A Scientific Justification for Spinsters: Old Maids and Cats in the Victorian Era

‘Old maids and cats have long been proverbially associated together, and rightly or wrongly these creatures have been looked upon with a certain degree of suspicion and aversion by a large proportion of the human race.’
Dundee Courier, 5 October 1880.

Portrait of a Lady with a White Cat by Anonymous Artist, 19th Century.
Portrait of a Lady with a White Cat by Anonymous Artist, 19th Century.

Spinsters have long been associated with cats.  This was especially true in the Victorian era when the stereotype of the old maid and her feline dependents was so pervasive that an 1880 edition of the Dundee Courier not only declared that “the old maid would not be typical of her class without the cat,” but that “one cannot exist without the other.”  Like cats (who were generally viewed as being sly and self-serving), old maids faced their fair share of societal persecution.  Doomed to live in a state of “single blessedness,” they were often seen as being eccentric or as having been soured by their “blighted hopes.”  To that end, the Dundee Courier reports:

“There is nothing at all surprising in the old maid choosing a cat as a household pet or companion.  Solitude is not congenial to human nature, and a poor forlorn female, shut up in a cheerless ‘garret,’ brooding all alone over her blighted hopes, would naturally centre her affections on some of the lower animals, and none would be more congenial as a pet and companion than a kindly purring pussy.”

The Victorian spinster’s predilection for the feline was an accepted fact.  As far as the spinster herself, society was less certain.  She neither married, nor had children.  What purpose, then, did her existence serve?  In 1879, Dr. Andrew Wilson of Edinburgh sought to answer this question during a scientific lecture he gave in the town of Dollar.  Speaking to a packed hall, Wilson declared that, despite having no children, maiden ladies had a critical role to play in the preservation of the human race—or, at least, in the preservation of British clover.

White Cat with Bee by Harry Beard, 1876.

According to Wilson, clover was essential to British life and humblebees (today known as bumblebees) were essential for the fertilisation and growth of clover.  Explaining how the spinster fit into all of this, the Edinburgh Evening News quotes Wilson as stating:

“Now, field mice were enemies to humble-bees, and cats were enemies to the mice. Whoever conserved cats conserved clover, and on clover, as we have seen, depends British welfare.  Old maids had a proverbial fondness for the feline race, and it was thus possible that a scientific justification of spinsterhood might be found in the utility of cats as repressing the enemies of the bees which aided the growth of clover.” 

Wilson’s pronouncement was more humor than actual science. It provoked laughter throughout the hall.  Spinsters and their cats would continue to be a great source of amusement—and of scorn—throughout the remainder of the 19th century.   Today, for better or worse, the two are still inextricably linked in the public mind.

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.

Sources

Dundee Courier (Angus, Scotland), 5 October 1880.

Edinburgh Evening News (Midlothian, Scotland), 14 November 1879.

Lanfear, Elizabeth.  Letters to Young Ladies on Their Entrance into the World.  London: J. Robins & Co., 1824.

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Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
4 years ago

But the old maid should not keep a tortoise as tortoises love clover …

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago
Reply to  Sarah Waldock

Good point, Sarah!

Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966)
Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966)
4 years ago

Cats and spinsters, no matter what one thinks of them have earned a well-deserved place in the history.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago

I agree, Lindsay :)

Alexandria Szeman (@Alexandria_SZ)
Alexandria Szeman (@Alexandria_SZ)
4 years ago

Ouch! Poor ladies. Poor kitties.
What do you call a single woman (living with her life partner for 25 years) with 7 rescue cats? Am I a spinster 7x over?
I’ll ask my guy what he thinks.
Wonderful, as always, Mimi.
Hugs,
A x

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago

I call a single woman with 7 rescue cats AWESOME! Also, according to the rationale of Dr. Wilson, you are helping to save humanity seven times over :) xx Mimi

Jane
Jane
4 years ago

Sorry, you don’t qualify as a spinster, but your partner certainly lives under the sign of the cat’s paw.

Annie
Annie
4 years ago

I’m a long time spinster and after reading this I’m thinking I need a cat.

I must say I love that I live in an era when spinsterhood isn’t seen as negative.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago
Reply to  Annie

Me too, Annie :) And, spinster or no, I highly recommend cats. Dogs, too!

Rachel Krekeler
Rachel Krekeler
4 years ago

Interesting! I had thought it might have been some parallel to “unloveable” witches and their persecuted familiars, cats! :)

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago

It’s a very old stereotype!

knotrune
knotrune
4 years ago

I wonder how far back it goes. In Ancrene Wisse, a medieval guide for female hermits, one of the rules is that they should keep no animals except a cat! I was tickled to find that, I wonder whether they would otherwise have been plagued by mice, or if it merely acknowledged the necessity to mental health that a cat would be to such a solitary woman. One day I may write a story about an anchoress and her cat :)

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago
Reply to  knotrune

The connection between unmarried ladies and cats goes back a very long way. There was a definite supernatural element back then. This was less true in the Victorian era (at least, for the most part!).

keepscreaming
keepscreaming
4 years ago

As a long time spinster I find I am not doing my part. i don’t know if I can remedy this. I have two dogs , but no cat as I am allergic to them. I wonder if I’ll be thrown out of the club. :-)

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago
Reply to  keepscreaming

According to Dr. Wilson, it is the saving of the bees that justifies a spinster’s existence. Cats do kill mice (the enemy of the bee), but so do dogs–especially Terriers!. So, I think you are in the clear ;)

Kathleen Whitcomb
Kathleen Whitcomb
4 years ago

Good to know. I was worried that in my already ‘ brooding and blighted’ state I was further draining the world’s resources. Loved this article. Thanks

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago

You’re very welcome, Kathleen :)

authorangelabell
authorangelabell
4 years ago

Such an interesting article!

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago

Thanks, Angela :) I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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