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How should a character address an unmarried woman in conversation in the 1930s: would they use Mrs., Miss, or Ms? Example: "Good evening, Ms. Smith."

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    Ms has a longer history than one might think, but as a common form of address it's at least 35 years anachronistic for the 1930s. Unmarried women are not addressed as "Mrs" in any era except in error. – deadrat Oct 19 '15 at 1:34
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    @deadrat, not so: see Mistress, Miss, Mrs or Ms: untangling the shifting history of women’s titles. Nice phonological pun, though, regardless of the facts. – JEL Oct 19 '15 at 1:53
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    @deadrat "Unmarried women are not addressed as "Mrs" in any era except in error. " is not so; see the link. Any woman in charge of servants was addressed as Mrs. in the 1700s, for example. – JEL Oct 19 '15 at 2:10
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    @deadrat, as pointed out at the link, Mrs., Miss and Ms. are all abbreviations of Mistress. "Neither “mistress” nor “Mrs” bore any marital connotation whatsoever for Dr Johnson." And your "any era" certainly covers more than the 1930s. – JEL Oct 19 '15 at 2:14
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    The OPs question is about the 1930s. Ms was not used in the 1930s. I well remember when Ms magazine came out -- 1971 or 1972. I had to explain the term to my mother, who had been a young woman in the 1930s. It was a totally new word to her. If Ms. had been used then, she would have remembered. Hot Licks is correct about Mizz, but that is pronunciation. The person who said Mizz would have written Mrs or Miss (and probably in better penmanship than the recipient). – ab2 Oct 19 '15 at 2:30
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In the 1930s, 'Miss' would have been the common form of address for an unmarried woman.

'Ms.' was extant (and had been since the 1600s), but rarely used. Its revival was proposed in a 1901 newspaper article as a neutral replacement for terms denoting marital status:

The abbreviation "Ms" is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances.

(See 'Hunting the Elusive First "Ms."'.)

The proposed revival, however, did not gather steam until the early 1970s, and the absence of involvement of marital status in the term 'Ms.' remains a point of confusion for many to this day.

'Ms.' has been in use, along with 'Mrs.', 'Miss' and 'Mr.' since at least the 1600s, as (less formal) variants of the formal titles 'Mistress' and 'Master', which last two did not originally convey any information about the marital status of those so addressed. About 'Ms.', one historical researcher says

It’s curious that the use of Ms is often criticised today as not ‘standing for’ anything. In fact, it has an impeccable historical pedigree since it was one of several abbreviations for Mistress in the 17th and 18th centuries, and effectively represents a return to the state which prevailed for some 300 years with the use of Mrs for adult women – only now it applies to everyone and not just the social elite.

(See "Mistress, Miss, Mrs or Ms: untangling the shifting history of women’s titles" in the 12 September 2014 edition of the New Statesman.)

  • +1 for an interesting and informative Answer, even though it does not answer the OP's question. In the 1930's an unmarried woman was addressed as Miss unless: (a) she was an upper servant -- housekeeper or cook -- in which case she would be addressed as Mrs, especially if she was an older woman; (b) she had a courtesy title as the daughter of an Earl, Marquess or Duke (not sure about daughter of Viscount), in which case, she would be Lady Joan; (c) if she had an earned medical degree, in which case, she might be called Dr. Smith -- or might not. – ab2 Oct 19 '15 at 20:18
  • @ab2, sounds as if you have an answer of your own. However, I'm pretty sure my answer addresses the OP's question, accurately, if more completely than is strictly desirable: "In the 1930s, 'Miss' would have been the common form of address for an unmarried woman." That's the gist, and covers my take on the OP's question. The accuracy of your assertions is contestable, of course. For example, the quotes in the OED don't reflect any use of "Mrs." for "upper servants", heads of households, women of means, beyond the 1800s, other than 1 in 1930, specifically a "title of courtesy". – JEL Oct 19 '15 at 20:36
  • The Answer is all yours! As for Mrs for upper servants and "Lady Joan" for the Duke's daughter, any of the site's Brits will confirm. – ab2 Oct 19 '15 at 21:23
  • @ab2 I would ask, but the Brits might Yank my chain. – JEL Oct 19 '15 at 22:13
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Definitely "Miss" if followed by her surname.

I would suggest "young lady" when addressing an unknown yet well-dressed girl.

"Mademoiselle" still has its charm, and did back then as well.

In certain ultra-progressive circles young women insisted on being addressed by the surname only, on both sides of the Atlantic.

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