Don’ts for Wives: Life Lessons from 1913


About three months ago I was having a lovely dinner at a fancy  hotel restaurant in Santa Barbara. The birds were trilling, the moon was glowing, it was all romance and roses and impeccably starched napkins..  and the most sexist service I have experienced in 31 years on this planet (Dubai included).

You see, throughout the entire dinner, the waiter addressed exclusively my male companion, whom we will call Mister Frenchie. I was referred to simply as “the lady.” It went somewhat like this.

“We are so happy to have Mister Frenchie and the lady dining with us tonight!” 

“Excellent question Mister Frenchie!” (I had asked the question!)

“Would Mister Frenchie and the lady like to see the dessert menu?” 

I took every ounce of cheapness the lady had not to whip out her credit card and pay for Mister Frenchie’s very fancy ribeye steak, although something tells me that he would have been the one signing the credit card receipt.

The next morning, in the gift shop of the hotel, we found a book called Don’ts for Wives. It had been written in 1913 by somebody named Blanche Ebbutt, and it added the ultimate cherry on my time capsule of a weekend.

Every day, American woman fight for equality rights – to bridge the pay gap, to be taken seriously as female CEOs, to share household duties with their husbands (good luck!) What we often fail to realize is that, just one century ago, a large majority of upper middle class American women were confined to their homes with the sole purpose of supervising the household staff (at best) or standing by the stove (at worst).  Sometimes, we really need to stop to look back and appreciate how far we have come.

Since I can’t exactly whisk you off to Santa Barbara for some prime chauvinistic dining pleasures, I will do my best to match the experience by offering you some pearls of wisdom from this masterpiece.


Subject 1: Sanity

Don’t spend half the morning in bed because there is ‘nothing to get up for’. The day is not long enough for all the things you might do if you liked.

Here, Blanche confronts what appears to have been a pretty big issue amongst her target demographic: extreme boredom bordering on bona fide depression. I suppose that now they just stuff the (dwindling) Stepford set with Prozac and send them off in a cloud of chemical bliss..

Don’t brood; that way madness lies. Don’t hesitate, if you catch yourself brooding, to ‘take a day off ’ in the best way you can. Go out and gossip with your friend; get to a theatre where there is a play that will make you laugh; or try a concert or a cinema show – anything that will take you out of yourself. 

No Prozac? Try gossip! (Come think, the lucky ladies of today have both!)

Don’t vegetate as you grow older if you happen to live in the country. Some women are like cows, but there is really no need to stagnate. Keep both brain and body on the move.

This is Blanche’s way of encouraging women to exercise. My gal really had a way with words!

If you find yourself getting stale, wake up your brain. Let there be nothing your husband can talk about that you will be unable to understand.

Don’t want to pick up a book or newspaper for yourself?  Do it for the hubby! He is your raison d’être, after all! Which leads us to…


On relationships… 

Don’t moralize by way of winning back the love that seems to be waning. Make yourself extra charming and arrange delicious dinners which include all your husband’s favorite dishes.

Translation: If your man is being an asshole, shut up and cook. I bet it works. I also bet I would end up killing him with a butcher’s knife in the process.

Don’t expect life to be all sunshine. Besides, if there are no clouds, you will lose the opportunity of showing your husband what a good chum you can be.

Problems? Woohoo! Now I can be a good chum to win back whatever love I didn’t with my 5-course dinner! Look, I’m all for positive attitude, but is this really necessary? (Also, wtf is a “good chum” anyway?!)

Don’t pose as a helpless creature who can do nothing for herself… It is true that the weak, clinging wife is often a favorite, but she is equally often a nuisance.

Wait, the “clinging wife” is the favorite? Why hasn’t anyone told me? I’m great at “clinging”!!

Don’t forget the mountain and the molehill. Don’t insist that your molehill is a mountain if you suspect your husband of flirting. There is no more certain way of making it into one. Your husband is only human, and if he is to be hanged, he would probably rather be hanged for a sheep than a lamb.

This Blanche’s way of advising women to go easy on the jealousy. It also might be one of the wiser statements she makes.

Don’t argue with a stubborn husband. Drop the matter before argument leads to temper. You can generally gain your point in some other way.

I hate that Blanche is right, but she is right. Arguing with a stubborn man is like bashing your head against cement. Be smarter! Time your battles!

Don’t allow yourself to get into the habit of dressing carelessly when there is ‘only’ your husband to see you. He is a man after all, and if his wife does not take the trouble to charm him, there are plenty of other women who will.

Who are these women?! Aren’t all at the women at home, vegetating like cows?

Don’t try to excite your husband’s jealousy by flirting with other men. You may succeed better than you want to. It is like playing with tigers and edged tools and volcanoes all in one.

How did she think of these analogies? I’m starting to think she was brilliant. Advice ain’t bad either.


On home life.. 

[When your husband comes home..] Don’t let him have to search the house for you. Listen for his latch-key and meet him on the threshold.

Like my dog Chloe!

Sit with him by the fire; smoke with him if it pleases you and him; read or be read to; sing or play cards with him, or chat with him about anything that interests him. It is your business to keep him amused in the evening.

Almost like Chloe! I can think of better ways to “keep him amused” but, judging by this book, there was no sex in 1913. Which might explain all the angry men.

Don’t bother your husband with a stream of senseless chatter if you can see that he is very fatigued. Help him to the tit-bits at dinner; modulate your voice; don’t remark on his silence. 

God, my chances then would have been even lower in 1913.

Don’t persist in having mushrooms on the table when you know they always make your husband ill. They may be your favorite dish, but is it worth it?

Does this mean I have to hide my seaweed chips?!!

Don’t talk to your husband about anything of a worrying nature until he has finished his evening meal.

Amen. Hangry was in 1913 what hangry is in 2018.

Don’t permit yourself to forget for a single instant that nothing is more annoying to a tired man than the sight of half-finished laundry work. The remotest hint in your home of a ‘washing day’ is like a red rag to a bull.

Devil’s advocate: most of Blanche’s audience had a full staff of servants. Give me servants and I will have your laundry done before you can see a wet sock.

Don’t forget that you have a right to some money to spend as you like; you earn it as wife, and mother, and housekeeper. Very likely you will spend it on the house or the children when you get it; but that doesn’t matter—it is yours to spend as you like.

It’s funny how you can wrap a message of empowerment in the most sexist statement I’ve ever read. Come think, Blanche would have been a feminist in 2018!

And there you have it, ladies: all the proof you may need that life in 2018 is still a hell of a lot better for most of us, particularly those who have no desire to pick up an egg beater, or tyrannize servants on laundry day, or read for the sole purpose of complementing somebody else’s ideas. And yet, there is also a certain wisdom there, one that has nothing to do with rights or pride or household chores, and everything to do with timeless relationship pinnacles such as diplomacy, compromise, and the ability to occasionally put somebody else’s needs first. The times may change but the human psyche doesn’t waver. That’s where Blanche had it right, so it doesn’t hurt to pick up a copy.

As for that waiter, he still should have called me by my damn name.


  • This is brilliant, every single of your articles is brilliant, you are brilliant! Anytime something new comes up it totally makes my day/week and I immediately share with my girlfriends!
    Congratulations on your fabulousness!

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