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Miss Manners: Bible may not indicate ancestor’s marital status

Mon., Oct. 12, 2009

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I discovered a Bible that belonged to my great-great-grandmother, and, as I have an avid interest in our family genealogy, I was thrilled! I am curious, however, about the form of her name that was engraved on the cover of the bible, “Mrs. Catharine Bowers.”

My understanding of traditional methods of address would lead me to believe that she was divorced by using her given name and her husband’s last name. A friend suggests that she may have been widowed when she received the Bible. Then I would have expected to see “Firstname Maidenname Marriedname.”

Is there a different protocol or style for engraving on the cover of family Bibles? I am fairly certain that she and my great-great-grandfather did not divorce. They lived during the early 1800s.

GENTLE READER: People tend to forget that tradition is a moving target. You are accurate about today’s tradition, from which, Miss Manners notes, the no-frills crowd is now fleeing, abandoning the use of honorifics altogether.

But your great-great-grandmother would never have heard of the tradition of a divorcee’s combining her maiden and married surnames, which was invented in the mid-20th century. Before that, a divorce was always considered to be the husband’s fault (even if a blameless husband gallantly assumed the blame), and the lady continued to be styled Mrs. Orville Witherspoon.

This served a double purpose: Proclaiming the lady’s innocence and annoying the second Mrs. Orville Witherspoon.

For your ancestress to be traditional, she would have had to look back to the 18th century, when “Mrs.” was simply an abbreviation for “Mistress,” a then-respectable term that was used for the married and unmarried alike, with the lady’s full name. Other abbreviations for “Mistress” were “Miss” and “Ms.” (the latter not having been invented during 20th century femininism, as many now think, but merely revived).

There is no telling when the lady’s husband died, because there has never been a special form for widows, nor is there now. Miss Manners hopes you enjoy your heirloom without being troubled by the thought that your great-great-grandparents’ marriage was unhappy.

Readers may write to Miss Manners at, or via postal mail at United Media, 200 Madison Ave., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10016.

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