I'm surprised the public or Cleveland's opponents (Republicans) didn't castigate his marriage with Frances Folsom on June 2 1886 when she was 21. This age difference in 2020 would attract castigation, and I'm assuming 1886 Americans were more traditional and conservative than 2020 Americans! Did private opinion somehow overlook this age difference?

In fact,the general sentiment was summed up by an article in the New York Tribune (titled "Mr. Cleveland's Devotion to His Ward") that described it as "like a story book or fairy tale." Up until the announcement of the engagement, Cleveland had had a reputation for being gruff and unsociable, and people seem to have been genuinely charmed by the revelation of his romantic side. As one writer for the Chicago Daily News observed:

There is something characteristically American about the merry yet respectful, jesting yet sincere, interest our people take in the nuptials of the president. Every bit of gossip concerning his courtship and the life, appearance, and character of his intended is discussed with as much avidity as if she were to be the bride of some personal friend. The people do not stand afar off and watch the preparations for the marriage as if it were to be a pageant of royalty. They are not restrained by any awe of the president's high office from showing their curiosity about his persona affairs. They feel that he owes his elevation to their suffrage, and they wish him joy and tender him advice with all the freedom of equals.

This was just what was being said publicly. Frances was an enormously popular figure throughout Cleveland's first term in office, and she was joyfully welcomed back to the White House in 1892. By that time the Clevelands had a daughter, Ruth, and would welcome a second child in 1893, completing the picture of domestic felicity.

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    Why do you assume that a 30-year age difference would be all that uncommon in married couples in the later 19th century (In the US or elsewhere, for that matter)? – sempaiscuba May 10 '20 at 20:15
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    My hypothesis - > " I'm assuming 1886 Americans were more traditional and conservative than 2020" is suspect. – Mark C. Wallace May 10 '20 at 20:43
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    This relationship is counterintuitive, that "more traditional and conservative" meant men much older than their wives, rather than "about the same age" as their wives." Which is why the question is non trivial. From the point of the children, what better start in life could be better than the White House. Even the jeer, "Ma, ma, where' my pa?" and the retort "Gone to the White House ha, ha, ha" indirectly makes this point. – Tom Au May 10 '20 at 21:11
  • @TomAu "This relationship is counterintuitive" may be true. It isn't for me, but then I've studied history which might make me an exception to the norm. Nonetheless, I'm quite willing to accept that your observation may be true for those who haven't. However, that should form part of the prior research that we expect to be documented in the question. – sempaiscuba May 10 '20 at 21:20
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    @sempaiscuba: IMHO, the OP has done his "history" homework by citing two newspaper articles. What deficiencies exist in the question stem from a lack of understanding of "social sciences other than history." Even so, this question is grounded in history, and "involves history in some way." – Tom Au May 10 '20 at 21:25

"Traditional and conservative" in 1886 meant "men older than their wives," sometimes much older.

The idea that women should marry men of similar ages gained currency after World War II with the men of the so-called World War II generation. Having won a world war, these men were the most eligible bachelors in the world. They were the first generation to attend college en masse because of the GI Bill, and when they graduated, they made more rapid career progress than men of earlier "vintages" had at the same age. That's when the idea arose that women were best off marrying men of "similar" ages (within two to three years, rather than 20 or 30). Men and women of that generation married more of their peers than earlier generations, according to "Generations" by William Strauss and Neil Howe. And that's why they created a "Baby Boom."

A man's earnings and promotion prospects peak at a around age 48 on average (Cleveland wouldn't be promoted beyond "President"), while a woman's fertility peaks in her early 20s. Given that those were the "traditional" functions of men and women, a 20-30 year age difference in favor of the man actually fit the gender roles better at the time.

  • There is any theory about the reduction of death at childbirth having a part in the this change? Those death at childbirth would have caused a "surplus" of male widows who were still relatively young and with few (for the time) children. As women's death rate was reduced it would have become less common. – SJuan76 May 10 '20 at 21:23
  • @SJuan76: There may have been some impact from this, but to the best of my knowledge, no one has separated this from the overall fact that with America being an immigration society, there were naturally more men than women until the 20th century. The 1940s saw a reversal of this (among people of marriageable age) with 1) the halting of most immigration, 2) male deaths in combat, and 3) GIs bringing home "war brides. – Tom Au May 10 '20 at 21:38
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    Anecdotally, when I performed genealogical research on my own family I found quite a few cases where young (20ish) women married men in their forties or even older. In one case, a distant female cousin (age 21 IIRC) married a widower who was so much older that he had a unmarried daughter older than her! I did wonder how in the heck the domestic arrangements could've been worked out amicably, given that both women had to share a house that the unmarried daughter had run in place of her deceased mother for years. – Jurp May 11 '20 at 2:58
  • One of my great great grandfathers was born in 1779, while his third wife, my ancestor, was 22 years younger, born in 1801. The third wife's father, born in 1771, married by great great great grandfather's niece a few days before my great great great grandfather married his third wife. The third wife's father had children by the second marriage, who were her half siblings and also the grandchildren of her husband's sibling! – MAGolding May 11 '20 at 19:28

Traditionally, large gaps of age between the marrying couple were quite commonplace, particularly when the man was the older. The modern distaste is modern.

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