Sherwood, Mary Elizabeth (1826–1903)

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Sherwood, Mary Elizabeth (1826–1903)

American author and etiquette expert. Born Mary Elizabeth Wilson in Keene, New Hampshire, on October 27, 1826; died of heart disease in New York City on September 12, 1903; daughter of James Wilson (alawyer and politician) and Mary Lord (Richardson) Wilson; educated at George B. Emerson's school in Boston; married John Sherwood (a lawyer), on November 12, 1851 (died 1895); children: James Wilson (died in childhood); Samuel (b. 1853); Arthur Murray (b. 1856); John Philip (died 1883).

Selected writings:

The Sarcasm of Destiny (1878); A Transplanted Rose (1882); Manners and Social Usages (1884); Sweet-Brier (1889); The Art of Entertaining (1892); Poems by M.E.W.S. (1892); An Epistle to Posterity—Being Rambling Recollections of Many Years of My Life (memoirs, 1897); Here & There & Everywhere (memoirs, 1898).

Born in 1826 into a well-respected family in Keene, New Hampshire, Mary Elizabeth Sherwood was the first child of Mary Richardson Wilson and James Wilson, a lawyer who would later follow in the footsteps of his father and become a member of Congress. She grew up very much enamored of the finer things in life, a trait implicitly encouraged during her education at George B. Emerson's boarding school for girls in Boston. A journey west with her father in 1842, to rough settlements in what would become the states of Wisconsin and Iowa, was not to her liking, but she found her métier five years later, when her father was elected to Congress and moved the family to Washington, D.C. Her mother died shortly thereafter, and Sherwood served as hostess for her father until 1850, greatly enjoying the social scene in the capital.

Mary brought her passion for society life into her marriage when she wed lawyer John Sherwood in 1851. The couple settled in Manhattan and Sherwood became part of New York society, attending Anne C.L. Botta 's literary salon, traveling in style to fashionable places, and working on such charitable causes as fund raising for the restoration of Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington 's home. She also had four sons, one of whom died young, and occasionally wrote short stories and poems that were published in various periodicals. During the Civil War, Sherwood was among those wealthy women who raised money for the Sanitary Commission by organizing the Metropolitan Fair in 1864. By the 1870s, however, the expense of a society lifestyle forced her to begin an active writing career to supplement her husband's income.

Sherwood began publishing pieces on etiquette, as well as short stories, in such respected magazines as Frank Leslie's Weekly and Appleton's Journal, though her first novel, The Sarcasm of Destiny, received little attention when it appeared in 1878. Her second effort, A Transplanted Rose (1882), proved quite popular with its story of a girl from the West adapting herself to fit New York society. In 1884, she turned from novels to publish her most popular work, Manners and Social Usages. Guidebooks to manners were increasingly popular in the 19th century, as more and more of the "nouveau riche" entered society without the training in this area that would have been provided by a wealthy upbringing. Sherwood's Guide gave tips on everything from using a fork correctly to cultivating human kindness (she thought it incumbent upon those endowed with wealth to deal benignantly with their inferiors), and went through a number of reprintings. Sweet-Brier, her third novel, was published in 1889.

A breadwinner herself, Sherwood was cautiously supportive of greater opportunities for women in education and the workplace. However, her views were largely traditional, and in her etiquette guides as well as her novels she championed the natural and highest calling of women as their becoming, in her words, "domestic women, good wives and mothers." Her first concern was "good society," which she continued to pursue even after her husband had to sell their home and its contents in 1890. She had been traveling abroad at the time, and upon her return they began living in hotels. Sherwood published a book of poetry and another social guide, The Art of Entertaining, in 1892, while her husband gradually faded into what was probably depression. He died in 1895, broken both physically and mentally. Sherwood, who had not given up her jewels to help with the family's economic situation, continued to live in hotels and to cultivate her upper-class acquaintances. She suffered badly from rheumatism but faithfully made the social rounds, and published two volumes of memoirs detailing the people she had met in her travels (among them Charles Dickens and Daniel Webster), An Epistle to Posterity (1897) and Here & There & Everywhere (1898). Described by playwright Robert E. Sherwood, her grandson, as "a very gaudy old lady until the end," she died in New York City in 1903.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day: A Daybook of Women's Words. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Ginger Strand , Ph.D., New York City