[Ads-l] "Ms." interdatings (1921-22)

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Thu Dec 17 14:56:01 UTC 2015

The earliest known proposal for "Ms." as a title for women regardless
of marital status was made in the Springfield (Mass.) Republican of
Nov. 10, 1901.


But after that item (which circulated in many newspapers at the time),
we hadn't come across anything else on "Ms." until a 1932 letter to
the New York Times (using the variant "M's") and Mario Pei's _The
Story of Language_ in 1949. Dennis Baron recently shared an example he
found from 1922, and that led me to find some other cites from the
early '20s that help fill in the gaps a bit.

The first one is from 1921, in a bit of advertorial content from the
Cleveland department store William Taylor & Son:

_Plain Dealer_ (Cleveland), Aug. 3, 1921, p. 10 (advt.)
"Taylor Store News," published by Wm. Taylor Son & Co.
Ann Sawyer says:
An advertising agency wondered how it would address letters to a list
of women whose names bore no indication as to whether they were "Miss"
or "Mrs." The No-Less-Than-Authority, the President of Harvard,
informed them that it is quite correct if in doubt, to use the prefix
... [signed] Ann Sawyer, Taylor Personal Service Bureau, East Gallery

I'm not sure how the president of Harvard fits into this (at the time
it was Abbott Lawrence Lowell), but perhaps he recalled the
Springfield Republican item from twenty years earlier.

Next up is a 1922 syndicated column by Lucy Jeanne Price:

Brownsville (Texas) Daily Herald, Dec. 4, 1922, p. 4, col. 2
"New York Letter" by Lucy Jeanne Price
It is a constant complaint that women no longer add "Miss" or "Mrs."
before their names, and that consequently in writing a business letter
to a strange woman, one never knows how to address her. One New York
firm has solved the problem by the ingenious adoption of a telescoped
prefix, "Ms." This designates equally well a matron or a maid, and
while it may not look impressive, it is going to save much indignation
on the part of those who would be wrongly addressed and who always
blame the other person for not knowing their matrimonial state.

Ms. Price's column appeared in most papers as "New York Letter,"
although in the below example it's titled "On Broadway" (which Walter
Winchell would later use for his column).

Palatka (Fla.) Daily News, Dec. 4, 1922, p. 8, col. 2

Shortly thereafter was an item credited by several papers to the
Pittsburgh Dispatch (the Dispatch from 1922 is not yet digitized
AFAIK, but Chronicling America should get to it eventually).

Wall Street Journal, Dec. 8, 1922, p. 2, col. 3
One large New York firm that uses mailing lists for circularization
found it difficult to decide what prefix to place before a woman's
name when there was nothing to indicate whether she was married. Mary
Josephine Smith, for instance, could conceivably be either a
bobbed-haired flapper or a buxom matron of 50. It was a tossup whether
to address her as "Miss" or "Mrs," and if the guess proved wrong she
became indignant.
Finally a bright chap suggested the prefix "Ms." As a hedging scheme
this worked fine. The clerk who made the suggestion received a raise.
--Pittsburgh Dispatch.

The item that Dennis found is a further elaboration on this, appended
to a discussion about the lack of a gender-neutral third-person
singular pronoun in English:

Arizona Republican, Dec. 22, 1922, p. 4, col. 2
"Our Changing Language"
Perhaps too there will come along soon as ingenious an individual as a
young clerk of a large New York firm that used mailing lists for
circularization purposes and found it difficult to decide what prefix
to use before a woman's name when there was nothing to indicate
whether she was married or single.
Sarah Ann Jones might be a staid married woman, an aged and
respectable spinster, or a short-skirted, bobbed-haired flapper. There
was no way to decide except by the flipping of a coin, heads for
"Mrs." and tails for "Miss." The chances were just as even that the
addressee would be affronted.
This bright young clerk solved the difficulty in so simple a way that
it is a wonder that nobody ever thought of it before -- by a
compromise, the means of settling difficult and disputed points ever
since the world began. He used the prefix "Ms.," equally applicable to
married and single ladies. His salary was raised in consequence.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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