Following on from Meaning of "bully" in the 1800's, and Mr Lister's comment, this article mentions:

I want to buy bread-and-butter, hoop-skirts and waterfalls for some person of the female persuasion during life

Chance for a Spinster. — A young man in Aroostook County, Maine, advertising for a wife, speaks of himself as follows: "I am eighteen years old, have a good set of teeth, and believe in Andy Johnson, the star-spangled banner, and the 4th of July. I have taken up a State lot, cleared up eighteen acres last year, and seeded ten of it down. My buckwheat looks first-rate, and the oats and potatoes are bully. I have got nine sheep, a two-year-old bull, and two heifers, besides a house and barn. I want to get married. I want to buy bread-and-butter, hoop-skirts, and waterfalls for some person of the female persuasion during life. That's what's the matter with me. But I don't know how to do it."

Source: Harper's Weekly, September 2, 1865

Why on earth did he just not say girl/woman/lady/female? For example,

... for a lady during life.

Was this, per chance:

  • a tongue in cheek expression;
  • an attempt at humour, or;
  • a way of making the advertisement stand out from the others in the lonely hearts column?

I am sure that I have heard this expression elsewhere, but, for the life of me, I can not remember where. I think that I have heard Person of the X peruasion, where X could be some other character defining attribute, but not female... it is an odd expression, as one can't really be persuaded to be a female, one either is, or is not.

Presumably waterfalls are a type of clothing or some other type of accoutrement, that, at that time, a gentleman would gift to the lady in his life, and not an actual physical waterfall? If the writer does actually means real cascading waterfalls, then surely the whole sentence is rather tongue-in-cheek?


3 Answers 3


Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary notes persuasion can refer to a way of thinking with female/feminine persuasion a term which is usually used somewhat humorously. Beyond the humorous construction the usage of female persuasion or feminine persuasion fundamentally refers to the idea that men and women may not think about things the same way.

The idea of a fundamentally different way of thinking would have been an accepted idea in the 1800s. So, in 1818 Jane Austin's final novel was published, written from a woman's point of view (critic Julia Brown states "For the first time Jane Austen gives over the narrator's authority to a character almost completely") and titled Persuasion.

Furthermore, around the 1800s women were heavily involved in social reform movements such as abolitionism, Christian causes, and suffrage. The women's rights movement was fundamentally about women trying to persuade men to give women the right to vote. Women were legally powerless but they still had the power of persuasion. The Lady Amaranth described this balance of power thusly: “The man bears rule over his wife’s person and conduct. She bears rule over his inclinations: he governs by law; she by persuasion…The empire of the woman is an empire of softness…her command are caresses, her menaces are tears.” (as quoted in The Cult of True Womanhood 1820-1860)

So the term female persuasion can be seen as doubly referring to

  • women as a group thinking differently about the world in the 1800s than men do, and
  • women as a group having limited legal power in the 1800s and therefore having to rely on their ability of persuasion to try and effect changes, whether it be changes on a grand social scale or even just changes in dealing with men on a personal level, such as in their marriages

I checked Google Books and found an early explanation in "Broadway: A London Magazine", Vol. I September, 1868, to February, 1869.

There is one article there dedicated to complaints about Americanisms. It described the literal meaning of "of the X persuasion" to be a description of religious conviction. The author describes variants of the expression as a vulgar American corruption of the meaning. The examples this author cites, besides "female persuasion", are deliberately humorous usages.

To be of a certain religious persuasion, or conviction, is recognized English, though not of the most elegant kind; but when the New York Herald speaks of a woman as "a person of the female persuasion," or the Daily Telegraph describes a reporter as a person of the reportorial persuasion, or a foreign correspondent of the same journal regrets that "personally he is not of the ornithological persuasion (i.e., a bird), the vulgarism is too gross to be laughable.

My conclusions are

  • "Of the X persuasion" was originally a common saying to refer to sincere beliefs.
  • It was not considered an elegant expression, at least by the English literary class.
  • The expression has been extended to refer to any property of a person (or even animal), without making a statement about the person's mind.
  • Extensions are often meant to be funny.
  • 1
    Fantastic answer, right out of the gate. We need more people like you. Stick around here, will you?
    – Dan Bron
    Jul 16, 2017 at 2:46
  • Why thank you, @Dan Bron. I was mostly just piggy backing off the Google Books link by Hot Links. I thought this was an interesting question back in June. I felt like I'm comfortable using this expression to be cute, but I didn't know how it was used in the 1860s, so I followed the links. I plan on sticking around.
    – Jetpack
    Jul 16, 2017 at 15:31
  • You beat me to it. My take is a hair different. Persuasion did refer to religious belief, perhaps because people were persuaded to embrace a particular religion. I see it as humor based on referring to gender as something that people are persuaded to rather than being born as. The irony is that the author had the last laugh. With the current gender identity movement, gender now really is a persuasion for some people.
    – fixer1234
    Jul 16, 2017 at 20:58

In the Victorian era it was considered indelicate to be too direct when referencing persons or things that could be construed as sexual (they would prefer, for example, using "limbs" where today we would say "legs" and so on). Since the object here is a woman who would be involved in conjugal matters with the author, he attempts to soften the reference anyway he can.

He may also be trying to sound more "educated," succumbing to the temptation of never using a small word when a large one will do, or one word when multiples are at hand.

In either case, such constructs do sound strange to the modern ear. This particular one, "of the female persuasion," today would feel terribly oblique or even pompous, and might even be construed as a reference to a transgendered woman (i.e., a biological male who had been "persuaded" to the other side).

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