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Wives and their Shopping Bills.


March/April 1860

From The Missouri Democrat, Tuesday, April 24, 1860.



[From the New Orleans Delta.]

It has been long observable that in this country, and especially in this city, the wives and daughters of citizens of limited means dress in the style and with the extravagance of millionaires’ wives and daughters in other communities. Thus are many worthy citizens ruined, or their noses kept all the while at the grindstone. That amiable weakness of our men, which regard wives and daughters more as ornaments and dolls than as helpmates, companions, and reasonable beings, and extends to them an indulgence in expenditures and extravagance beyond their means, is the source of this very great evil. We cannot so much blame the fair creatures who yield to a weakness, a love of parade, so natural to their sex, and which is so fostered and encouraged by vain-glorious husbands and weak parents. The evil, however, is one which demands reform and correction, and we are neither surprised or indignant to discover that our judges have set to work to arrest this prevailing extravagance. The case which is reported below may serve as a lesson in law, as well as in just ideas of economy and prudence. Judge Eggleston has undertaken to enlighten the minds of our extravagant ladies and our luring modistes and fancy goods vendors as to their legal rights and responsibilities. It would be well for all wives prone to extensive shopping, and to all modistes and dry and fancy goods dealers who are wont to allow large bills to run up, carefully to read and inwardly to digest the rules of law laid down in this opinion:

Fifth District Court of New Orleans.—The plaintiff, who carries on a separate commerce from her husband, sold to Mrs. B., the wife of the deponent (the husband being also a deponent,) on the 1st and 11th of November last, a quantity of articles of personal apparel, which amount in the aggregate to the sum of $545.

Mr. B. came in court and pleaded a general denial. He further pleaded that, if the plaintiff furnished the articles specified in the bill of particulars subjoined to her petition, she furnished them in opposition to his express orders, and he is not liable to pay for them. He prays hence to be dismissed with costs. The wife, although legally cited, has made no answer, and no one has made it for her, the husband alone joining issue with the plaintiff.

It appears from the evidence, that, when the account sued on was presented for payment to Mrs. B, she admitted the correctness of it and promised to pay it, but stated that she could not do it then. The account was presented for payment to B., her husband, who declared that he knew nothing concerning it, and had told the plaintiff not to sell to his wife on credit. He declared that he would not pay it. It further appears that B. is a clerk, and receives a salary of $2,500 a year, and possesses no other means of support.

The husband owes to his wife fidelity, support and assistance (Art. No. 121, Civil Code), and she is bound to live with him, and follow him wherever he chooses to reside; and the husband is obliged to receive her, and to furnish her with whatever is required for the conveniences of life (tout et qui est necessaire pour les besoins del la vie), in proportion to his means and condition (C. C. 122). All persons have the conventional capacity except those whose incapacity is declared by law. (C. C. 1,775.) These persons are insensates, slaves, interdicts, minors and spouses. The husband is presumed to assent to a certain class of contracts made by his wife, and from this presumed assent of his to them he authorizes her to bind him. He is presumed to authorize her to enter into commercial contracts if he permit her to conduct a trade in her own name; to enter into contracts for necessaries for herself and family (pour les contrats qu’elle fait pour se procurer ses besoins et ceux de sa famille), when he himself does not provide them, and to all her contracts when he is party to them. (C. C. 1,779) These dispositions of our Civil Code clearly indicate those classes of contracts which a wife possesses the right to make, under the presumed authorization of the husband; and, if other contracts are made by her, not included in the category, the express assent of the husband must be proved in order to bind him.

It is not pretended that in this case any express material assent or authorization was ever accorded to Mrs. B., and it rests solely upon the presumed marital assent or implied authorization. The question presented then for solution is, do the articles of apparel sold to her constitute or fall under the denomination of necessaries or wants, which herself and family stood in need of, and were they proportioned to the means and condition in life of her husband; for, if they are articles of luxury and taste or ornament, and beyond his means and condition in life of her husband; for, if they are articles of luxury and taste and ornament, and beyond his means and condition, ostentation merely, the law acquits the husband of any and all obligation to pay for them. The law does not hold the husband responsible to tradesmen for merchandise sold to his spouse when it exceeds his means and state of life, and partaking of the character of profusion and luxury; she is not allowed by law to gratify her taste for ostentation and extravagance at the expense of the comfort, ease and purse of her husband. The latter is obliged to support her and furnish her with the conveniences and necessities of life, regulated by the standard of his social position and his pecuniary ability; but for reasons of a wise forecast and policy the law does not require him to support her in a career of dissipation and prodigality; he, in a word, is commanded to administer to her reasonable wants, but not to administer to her passion for luxury and magnificence.

And if tradesmen will give credit to her for such articles of luxury, they cannot expect the assistance of the law for the recovery of their debts. If they trusted her without any warrant from the husband, to her they must look for payment, not to the husband. Let me now glance at the bill of goods purchased by the wife of the defendant of the plaintiff, and see if they are necessaries of life for herself and family, and suitable to fortune and rank in society. It must be borne in mind that her husband has no other property than his salary of $2,500.

The 1st of November, 1859, she bought:

Sixteen yards of gros de Naples marron
Six yards of black velvet
Dentelle noire, large
Dentelle noire, choice
Facon de l’or robe
Un col et manches Bruxelles
Mousseline, one yard
Une ceinture marron
Ruban rose, one yard
Doublures de mousseline
Doublures et fournitures
Un col d’enfant
Fait de fovrin, 1 Jupon flanelle
Fait de fovrin, 1 Jupon brodé
Fait de fovrin, 1 chale cachemire
Un chapeau
Prete le 28 Octobre

Ten days after the purchase of these articles, which cannot be considered necessaries of life for herself and family, and suitable to the rank and estate of her husband with a salary of $2,500 per year, she purchased the following other articles, for which the husband likewise objects to paying:

Sixteen yards sofe bleue
Velour moir
Mousseline, 1 yard
Doublures de fourniture
Facon de la robe bleue
Six boutons
Un brandebourg
Ranches interieur des manches
Une paire de manches et col

1 corset
25 yards soie noire
6 yards velour noir
6 yards dentelle noir
Facon de la robe
Mousseline blanche
Doubleurs de fourniture
Un col de manche Valenciennes
Une guimpe blanche et noire
Une paire cude et interieur de chapeau
Une paire d’epaulettes

The different items of this account amount to a total or $645, which were purchased in two days’ shopping by her. The law has assigned to the spouses their respective departments in the domestic republic, and defined with considerable precision the limits of their respective authorities and duties—making the wife the bearer of the whole power of the keys, it has taken particular care to make the husband the bearer of the whole power of the purse. Any derangement of this admirable scheme of judicial wisdom; any union of the power of the keys and power of the purse, would lead to the most mischievous and deplorable consequences to the co-ordinate chief magistrates, to their family, and to society at large. These motives, without doubt, induced by the legislator to place the purse under the guardianship of the husband, as the person more fit for the performance of that function, and the court must enforce the stern dictates of his will. In my individual capacity, I might be willing to indulge to some extent the experience, tastes, and habits of the wife, against the wishes of the husband; but in my capacity as magistrate, I am compelled to restrain my inclinations in her favor, and administer the law as prescribe to me by the supreme power of the State.

If observed, the law will operate a salutary purpose in checking the scandalous extravagances and passions of spouses, and will curb the cupidity of shop-keepers and modistes, who are incessantly ministering to their love of finery and ostentation, to the ruin of families and husbands.

If the testimony had shown that the wife had been in the habit of dealing with the plaintiff, and the husband had paid the bills, he would be liable for the one sued on, if one other material ingredient had been wanting in the case. But no such testimony has been adduced.

There is one other fatal objection to a recovery. The witnesses of the plaintiff testify that when they presented the account sued on to the husband, he declared he knew nothing of it, and would not pay it, averring that he had given to the plaintiff express orders not to sell to his wife on credit. This evidence is unassailed; and I am bound to give full credit to it.

Let there be judgment for the defendant, with costs.