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Take My Wife — Prithee
Happy marriages may have been all alike in the eighteenth century, but the unhappy ones fought it out in the newspapers
April/May 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 3
Posting didn’t serve the function for women that it did for men. The wife, though legally entitled to life’s “necessaries” from her husband as long as she hadn’t been adulterous and taken up quarters elsewhere, couldn’t curtail a man’s spending, couldn’t deny him employment, couldn’t keep him from accepting sanctuary from a friend. Posting could only assuage a woman’s sense of justice denied. It allowed her to tell her side of the story. It allowed nothing else.
As a vigorous means of personal (or legal) expression, posting may have lost its steam in the early nineteenth century for two reasons. The first had to do with the Courant ’s changing format. In posting’s heyday, the type fonts used for the Courant ’s legal notices differed hardly at all from those used for news dispatches. And any difference—usually a larger font for a posting’s introductory line—made it more prominent. In 1794 the Courant shifted from a three- to a four-column page format; three years later to five columns; and in 1816 to six. With each change, postings became proportionally less significant to the eye and the ego, though they never lost their legal force.
Coincidentally, in the very year the Courant changed to five-column pages, a new legal notice made its first appearance in the weekly paper. This one, called a Petition for Divorce, was made mandatory by the state legislature for anyone wishing to initiate divorce proceedings. Women who so wished—as readers quickly learned—were legion. The scales were now almost balanced: as 162 husbands were posting their wives between December 1797 and December 1819, there were 183 wives filing Petitions for Divorce (the grounds most often cited were desertion and adultery). Where 94 percent of all postings in that period were the handiwork of men, 93 percent of all petitions were the doing of women. Where posting had fostered a one-sided view of marriage, the petitions now permitted perspective. Posting, as punishment, sank into relative obscurity. And parents had one less reason to christen their daughters Concurrence, Prudence, Patience, Obedient, Mindwell, Submitte.