‘We require four things of woman — that virtue dwell in her heart, that modesty play on her brow, that sweetness flow on her lips, and industry occupy her hands.” The Idaho World of Idaho City printed these words of advice for the benefit of its women readers on Jan. 26, 1867. It is certainly doubtful if any paper today would use the “We require” part of this quotation, although I expect that most would agree that the virtues listed are desirable in men as well as in women.
It is commonly agreed that 19th century men placed women on a pedestal, and another quotation from the Idaho World, published that same year under the headline “Woman’s Influence,” expresses it well:
“Without woman — virtuous pure woman, this world would be a place of misery, wretchedness and woe; so thought Deity — hence he gave a woman to man for his helpmate to cheer and enliven his heart, when his spirits became low and melancholy. We advise all men, young and old, to cultivate the society of woman. It whiles away the tedious hours of life, and fits them for polite society. It is better for a young man to pass a pleasant evening with a lady in a drawing room, even if he knows her song by heart, than to pass the evening in a club or bar room, or any place of amusement denied to woman.
“Men who avoid the society of woman are dull and stupid and have no just perceptions of refinement — their tastes and desires are sensual and gross, and revolt against what is pure. One of the benefits to be derived from an association with them is that it compels us to be respectful of them. Were men to associate more generally with the pure and virtuous women of our land, crime would diminish and the world would be better and happier by reason of the association.”
Most lonely single men in early Idaho mining towns would agree with these sentiments wholeheartedly, but where could they find such pure and noble creatures? A recurring theme in early Western newspapers is the need for young marriageable women. In 1879 the Salt Lake City Herald wrote: “Idaho Calls for Wives — A few hundred ladies of assorted ages and sizes can find husbands in Idaho.” When the same article advised women NOT to come to Idaho because the Territory had enough women already, the World objected strongly: “There are in Idaho several thousand handsome and industrious young men who would make splendid husbands, and by springtime the number will be increased by two or three thousand.”
The World printed what it called “A printer’s toast —Woman, the fairest work in creation. The edition is large, and no man should be without a copy.” When it was reported that “a handsome young lady had arrived in the mining camp of Banner, the World observed: “There are several young men here who could starve a woman to death as quick as anyone, and as Miss Leigh has no opposition, you may expect to hear of some mischief soon.” In an item praising the young school teacher at Horseshoe Bend, the World said “She is beloved by her pupils, and also by many big boys that do not attend the school; but of course she cares little for them, only as friends.”
When Pioneerville was preparing to open its public school in August 1879, under Miss Mary Tregaskis of Idaho City, a correspondent from there wrote “What a benefit a school is! Maybe on account of bringing young girls here. Some of us old bachelors may find ourselves linked in matrimonial chain some of these days.”
That women were vastly outnumbered on the Idaho frontier is reflected in the great popularity of Leap Year parties when women got to take the initiative in courting men without drawing social criticism. With the help of their mothers they planned elaborate parties to which eligible bachelors of their choice were entertained. The Idaho Statesman printed this young woman’s quandary: “I’m in doubt, I’m in doubt, whom shall I pity, of all the bachelors in Boise City. Whom shall I ask to share household and purse? Whom shall I take for ‘better or worse?’”
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.