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Rediscovering Mr. And Mrs. Henpeck

Mrs. and Mr. Henpeck get supper, on stereo card, circa 1903.
Library of Congress
Mrs. and Mr. Henpeck get supper, on stereo card, circa 1903.

Ah, the Henpecks.

Jokes about a married couple with a domineering wife and subservient husband — named Mr. and Mrs. Henpeck — made the rounds in the late 19th century. She is the strong one; he's the weakling. She reads the newspaper; he does the dishes.

The idea of the "henpecked husband" was social shorthand for underscoring cultural expectations of men and women.

Here are three of the jokes, as told in the 1890s:

  • "Mr. and Mrs. Henpeck have separated." "Indeed!" "Yes, and Mrs. Henpeck is going to lecture." "H'm! Going to continue in the business." — Weekly Journal-Miner in Prescott, Ariz., Dec. 2, 1891
  • Mr. Jawkins: Mrs. Henpeck is fearfully lonesome without her husband. Mrs. Jawkins: Humph! I don't see what fault she has to find. Mr. Jawkins: That is probably what makes her unhappy. — Salina, Kan., Daily Republican, Dec. 20, 1892
  • "Come on fellows," cried a mosquito who happened to overhear a quarrel between Mr. and Mrs. Henpeck, "this is a cinch. I heard the woman tell her husband he was the most thin-skinned man she ever knew." — Santa Cruz, Calif., Sentinel July 16, 1898
  • Odd Couple

    The Henpecks, who eventually became recurring characters in Vaudeville skits, seem to have surfaced as a popular trope in the 1890s. But after a change of centuries and the First World War, American society went through a transformation, according to social critic Doris Blake, writing in the Chicago Daily Tribune on Aug. 21, 1925.

    "Where do you ever see those two old figures of humor that flourished a generation ago, Mr. and Mrs. Henpeck. You don't see them. They aren't anymore," Blake writes. "They have passed into historic limbo."

    One person quoted in Blake's story points out that the fading away of the Henpecks "marks a great change that has come over married life." One noticeable shift, according to the article: Married men had become more sympathetic and empathetic.

    Blake opines that Mr. Henpeck brought the overbearing troubles on himself. When a smart and strong-willed woman "finds herself wedded to an inferior personality and deprived by law and customs of all outlets for her energy, and of all freedom of thought, it is natural that she would turn sour and henpeck."

    The contemporary wife, she continues, "knows more about men than she used to. She knows they are not easily driven, but that they can be led."

    Modern women in a world with expanding possibilities "have subtler and far more potent methods of achieving their ends," she adds. "The element of comradeship bulks largely in their scheme of things."

    What The Dickens?

    In earlier America, the notion of henpeckery was widespread.

    Catherine Golden, who teaches Victorian and American literature at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., points to a well-known book illustration. "Given Dickens's popularity with American readers," she says, "I would alert you to the illustrations of Mr. Bumble following his marriage to Mrs. Corney in Oliver Twist (1837-39). 'Mr. Bumble Degraded in the Eyes of the Paupers' is a perfect illustration of an unhappy henpecked Mr. Bumble who concludes of his marriage, 'I sold myself for six teaspooons, a pair of sugar tongs, and a milkpot.'"

    The American depictions of Mr. and Mrs. Henpeck, Golden says, vanished into the vapor of history with World War I "because men suddenly had to be seen as powerful and brave soldiers, not henpecked husbands."

    Cross Word Puzzle

    One last gag from the Winchester, Ky., News on March 6, 1909, under the headline "Score One for Mr. Henpeck."

  • Mrs. Henpeck: Why is it that bachelors are so much more crabbed and cross than married men? Mr. Henpeck: Because they are not afraid to say what they think.

  • Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.