Myth # 138: Women in early America didn’t play the violin or flute because they would have to raise their arms, revealing their elbows.

Lewis Walpole Library, Yale, England 1835

Woman playing violin: Lewis Walpole Library, Yale, England 1835

This well entrenched myth is trickier than I suspected, but when one digs into the details (“Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday used to say), it seems there is no evidence to back up the belief that the reason women and girls didn’t play the violin or flute was because they would have to raise their arms and reveal their elbows. This statement has long been made by historic interpreters and volunteer docents at Colonial Williamsburg and other historic sites and is found in some CW podcasts.

The idea that elbows were indecent seems to have no foundation. Linda Baumgarten, curator of textiles and an expert on 18th-c. costume, expressed surprise and dismay that this was still being said by CW interpreters. “Almost all gowns of the 18th century typically did cover women’s elbows, because that was the fashionable silhouette. . . I have not seen period sources stating that women’s elbows were considered indecent. In fact, working women did not hesitate to roll their sleeves up when work demanded it. When fashions changed at the very end of the 18th century and early 19th century, most women readily adopted the new short-sleeved styles. Again, I have not found any period sources [such as manuals of manners and deportment] saying that women found the visible elbows to be shocking.”

18th-c female with typical sleeves and exposed elbows

18th-c female who did not find elbows shocking

For more information see the article at http://www.history.org/search/google_search_results.cfm where it states, “The concepts of comfort and modesty have always been relative and subject to the influence of fashion and the needs of the occasion. Like us, eighteenth-century people needed clothing for warmth and comfort, but they quickly abandoned those needs if fashion or the occasion dictated. During much of the eighteenth century, women’s skirts were long and the sleeves covered the elbows; yet a woman would readily push up her sleeves and hike up her petticoats while doing laundry or working in the dairy, and, when fashion dictated it, women would shorten their skirts to the ankles, as many did in the 1780s.”

But is it true that women did not play the violin or the flute? John Watson, conservator of instruments and associate curator of musical instruments for Colonial Williamsburg, says that few women played these instruments because, in general, they were not considered ladylike instruments. In Music and Image: Domesticity, ideology and socio-cultural formation in eighteenth-century England, author Richard Leppert contrasts the English guitar (a strongly female-associated instrument) to the violin. He points out that the guitar “was never an instrument of high musical caste…There was no ‘art’ music for the instrument… Men by contrast took up the violin, archetypal instrument of the ‘best’ music from the European Courts” (p.167) Leppert goes on to say (p.168) “There is no ‘natural’ reason why women should not have taken up the violin; indeed, they would have had far more time available to learn how to play it well. That they did not do so was a cultural or ideological matter involving the instrument’s appropriation by men, as the musical enthusiast Hester Lynch Piozzi understood perfectly and so stated in the silence of her diary [1789]: ‘How the Women do shine [in music] of late! . . . Madame Gautherot’s wonderful Execution on the Fiddle; — but say the Critics a Violin is not an Instrument for Ladies to manage, very likely! I remember when they said the same Thing of a Pen.’”  [Ouch!]

Colonial Williamsburg’s Research Librarian Juleigh Clark sheds further light on the subject with her discovery of a 1722 London publication by author John Essex, The young ladies conduct: or, rules for education, under several heads; with instructions upon dress, both before and after marriage. It seems there were several instruments that were “unbecoming the Fair Sex.” Essex writes, “The Harpsicord, Spinnet, Lute and Base Violin, are Instruments most agreeable to the Ladies: There are some others that really are unbecoming the Fair Sex; as the Flute, Violin and Hautboy [oboe]; the last of which is too Manlike, and would look indecent in a woman’s mouth; and the Flute is very improper, as taking away too much of the Juices, which are otherwise more necessarily employ’d, to promote the Appetite, and assist Digestion. Musick is certainly a very great Accomplishment to the Ladies; it refines the Taste, polishes the Mind; and is an Entertainment, without other Views, that preserves them fron the Rust of Idleness, that most pernicious Enemy to Virtue.” Interesting logic, huh? Women need to conserve their saliva for digestive purposes, but men don’t. 

John Watson suggests that it is also worth considering whether the “female” instruments (keyboards and guitar) were considered suitable for women because they were seen as more for accompaniment for the voice and less soloistic.

It isn’t so hard to imagine that some instruments were considered feminine and others masculine. The same is true today–although the instruments have sometimes switched sexes! I interviewed a retired, female violinist who played for the Richmond symphony for decades who told me that over the past 60 years, certain instruments have been played predominantly by one sex or the other. It is mostly men, for example, who play percussion, horns,  double bass, tuba, and saxophone; while women are almost exclusively in possession of the harp. Considerably more women than men play the violin today, she said. A cursory glance at contemporary music shows that it is mostly men who play the guitar nowadays, an instrument considered feminine in colonial times. So the guitar, a female instrument in the 18th century, and the violin, a male instrument, changed sexes in the 20th century! 

Long story short: the violin and flute were among the instruments considered unsuitable for women, but not because of their elbows. 

 

 

 

8 Responses to Myth # 138: Women in early America didn’t play the violin or flute because they would have to raise their arms, revealing their elbows.

  1. James Meek says:

    As to whether the violin was unsuitable for women in the 1700’s, maybe in America.

    But tell that to Anna Maria from Venice, (1696-1782) for whom Vivaldi wrote numerous violin concertos.

    There’s a wonderful book about this

    http://www.barbaraquick.com/annamaria.html

    and a superb BBC4 video (both visually and musically).

    The full documentary is here:

  2. Jake Pontillo says:

    Another great and informative posting!

  3. Ha! I was hassled by a very entertaining interpreter a year and a half ago at a tavern in CW, and she rebuked me for showing my elbows. I raised my eyebrow but didn’t challenge her. Vindicated in retrospect!

  4. Lisa D says:

    Perhaps at least with instruments that required a certain lung capacity wearing a corset could make it more challenging

  5. Stephen Herchak says:

    Enjoy these very much — just yesterday I was thinking about something I might as well pass along to you now.

    I know you’ve addressed the notion of “sleep tight” and the ropes supporting mattresses but something I often hear also associated with Colonial furnishing and in the Heyward Washington House where I used to volunteer here in Charleston, is the expression “to square a room away” comes from the practice of moving the furniture against the walls and out from the center of the room when not in use.

    Is that the origin of the term, or is “squaring” something just like “tight”, be it sleep tight, sit tight, just hold tight a minute — and so forth?

    Thanks once again for the great posts, Stephen Herchak

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’ve never heard of that phrase, Stephen, but since furniture was often pushed to the edges of the room when it wasn’t being used, I imagine the origin might have come from that practice.

  6. Deborah Brower says:

    Up until your post I had seen a woman playing fiddle in two other 18th century images. One was Hogarth’s An Election Entertainment and the other was a French print. Thanks for tackling this question.
    Big thank you to James Meek for his comments and link. That documentary is stunning, it gave me chills.

    Mary, thanks many times for keeping this blog going. You add so much to our understanding of myths by providing a forum where the weirdest statements can be put under the microscope.

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