Amy Louise Erickson
The occupational structure of Britain 1379-1911, Project Website (2012)
The ubiquitous forms of address for women, ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’ are both abbreviations of ‘mistress’. Although mistress is a term with a multiplicity of meanings, in early modern England it most commonly designated the female equivalent of master – that is, a person with capital who directed servants or apprentices. Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, there was only Mrs (or Mris, Ms, or other forms of abbreviation), and it was applied to any adult woman who merited the social distinction, without any marital connotation. Miss was reserved for young girls until then. Through the eighteenth century, Mrs most often designated a woman with a business or commercial skill. Even when fashionable adult single women started to use Miss in the 1740s, Mrs still designated a social or business standing, regardless of marital status, until at least the mid-nineteenth century. This article demonstrates the changes in nomenclature over time, and argues that the distinctions are important for historians to understand in order to place women designated Mrs in the past in their economic and social context.
But today the most common use of the word ‘mistress’ is of course in its abbreviated form as the title ‘Mrs’, used almost universally in the English-speaking world today to designate a married woman. For Dr Johnson, one of the few female conditions that ‘mistress’ did not signify was marriage. In the middle of the eighteenth century, ‘Mrs’ did not describe a married woman: it described a woman who governed subjects (i.e., employees or servants or apprentices) or a woman who was skilled or who taught. It described a social, rather than a marital status – when it wasn’t being used metaphorically