a common error that has since been disproved. In his time it was generally assumed that the great plurality of women over men in some of our older States was due to an inconvenient excess of “single sisters ;” and it was not till Colonel Carroll D. Wright took, with his accustomed thoroughness, the Massachusetts census of 1875 that the disproportion was found really to lie not among single women, but among widows. His figures are as follows, when he analyzes the whole into its parts:

Excess of single women in Massachusetts8,975
Excess of married women1,785
Excess of widowed women52,903
Excess of divorced women817
Total excess of women64,483
Deduct excess of men over women in class “unknown” 1,337
Net excess of women63,1461

[39] The small excess of married women includes those whose husbands are for some reason residing in other States or who have been deserted. The excess of single women, which is small for a State of more than a million and a half of people, is due in part to the families where the brothers “go West” and the sisters stay at home, but far more to the factory system of the State, which is always importing young women from beyond the borders. The main discrepancy lies in the vast preponderance of widows over widowers, there being in Massachusetts 73,527 of the former, and only 20,624 of the latter. This, again, is due to several causes: the great annual losses of life in seaport towns, the factory system again, and the natural tendency of women left widowed to return to the home of their youth. At any rate, these facts make short work of the “anxious and aimless” theory, since no widow can belong to the latter class, at least if she has children. Indeed, the statistics leave it an open question whether the supply of spinsters is in any of our States sufficient-whether we do not suffer from a deficit rather than from an excess of maiden aunts.

To decide this question we must remember that there is in any community an immense and constant demand for this class. They are the natural stopgaps, the flying buttresses, the emergency lectures, [40] of all families. When in difficulty, you send for a maiden aunt. When the mother is ill at home, and the governess is in the hospital, and the nurse's third cousin has died, so that she must spend several days in going to the funeral, then it is that telegrams fly in all directions for maiden aunts. It is a wonder that there are no special blanks ready with the proper addresses at the telegraph-offices, and particular stamped envelopes at post-offices, “For Miss--, maiden aunt at-- ; to be delivered instantly.” Sometimes there is an especial maiden aunt to whom a whole town turns, as in James T. Fields's story, where the country boy who had fallen into a well, and whom the collected ladders and ropes of the neighborhood could not extract, was heard shouting from the depths of the earth, “Why don't you send for Miss Kent, you fools?” The arrival of Miss Kent set everything working smoothly; and so it always is when maiden aunts arrive. The lady from Philadelphia, in Miss Lucretia Hale's “Peterkin” stories, who always got that luckless family out of all perplexities, was unquestionably a maiden aunt. The party stranded in mid-air, in Howells's “Elevator,” would undoubtedly have been rescued by a maiden aunt had not the author-with his well-known severity towards women-shut up his aunt Mary in the elevator itself, where she could only request her silly niece not to be a goose. Even [41] in this, we perceive, is the utility of maiden aunts vindicated.

It might seem, as we look around at these priceless relatives, as if there were a good many of them in the world, but in reality there are far too few. Their ranks are so easily depleted, also, by the possibilities of illness, school-keeping, foreign travel, or matrimony that there are seldom enough of them at hand in any family. It is said that young men are growing dilatory about marriage, and this is, if true, a blessing in disguise; for what would become of us if all the maiden aunts were married, and had to look round in vain for other maiden aunts to help take care of their babies? Consider bow many aunts a single baby needs: with what devouring rapidity these exhausting little creatures will use up one after another — in times of teething, for instance-till it seems as if only a very large old-fashioned family could supply aunts enough to go round. Illness makes a demand for aunts; temporary absences make room for them; they are needed when company is to be received, presents are to be made, new curtains to be decided upon, the family dress-making to be attended to; when, in short, are they not needed? Indeed, they are sometimes supposed to exist merely to “accommodate,” as the phrase is at intelligence-offices for a temporary supply; and there is sometimes as much [42] outcry in a large family when a maiden aunt ventures to be married as if she had taken a vow of celibacy in early life.

No! the maiden aunts of this rough world are not anxious and aimless; they are the salt of the earth, and, like the salt described in the little boy's composition, they are something that makes the world taste badly when there is nothing of them in it. They are never too numerous; indeed, they are never quite numerous enough. The bounteous Irish woman in “Rudder Grange” thinks that it must be very lonesome in a house with only one baby; and that household must also be lonesome that does not have within a six-mile radius at least three or four maiden aunts. But it must be confessed that this propinquity is sometimes rather hard upon the aunts.

1 Mass. Census, 1875, p. 39.

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