Originally published as: Sue Lynn McGuire, “Fannie’s Flirtations: Etiquette, Reality, and the Age of Choice,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society (Winter 1995), 43-78. Reprinted with permission. Illustrations from the Department of Library Special Collections, Western Kentucky University, and used with permission.


The 1890s were, for bright young females, an age of choice. Despite admonitions that flirting would ruin their reputations, many south central Kentucky adolescents enjoyed courtship rituals and remained highly respected in their communities. For every Charlotte Perkins Gilman with a mission set on advancing the status of women within our society, numerous females existed simply to enjoy life’s fullness and frivolity. Fannie Morton Bryan’s life story, as told through her diaries and newspaper accounts, gives readers a glimpse of the many rather than the few, the fun-loving rather than the serious-minded, and the old maid flirt in the largest American generation of unwed females between 1835 and 1980.


Architectural History and Criticism | Historic Preservation and Conservation | History of Gender | United States History | Women's History

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Fannie Morton Bryan and other late nineteenth-century females had difficult choices to make concerning their romantic encounters and marriage.” Bryan (1870-1965) in a photograph taken about 1890.

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A Sigma Alpha Epsilon banquet group at Bethel College. Fannie Morton Bryan appears in the back row, second from right.

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Always eager for a new conquest, Bryan accepted a Christmas present from Bethel College student Ernest Bradshaw and wrote, "I am almost tempted to flirt with him. O Fan! Fan! why can’t you behave yourself?"

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Herschel Potter (left) dazzled the young ladies of Russellville with his prowess both on the football field and off. Despite her realization that Potter’s attentions were fleeting, Bryan chose to amuse herself with this latest conquest rather than face the marriage question.

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Fannie Bryan preserved among her possessions a valentine signed “one of the victims.” The fact that she kept it for sixty years hints that she recognized her struggle for identity between the roles of flirt and old maid.