20 Questionable Pieces of Old-Timey Relationship Advice

Most of this advice is hopelessly outdated.
Most of this advice is hopelessly outdated. / Juana Mari Moya/Moment/Getty Images

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes dealing with your in-laws—and in this list, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube, we’re covering bizarre, questionable, and downright strange old-timey advice given for all of the above. From the dangers of being a “sexual vampire” to the best ways to charm your in-laws, here’s what relationship advice looked like in the past.

1. Don’t be a “sexual vampire.”

Vampire teeth on a pink background
Sexual vampires aren't sexy. / Juana Mari Moya/Moment/Getty Images

In his 1922 book Happiness and Marriage, Dr. William Josephus Robinson doled out all kinds of advice for how women could keep their husbands happy. Being “frigid” was a bad thing, but somewhat surprisingly, swinging too far in the opposite direction was much worse—in fact, that kind of wife was, in Robinson’s words, “a great danger to the health and even the very life of her husband.” 

He goes on to say that this type of wife can literally be called a vampire. Yes, he uses the word literal, adding, “Just as the vampire sucks the blood of its victims in their sleep while they are alive, so does the woman vampire suck the life and exhaust the vitality of her male partner—or victim.” 

And in some cases, he noted, women might actually pursue sexual vampirism on purpose—take, for example, when a young woman marries an old man. She’ll literally use sex to suck his life force dry so she can take all his money. And lest you think it’s just young women who can be sexual vampires, think again: Robinson says that while women between 30 and 50 are particularly afflicted, no woman, no matter what her age, is immune.

2. Don’t dress like a tomboy.

Girls In Bloomers On Climbing Apparatus
Girls in bloomers on climbing apparatus. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Back in the day, the person you married was pretty much the person you were stuck with, till death do you part—so Hester Chapone wasn’t exaggerating when she said in 1773 that “all your happiness in this world … will probably depend on the companion you fix upon for life.” So how best to go about finding that perfect match? 

According to The Polite Lady, Or: A Course of Female Education in a Series of Letters from a Mother to Her Daughter, step one was not to dress like a tomboy in hopes that it would earn you the love and affection of a man—it wouldn’t work.

3. Find a partner who’s exactly like you.

Illustration of a man and woman getting ready
Look for a person who's similar to you in every way. / CSA Images/Getty Images

Poet Thomas Gisborne didn't believe that opposites should attract. He advised that, when on the hunt for love, a lady should find a person who was like her, in everything from disposition to age to class status.  

4. Don’t date a friend.

Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft’s relationship advice: Don’t try to turn a friend into a romantic partner. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Eighteenth-century Dear Abbys had also ideas about who ladies should not pursue. Author Mary Wollstonecraft suggested that a woman should never make a match with a platonic friend and hope to be satisfied; those relationships, she wrote, “frequently end in sorrow, if not guilt.” 

5. Don’t marry a philosopher.

Swipe left on any wannabe Socrates. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

William Kenrick, author of The Whole Duty of Woman, warned against making a husband of a philosopher—not only would he basically be inside this own head thinking important thoughts all the time, but he would also “hold thee inferior to his profound wisdom” and “be wanting in the duties of his family.” 

6. Beware of smooth talkers.

Similarly, women should beware of smooth talkers. As Wetenhall Wilkes warned in A Letter of Genteel and Moral Advice to a Young Lady, any man who “flies into raptures,” drops hyperbolic compliments, or makes dramatic vows involving his own death, is, frankly, full of it. Wilkes wrote, “If you cannot help believing him, only recollect the old Phrase, Violent Things can never last.”

7. Don’t fall in love.

'In Love', French Postcard, c1900.
'In Love.' French Postcard, circa 1900. / Print Collector/GettyImages

The 1793 book The Young Lady's Pocket Library, Or Parental Monitor, recommended avoiding the L word entirely—in fact, according to the book, when a lady’s heart “has the misfortune to be attacked by love,” it’s time for her to tell herself that it will only harm her in the long run and get outta there before more damage is done.

8. Tell women something about sex—but not too much.

Whether they were looking for a love match or just a dude they felt so-so about to call their husbands, all women had one item on the agenda after their wedding … and that was the wedding night. 

Back in the old days, many men assumed that so-called “good” women had no idea about what happened in the bedroom before they got married. Those doling out guidance in the 1920s advised that ladies be told something about sex, but not too much. For example, Maurice Bigelow, author of the 1916 book Sex-education: A Series of Lectures Concerning Knowledge of Sex in Its Relation to Human Life, advised that an adolescent girl should be told the scientific names of her sexual organs, “not because there are many vulgar names as in the case of boys, but because dignified names help attitude.” But Bigelow cautioned against going into too much detail—that could, in his words, “arouse curiosity that leads to exploration and irritation.” 

8. Don’t read novels.

Untitled (Portrait Of Seated Woman With Book)
Reading novels it the road to ruin. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

It’s probably not surprising that the vast majority of romantic advice is aimed at women, but books for men did exist. One of them was What a Young Husband Ought To Know by Sylvanus Stall, author of previous hits such as What a Young Boy Ought to Know and What a Young Man Ought to Know, in which he advises that young men must keep themselves pure by avoiding things like novels because they pollute the mind; a person with a dirty mind isn’t likely to be pure in body, either.

The main thing newly married men have to keep in mind, Stall says, is that “in women, there exists less sexual desire and satisfaction than in men.” Some women get moderate pleasure in sex, and a few a lot—but most, he says, are “largely devoid of sexual pleasure.” 

There are few reasons for this, according to Stall: They might be ill, or perhaps they go to too many parties, eat “indigestible food,” or read too many novels. Or maybe it’s the fact that their tightly laced corsets have displaced all their important sexual organs. (Seriously.) Or perhaps, he speculated, the woman is just indifferent to sex, which could be due to the fact that she and her husband are a poor match. Or that she’s chronically constipated. Hard to say.

9. Men, be patient on your wedding night.

'Placing the Bridal Veil'.Artist: American Stereoscopic Company
'Placing the Bridal Veil.' / Print Collector/GettyImages

In What a Young Husband Ought to Know’s sister publication, What a Young Wife Ought to Know,  we do get some sound advice regarding the virtue of patience on the wedding night. As the book describes it: “Many otherwise kind men have become possessed with the thought that every right is theirs immediately; and in their inconsiderate, rapacious passion, in the speedy consummation of marriage, at whatever cost of pain or wounded feeling on the part of her whom they have taken to love and honor, they well-nigh wreck the after happiness of both in the first days of their united lives. ... She never again can feel the same respect and love for you that she could, had you been more considerate of her feelings and desires.”

10. Don’t just do your duty during sex ...

'Mr Jones Home from Club. Fears for the Storm'.Artist: American Stereoscopic Company
'Mr Jones Home from Club. Fears for the Storm.' / Print Collector/GettyImages

According to Bernarr MacFadden, author of the 1918 book Womanhood and Marriage, if your wife is just doing her duty during sex, that is a very bad thing. And it all boils down to semen.

McFadden wrote that semen doesn’t just help create new life but is also an important part of keeping a man’s body strong. During sex, a man will, in McFadden’s words, “discharge ... this creative fluid.” If the wife provides what he calls “a full response,” then, “there seems to be an exchange of magnetism or energy which makes up for the loss” of the creative fluid. But if his wife is just doing what she thinks is her wifely duty, the husband will experience a loss of vitality. Keep this one-sided thing up long enough and a husband won’t be able to go about his productive daily life. 

11. ... And don’t have sex too often.

But that’s not all! McFadden also says that, even if a wife is into it, sex shouldn’t be had too often, because, again, it’s going to drain “brain energy”—his words—and make a man “less mentally capable and efficient.”

12. Wear your best underwear ...

'Taking in a Difficult Reef'.Artist: American Stereoscopic Company
A man helping his wife with her corset. / Print Collector/GettyImages

As long as we’re back on the subject of sexual vampires, let’s drop another piece of advice from Dr. Robinson, this one from his 1917 book Woman: Her Sex and Love Life. This tip concerns underwear. As Robinson says, “Whether you are newly married or have been married for a quarter of a century, be sure that your underwear is the very best that your means will allow you, and that it is always sweet, fresh, and dainty.”

 13. ... And make sure it’s pink.

illustration of a 19th century woman getting dressed
When buying undergarments, opt for the color pink. / duncan1890/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Robinson also had opinions on women's underwear color, recommending “delicate pink,” which he said was “the color that most men prefer.” Robinson was actually quite progressive for his time in frankly discussing sexual matters, but given that he doubled down on the pink underwear recommendation five years later in Married Life and Happiness, one could argue that the average man who he says prefers pink underwear might have been William Josephus Robinson.

 14. If you’re a woman, keep your complaints to yourself.

An illustration of a man holding his finger up to his lips.
Shhhhh. / CSA-Archive/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

By the 1940s and ‘50s, the world had changed, but advice given to women for a happy marriage had not advanced that much. One piece of advice doled out to women at that time boiled down to: Don’t complain about anything, because your husband—who has been working hard all day—does not want to hear it. Instead, as Edward Podolsky wrote in 1942’s Sex Today in Wedded Life, your role is to 1) listen and 2) build up his morale. If you have family issues you absolutely have to raise, for god’s sake, do it after dinner.

 15. Be a good cook.

Woman in Pine Kitchen
Woman in a kitchen. / Found Image Holdings Inc/GettyImages

In addition to being your husband’s therapist and cheerleader, you had better be a good cook. As our friend Robinson notes in 1922’s Married Life and Happiness, bad cooking leads to indigestion, which leads to crankiness, which leads to fighting. Robinson says that bad cooking will drive a man to the saloon or other undesirable places, so, “When she does cook, she should cook, and not be, as somebody said, a mere can opener.” 

16. Expect your man to cheat.

Gentleman In The Shop
According to advice columnists of yore, men were bound to cheat. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Obviously, no marriage is perfect, but—according to our old-timey experts, at least—if you follow all of these tips, you should be in pretty good shape. But ladies, men are men and they might still stray. And if it does happen occasionally, Robinson suggests that, rather than getting upset, you should instead forgive and forget. Just because he cheated on you doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you; and if you forgive him, he might love you even more.

17. For marital success, men should court their mother-in-law.

Mother Giving Blessing to Young Couple
Mother giving blessing to young couple. / Samantha Vuignier/GettyImages

Century-old advice given to men for harmony with the in-laws recommends getting to work well before the wedding day and buttering up their future mother-in-law—at least, that’s what New York Magistrate Olmsted recommended to one unhappy husband in 1899. “I courted my mother-in-law,” Olmsted said, “and my home life is very, very happy.”   

18. Don’t live with your mother-in-law.

Whether or not a man decides to court his mother-in-law along with his wife, it’s probably a bad idea for all of them to live together under the same roof. As popular advice columnist Dorothy Dix wrote in 1919, “any man who establishes the fatal triangle of self, and wife, and mother in his home, and expects to find peace and happiness in it is a fit subject for an alienist,” a.k.a. a psychiatrist. According to Dix, there was no greater danger to a happy home than a mother-in-law living in it.

19. Don’t say what you really think to your in-laws—ever.

To keep the peace with the in-laws, you have two options: smile and nod, or just keep your opinion to yourself. An 1859 issue of The American Freemason tutored women dealing with a mother-in-law to “always listen patiently, and be grateful and yielding to the utmost of her power.” Meanwhile, an article that appeared in the Rural New Yorker aimed at fathers-in-law noted that if dad had an issue with the way things were managed in the home of his son- or daughter-in-law, “it is far better to pass the matter over in silence than to comment upon the same, and thereby engender bad feelings.” 

20. Try to see things from your in-laws’ perspective.

Finally, according to Good Housekeeping, it’s probably best for all in-laws to put themselves in each other’s shoes. The magazine told husbands to remember that their mother-in-law is just as wonderful as their wife and mother, before really nailing their point by asking, “And who is your precious wife's mother-in-law?” Your beloved mom, that’s who! 

Mothers-in-law, meanwhile, should keep in mind “that the husband your daughter has chosen with your sanction is not a worse man naturally than your husband who used to dislike your mother as much as your daughter’s husband dislikes you, or as much as you once disliked your husband’s mother.” Wise words.