In researching historical facts for my 1890s Christian romance novel, I wanted to know if my heroine needed a chaperone. What I discovered is that chaperones were far more common in British society than in America. In her etiquette guide published in 1887, Mrs. John Sherwood wrote that a young lady’s most natural chaperone is, of course, her own mother, but Sherwood criticized American mothers for being careless in their duties. According to her, 19th Century American mothers had the sullied reputation of allowing their daughters to go about with young men alone in public.
The role of chaperone was rapidly decreasing in popularity in America during the 1890s. Perhaps they were too expensive. Perhaps they were viewed by the working classes as a symbol of upper class snobbery. It is clear that most teenage girls were considered rebellious and unappreciative of their chaperones.
Married ladies throughout history had no need for chaperones, because they were protected by their husbands’ reputations. But what about single women? Were they ever permitted to go out in public unchaperoned? Yes. Mrs. John Sherwood wrote that “if a woman is protected by the armor of work, she can dispense with a chaperon.” (Sherwood used the French spelling for “chaperone.”)
As a savvy, independent businesswoman, Victoria Garrett, the heroine in my story, could have safely gone about alone in public without breaking any rules of propriety. Ditching her chaperone back East had gotten her into big trouble, however, and she humbly realized her need to hire a new chaperone. Victoria wisely hired the Widow Fitzgerald as a means of improving her public image, protecting her virtue, and insulating her from further gossip.
Manners and social usages, by Mrs. John Sherwood …
Sherwood, M. E. W. 1826-1903. (Mary Elizabeth Wilson),
CREATED/PUBLISHED: New and enl. ed., rev. by the author. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1887, rev. 1894