A Sparkling Vintage Life

Down to Business: The independent woman of 1934

The-Kitty-Foyle-Dress-lgoIn The Complete Book of Etiquette, published in 1934, Hallie Erminie Rives reflected the changes wrought on society by the modern businesswoman of the day, and the image she might have projected to younger women:

“With the financial independence of woman has come a new social independence which finds expression in separate homes, self-decided lives, and far greater freedom of behavior (freedom that is not to be confused with license) in many of the smaller social forms which once were considered as unalterable as the laws of the Medes and the Persians.

“Until women began widely to earn and dispose of their own money, they did not appreciate the extent to which social conventions were built upon financial dependence. A man’s womenfolk–his wife, his daughters, perhaps his mother, an elderly aunt or maiden sisters–lived under his roof and regarded him as the patriarchal head of the family. Maiden aunts indeed often bitterly earned their keep by acting as housekeepers, errand runners, nursemaids, and caretakers, and were grateful for such pin money as was occasionally bestowed upon them.

“Nowadays Auntie is apt to turn to good advantage the executive ability once spent in waiting on other people and bringing up their children, by holding a well-paid position and living in her own apartment, with perhaps a maid to wait on her. Does she hesitate to venture forth, night or day, for any amusement they consider worth the pains? Not at all. Aunties after this pattern buy tickets to the show, go to a hotel for dinner, take taxis to and from the theater, and scoff at any tradition that tells them they must not.

“And what of Auntie’s eighteen or twenty-one year old niece–just out of high school or college, and hesitating, perhaps, as to what she will do until the inevitable Mr. Right comes along and settles her future in the proper way? Ah, there’s the rub! Miss Twenty-One sees Auntie’s propitious circumstances–the pretty clothes, the clever friends, the attractive apartment (with no rules other than those of her own making to trammel her) and the apparent complete independence of family precepts and conventions. Who can blame Miss Twenty-One (who may feel herself somewhat unappreciated at home) for rather fancying such ideal surroundings? For the girl who leaves her home for the city and the home table for a delicatessen diet in a small apartment which, for all its discomforts and inconveniences, she passionately defends, is in the grip of that age-old feminine desire, born into every woman whether it is her destiny to marry or remain single, for a home of her own. This was as strong in her aunt and in her great-aunt as it is in her, but in their day few women who did not marry found it possible of gratification.

“Let Miss Twenty-One take heart. As she grows older–should Mr. Right delay his appearance–she may emulate Auntie’s independence and no one will criticize her for it. But first, as her aunt did before her, she must earn the right to it, and that demands maturity of mind as well as of body.”
–(from The Complete Book of Etiquette by Hallie Erminie Rives)

I met my husband at age twenty-eight and married him at thirty. I well remember the longing for a place of my own in my earlier twenties, after I’d finished college and was working, with no Mr. Right in sight. My first apartment was a third-floor walk-up in a prewar building that was hot in summer, steam-heated by clanging old radiators¬† in winter, and came complete with ancient plumbing fixtures and hot and cold running water bugs. But it was a real charmer with wood floors, built-in glass-front cabinets, generous windows, and gorgeous woodwork. I didn’t appreciate it at the time and decamped for a more modern, anonymous, air-conditioned box after a couple of years. Ah, the folly of youth! Probably by now that old building, located in a desirable neighborhood near the commuter train, has been renovated, and I could no longer even afford to live there. But I’ll never forget the thrill of having my own four walls, my own kitchen, my own rooms to arrange and decorate the way I wanted. Heady freedom, indeed, and while I looked forward to eventually getting married, I cherished those years of singlehood, too.

Have you ever lived on your own, either temporarily or permanently? If so, did you like it? What do you remember about the very first place you called your own?

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