Best in show | The Wife: Her Book, 1907, by Haydn Brown - Museums Association

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Best in show | The Wife: Her Book, 1907, by Haydn Brown

This fascinating – if dated – piece of social history is the highlight of a new exhibition at Halliwell’s House Museum, Selkirk
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The book is on display at the Extinct Housewives: Women and the World of Work exhibition
Frances Campbell
Museum and gallery assistant for Live Borders Museums, Selkirk

“Haydn Brown was an interesting figure, to say the least. A British surgeon and psychotherapist, he came up with some rather controversial pseudo-scientific techniques that saw him struck off the medical register on two separate occasions in the 1920s.

He was also a prolific author, penning books on topics ranging from self-control and insomnia to the healing power of fruit and sexual dysfunction.

In 1899, Brown wrote a handbook entitled ‘Advice for Single Women’, and followed it up eight years later with this volume, in which he turned his attention to how married women should lead their lives.

He pinned his colours to the mast in his opening sentences: ‘No woman has lived a complete life who has not been a mother, and not even a child has provided a full and satisfactory complement unless it has been born in lawful wedlock.’

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Judging by the cover of our copy, the book was well read in the early years of the last century. Even though many of Brown’s views were very much of their time, and some of the medical practice has obviously evolved over the years, the text is a fantastic piece of social history.

I imagine the book would have been welcomed at the time, as it does contain what would have been helpful advice about pregnancy, childbirth and how women should take care of themselves.

The proliferation of similar handbooks that appeared in subsequent years showed that Brown was on to something – and I reckon his heart was in the right place. It is an unassuming object in its own right, but I think that adds to its charm.

It also captures the essence of our exhibition, Extinct Housewives – Women and the World of Work, which takes a close look at changing attitudes towards women and their place in the home and at work.

A report last year revealed that more women between the ages of 16 and 64 are in employment in Scotland than at any time since records began in 1992 – almost 75%, which is a staggering figure.

We thought this was something we could explore through our collection, which documents, among other topics, the history of women working in the textile mills across the Borders region and Northumbria.

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We also have some wonderful photographs of ‘bondagers’. In a system peculiar to this part of the world, a married ploughman in the 19th century was required to bring along a woman – it could be their wife, daughter or a stranger, but they would have to provide payment, bed and board – to work long hours in the fields in order to obtain a contract of employment with a farmer.

These bondagers were fantastically dressed in enormous bonnets, wimples and huge skirts which, perhaps, were not ideally suited to the work.

The exhibition also goes on to record the work of the Women’s Land Army and the rise of the housewife in the Scottish Borders in the 1950s.

Our small museum is in an 18th-century building and is named after Walter Halliwell, a Selkirk wigmaker who once owned the property. It is one of the oldest in the town and is in a narrow, cobbled alley.

Add a bit of Scottish rain and mist, and you could easily film an episode of Outlander here.”

Interview by John Holt.

Extinct Housewives: Women and the World of Work is at Halliwell’s House Museum, Selkirk, until 19 August

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