Tag Archives: Leap Year

Leaping Ladies on the Loose

On this quadrennial February 29, a follow-up post to one from the last leap year. I don’t have any radical new insights into the public perception of this occasion in the past, but I do see some connections and characterizations of which I was previously unaware. As before, and as usual, it was the Victorians who cemented the idea of women “leaping” outside of their conventional role at this time by proposing to their prospective spouses, beginning with Victoria herself. It was widely known that the young Queen proposed to her beloved Alfred in 1839 (not a leap year but she was Queen), and their marriage did occur in the following bissextile year. Apparently it was fine for Victoria, but such assertiveness among mere mortal women was not quite so tolerated, as Leap Year depictions became more cutting and critical in several ways as the nineteenth century progressed. Postcards were used to depict mismatched marriages: the woman is too rich, too old, too large. The “tall bride” is a consistent trope, and I think the very popular Raphael Tuck & Sons Leap Year postcard of a bride towering over her royal groom is a reference to the sensational marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt and the Duke of Marlborough in 1895. In addition to images of brides buying their grooms, Leap Year postcards from the peak period of 1896-1916 depict women who are pushing against the constraints of their gender: women who “scorch” the streets on a bicycle or ask for the vote, women who sought to “wear the pants” not only on February 29 every four years, but on every day in every year. Ladies are pictured hunting, trapping, and hooking men in Leap Year post and trade cards up until the teens, after which milder messages predominate, most likely because of the twin forces of the First World War and women’s suffrage.

Leap Year Life 1896 Cover

Leap Year Vanderbilt Marlborough Wedding

Leap Year Gauntlet Tuck 1911-12

Leap Year Raphael Tuck

Leap Year Tuck Collage

Leap Year Brill Collage

Leap Year Card Collage

Leap Year 1908 BPL

Leap Year Text 1904p

Life Magazine February Leap Year Cover, 1896, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Raphael Tuck & Sons Oilette Leap Year Cards, 1904-1912, from a selection here; “Cupid’s Coffin” illustration of the Vanderbilt-Marlborough Wedding by Charles Dana Gibson for Life, sourced here; George Reiter Brill Cards, Playles; Trade card and Postcards from the Boston Public Library and Smithsonian Institution.


Leaping Ladies

I don’t know about the supposedly “medieval” custom of ladies proposing to their fellows on Leap Days; it sounds like another example of what cultural historians call the invention of tradition to me.  As stated again and again (especially on the internet), the “Ladies’ Privilege” dates from either the future St. Patrick’s dialogue with the future St. Bridget in the fifth century, or a Scottish Act of Parliament in the thirteenth century.  In the Tudor-Stuart period that I study, I have found a few references to this odd day out, a day that doesn’t quite fit on the calendar, and one on which unusual things may occur, notably in the 1600 play The Maydes Metamorphosis, which contains the couplet Master be contented, this is leape year, Women wear breetches, petticoats are deare.

Actually there’s a long tradition of turning-the-tables in western culture:  lords of misrule, charivari, the “world turned upside down”, festivals.  Probably in other cultures too.  So I think the irregularity of leap day became equated with a day when women wore the pants, obviously an equally unnatural occurrence.  Not only do we have the Mayd’s Metamorphosis rhyme, but two images from several centuries later, both of which clearly express not-so-subtle political (King George IV wearing a dress) and social (bloomers!) sentiments.

George Cruikshank, A Leap Year Drawing Room, or the Pleasures of Petticoat Government, 1820. British Cartoon Prints Collection, Library of Congress.

Bloomers for Leap Year, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1852. New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

The cartoons above are critical caricatures, but women acting like men could also be entertainment, as very literally illustrated by this 1896 poster for the Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Combined Circus (from the Library of Congress), featuring “”the leap year ladies of laughter” and  “the only clown women who wear the comic crown”.

As far as I can tell, it is not until after the turn of the century, when we enter into a “golden age” for postcards, that we see the almost-exclusive association of Leap Year and the Ladies’ Privilege.  Rather than “new women” pushing the boundaries, we see desperate women chasing men pictured on penny postcards.  So many of these ephemeral items survived that they must have been manufactured by the ton, particularly in the leap years 1908 and 1912. After World War I, it was a different story.  There are some lovely, wistful women, but also a lot of unattractive and old maids, doing anything to catch a man on that special leap day.  Here is just a small selection of some random but (I think) representative samples, starting with some relatively mild examples from 1904 and then proceeding t0 the heady year of 1908 (popping ladies, man in a mousetrap).

And one postcard from 1912, another leap year that produced a mountain of cards portraying women in pursuit of men, and this one, which brings us back to who wears the pants.


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