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Standards of propriety were lofty indeed

Something called delicacy overtook Americans soon after our successful Revolution. Like an incoming tide, it flowed all over the nineteenth century, reaching its high-water mark about a hundred years ago. From that point it slowly receded, leaving behind rock pools of what came to be identified as prudery. Today, with the tide at a record ebb, the word “delicacy” usually connotes either fragility or a choice food and certainly not “aversion to what is considered morally distasteful or injurious,” which is what it chiefly meant to our ancestors.

 

The Puritans subscribed to moral strictness but not to delicacy in the nineteenth-century sense of the word. They called a spade a spade. A colonial lady or gentleman had no hesitation about using such words as “legs” and “belly” to describe those parts of the body; but their children and grandchildren preferred “nether limbs” and “lower portion.” Perhaps one reason why this came about was that many families were rising into higher social spheres and felt insecure about how to behave there. They were, in fact, unwittingly fashioning the great American middle class, which was to become the arbiter and dictator of our manners and morals, replacing both church and monarchy. In colonial days most people had tried to behave in a blameless manner for fear of an avenging God. Fear of Mrs. Grundy had also been a factor, but now, in more worldly times, that lady assumed a little more importance and an outraged deity a little less. As for the monarchy, which had been represented in the colonies by the royal governor and his circle, the citizens of the new Republic were eager to show that they despised it. Intensely patriotic, they were out to prove that the United States was the noblest, purest land on earth. Standards of propriety must therefore be lofty indeed, and the men relied on their wives to set these standards and to bring up the children in accordance with them. A squeamish female became the ideal, and girls grew up with the conviction that if they were properly squeamish, they would be thought refined.

Delicacy also governed falling in love

One book that spelled out how delicacy could be achieved was A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters . Originally published in England, it was often reprinted in America during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The author, a clergyman named John Gregory, cautioned his readers not to be afraid of being thought prudish. “When a girl ceases to blush, she has lost the most powerful charm of beauty,” he assured them. Young girls, he said, would be better off if they remained “rather silent” in company. “Wit is the most dangerous talent you can possess.” As for humor, it is “often a great enemy to delicacy …” and so is learning (“if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men …”). Apparently American girls took this advice to heart, for foreign visitors often complained of great difficulty in trying to engage them in ordinary conversation; and John Qjiincy Adams, as a young man around Boston, wished that “our young ladies were as distinguished for the beauties of their minds as they are for the charms of their persons. But alas! too many of them are like a beautiful apple that is insipid to the taste.”

 

Considerations of delicacy also governed falling in love. ”… Love is not to begin on your part” was the decree of Dr. Gregory. “[It] is entirely to be the consequence of our attachment to you. … As … nature has not given you that unlimited range in your choice which we enjoy, she has wisely and benevolently assigned to you a greater flexibility of taste on this subject. … If you love him, let me advise you never to discover to him the full extent of your love; no, not although you marry him; that sufficiently shows your preference, which is all he is entitled to know.” Dr. Gregory further informs his audience that “violent love” (delicacy prevents him from clarifying this term) will lead to “satiety and disgust” and that it is a woman’s job to avoid it.

Bundling, that cozy custom, was out

To instill and foster delicacy in children became an increasingly vital element in their rearing. A child displaying indelicacy was sure to be barred from other children’s houses by watchful parents. Table manners, dress, conversation, even the food one preferred involved questions of delicacy. A properly delicate girl, for instance, asked for a helping of white meat of chicken (never breast) and declined—at least in public—such robust items as corned beef or blood pudding. There were debates as to whether it was indelicate for girls to attend public lectures. Lydia Child, in 1833, defied majority opinion by writing that skating, hoop rolling, and other boyish sports were suitable for little girls, but only “provided they can be pursued within the inclosure of a garden, or court; in the street, they would of course be highly improper. It is true, such games are rather violent, and sometimes noisy; but they tend to form a vigorous constitution; and girls who are habitually ladylike will never allow themselves to be rude and vulgar, even in play.”