Finding a wife was difficult in the 18th century. There was no online dating, and strict social controls made it difficult for members of the opposite sex to get to know one another. But things were especially hard for a man named Thomas Day, and he came up with a novel, though cruel, way to end his unwed state.
Day was highly educated and wealthy British man in the mid 18th century. He also donated large sums toward helping the poor and openly advocated voting rights for all men. But he was also known for his poor manners and lack of personal hygiene, so women weren’t very interested in him as a husband. He also wasn’t too impressed with the choices he had available to him.
His solution was to make his own wife. In 1769, he took two girls from an orphanage. They were ages 11 and 12 at the time, and he was 21. The one who could best embody his idea of a perfect woman would get to marry him. He planned to use the ideas of Rousseau, a popular philosopher at the time, in educating the two girls to perfection.
Day signed a contract with the girls, promising them some money or an apprenticeship if he did not marry them. He then took the girls, Lucretia and Sabrina, to France. He taught them reading, arithmetic, and geography. They also learned about housekeeping and philosophy.
Neither girl enjoyed their education, but Lucretia was especially stubborn. In 1770, Day returned to England and apprenticed Lucretia to a milliner and focused all his efforts on Sabrina. This was unfortunate for Sabrina.
To increase her resistance to pain, Day would stick pins in her and pour hot wax over her body. She was not allowed to cry. He also fired his gun at her to make her less nervous. It did not work. Eventually, one of Day’s friends suggested that his experiment had failed.
In 1771, he finally sent Sabrina to a boarding school, and later arranged her apprenticeship to a dressmaker. She reportedly loved her job and did well, but the business she worked for went bankrupt in 1775. Her next job was as a housekeeper to one of Day’s friends.
When she was 18, Day had second thoughts about his decision to not marry her. She seemed more suitable and more amenable to his requirements. Surprisingly, she agreed to marry him, and they became engaged. However, he continued to try to control her and flew into a rage when she did not follow his precise clothing instructions on one of their meetings. He called off the marriage permanently, and pensioned her off with £50 a year.
Day eventually married a wealthy heiress. He tried to keep Sabrina from marrying, too, even though he wasn’t interested in her (he was still her guardian and could decide who she married even though she was an adult by this point). She did eventually marry one of his close friends, though, and Day even paid her dowry. Sadly, her husband died only three years after the marriage, leaving her penniless.
But Sabrina was quite resilient, possibly due to what she went through with Day. She managed to find another housekeeping job and eventually saved up over £2000 (£500,000 in today’s money) to pass on to her children.