Southeastern Colorado Genealogical Society

When a Mistress Became a Mrs.

Though modern newspapers refer even to convicted felons as Mr., seasoned genealogists know that this abbreviation for master (now mister) is a title once recognizing a social status of respect and honor. Likewise, Mrs. as an abbreviation for mistress (before it began to be pronounced missis) was a title for women of some social standing, whether married or not. Novice genealogists have sometimes been tripped up by the omission of the now-familiar Miss, thinking that Mrs. in a marriage record indicated that the bride was a widow.

The changes in these conventions of title usage seem to have taken place gradually, mostly over the first half of the 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Defoe in 1722, “Mrs. Veal was a maiden gentlewoman,” and Swift in 1729, “Miss Betty won't take to her Book.” Mrs. was sometimes used to refer to older spinsters for the next few decades, as in Smollett, 1751, “Mrs. Grizzle, now in the thirtieth year of her maidenhood.”

An example was recently found in the Fairfield Congregational Church records (Connecticut State Archives, not on microfilm) which may fix the dating of the change process more precisely. On 13 March 1726/7 the Rev. Joseph Webb recorded the marriage of Mr. Peter Hepburn & Mrs. Sarah Clark. She, and the one or two other brides referred to as Mrs. in his short list of about a dozen marriages, are (almost surely) maiden ladies. On 24 December 1729 he recorded the marriage of Andrew Sinclair and the widdow Abigail Cosier, suggesting that he would always use this title if the bride were previously married.

His successor, the Rev. Noah Hobard, recorded the marriage of “The Revd. Mr. Nathaniel Hunn and Miss Ruth Read” on 14 September 1737. In this entry Hobard had first written the bride's title as Mrs., and, perhaps then recognizing the obsolescence of the term, he had overwritten this as MiSs, with a long “s” as the third letter. Thus, this 1727 date may be conveniently considered as the midpoint for the gradual change in usage of women's titles.

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Southeastern Colorado Genealogical Society, Inc.

P.O. Box 1407

Pueblo, CO 81002

Monthly Meetings

Our monthly meetings are held on the first Saturday of the month with a Genealogical Studies class at 12:30 pm to 2:00 pm and our Program from 2:00 pm - 3:00 PM

You do not have to be a member to attend - Everyone is welcome.

Call 719-250-5782 for more information or to schedule a ride.