Lucy Nelson, the Boy-Girl,” by Eliza Leslie, describes the comeuppance of a lively tomboy and tells us a lot about early 19th-century gender expectations. Leslie’s use of the term “boy-girl” may be unusual: the word “tomboy” had described a girl who acted “boyish” since the 1500s. This piece originally appeared in the Juvenile Miscellany; its reprinting in The Youth’s Companion wasn’t unusual in early 19th-century U.S. periodicals.


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[Nursery] “Lucy Nelson, The Boy-girl,” by Eliza Leslie (reprinted from the Juvenile Miscellany; from Youth’s Companion, 30 November 1831; pp. 110-111)

It was very strange that Lucy Nelson always preferred playing with boys, and seemed to take no pleasure in any girlish amusements. She showed no inclination to dress dolls, and make feasts, and read story-books with her sisters, but she liked to pass all her play-time with her brothers. She could fly a kite, spin a top, toss a ball, drive a hoop, and walk on stilts: and was delighted to race about the fields, and wade through the creek with the boys. Her clothes were torn to pieces in climbing fences and trees, her shoes were always covered with dirt, and her skin was so sunburnt, that she might almost have been mistaken for an Indian child. When she went up or down stairs she always jumped three steps at a time, and she did not hesitate to get on a horse without saddle or bridle, and gallop all over the fields. Every one called her a boy-girl.

In the winter, she always accompanied her brothers when they went out to skate, and made them lend her their skates to join in the amusement. She helped them to make men of show, and took great delight in pelting people with snow-balls.

When the weather was too bad to be out of doors, her brothers, who always rose at daylight, were in the habit of going up to play in the lumber-garret, before the chief persons of the family had risen. Lucy, instead of following the example of her sisters, who lay quietly in bed and read stories till it was time to rise, always got up as soon as she heard the boys, and putting on a flannel petticoat over her night-gown, hastened to the garret to join them. There they romped, and scrambled, and pranced, till frequently their father was obliged to go up and order them all back to their beds.

Once they found in the lumber-garret an empty flour barrel, which they amused themselves with rolling over the floor. It rolled at last to the head of the stairs and went down a step or two; Lucy thought the bouncing, jumping noise very funny; and giving the barrel a kick, sent it down several steps farther. The fun was continued till the barrel had rolled thumping down the whole flight of stairs. Every one in the house wondered at this violent and singular noise, and her father opening the door of his chamber, saw Lucy jumping down stairs and kicking the empty barrel before her, and the boys shouting and laughing behind. He was much displeased, and forbade all further playing in the lumber-garret.

Next summer, Mr. Nelson was building a large stone barn, not far from his house, and one day when all the workmen had gone to dinner, Lucy proposed to her brothers to ascend the ladder and get up to the top of the wall, the roof being not yet raised, or put on. Lucy mounted the ladder first, the three boys followed, and when the masons returned, they saw her leading the way on the edge of the high wall, and her brothers walking after her. Had their feet stumbled, or their heads grown dizzy, they would instantly have fallen to the ground, and most likely have been killed on the spot. Their father as a punishment for their folly, and temerity, would not permit them to see the frame of the roof put on the barn: which ceremony was to take place next day, and is generally a sight very well worth looking at. The workmen are in great glee when a roof is to be raised; as in the country, it is customary, for the owner of the building to give them a handsome dinner, or supper on the occasion.

As it would be almost endless to recapitulate every instance of Lucy Nelson’s hoydenism, the above may suffice to show that her parents had just cause for resorting to a new mode of punishment, which, strange as it was, they had reason to hope would be effectual. They determined that their boy-girl daughter should wear boy’s clothes for a whole month.

At first Lucy thought this would not be much of a punishment, and that it would be rather diverting to go about in jacket and trowsers; but when her mother brought her down stairs dressed in a suit belonging to her youngest brother, the laughter of the boys mortified her extremely. They said that now she was dressed as a boy they would treat her like one. Accordingly, their usage of her was very rough indeed; she got the worst in all their plays, and they were so boisterous with her, and ridiculed her so much, that it gave her no pleasure to play at all.

At the end of the week, Mr. and Mrs. Halford, with their son and daughter, came to dine and spend the day with Lucy’s parents, and Lucy was very unwilling that the visiters should see her in boy’s clothes. She resolved not to make her appearance till dinner time; and thought she would try to avoid it even then, unless she could devise some means of concealing her jacket and trowsers.

All Mrs. Nelson’s children, except her eldest daughter, Catherine, had aprons or pinafores of brown holland to wear at their meals, but none of those aprons were large enough to conceal the under-dress entirely. Lucy went to the clothes-press and got out a long wide apron, belonging to her sister Catherine, who, whenever she made cakes or pastry wore it to protect her frock, which it covered completely, as it came up close to her neck and descended nearly to her feet.

This apron was sufficiently large, but it was open behind; and to remedy that disadvantage, Lucy got some tape and sewed on several pair of additional strings, so that by tying them all the way up, she could close it effectually. She then put on the apron, and found that it covered her from head to foot; being so long that it trailed on the ground, and the sleeves hung over her finger ends. This inconvenience she endeavored to obviate by pinning up a sort of broad hem round the bottom. She flattered herself that no one now could discern her boy’s clothes.

Her sister and brothers were in the porch with the son and daughter of Mr. Halford, and Lucy considered it best to remain in her own room till the bell rung for dinner. At one time she thought she would not go to dinner at all, hoping that her mother would send something up to her: but then again she did not like dining by herself—she had a great desire to hear the conversation at table, and to see the visiters; and she thought the large apron would completely conceal her male attire.

When Lucy walked in with this immense apron, and took her seat at the lower corner of the table, the boys bit their lips and looked at each other,

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p. 111

but they did not dare to laugh out; and her father and mother pitying her confusion, avoided noticing her.

But their guest, Mrs. Halford, was a lady who noticed every thing, and who was audible in her remarks on whatever she saw. As Lucy in coming in and seating herself had taken care to keep her face towards the strangers, Mrs. Halford had no suspicion of her under-dress; but she thought she had never seen so large an apron, and at last she took occasion to say in a very sententious tone:

“How much, Mrs. Nelson, I approve your plan of making the children wear aprons at dinnertime. Your youngest daughter, especially, has, I perceive, a most ample covering. I think, on a child of her age, I never saw an apron so long and so wide. While she wears it there is no opportunity for the smallest speck to get on her dress. I conclude the young lady is particularly neat in all her habits, and remarkably careful of her clothes.”

Mrs. Nelson could not help smiling, and the boys tittered; but poor Lucy held down her head and blushed.

When dinner was over, and it was time for the children to leave the table, Lucy began to grow uneasy; for not being very expert at her needle, she had sewed on the new strings so slightly that all dinner-time she had felt them ripping and coming off one after another; and she was now afraid to rise to go out, knowing that the back part of the apron would then fly open. How much she wished that she had not come down to dinner! The boys determined to stay as long as they could, that they might see how Lucy would get off.

But Lucy still lingered, watching most anxiously for an opportunity of making her escape, whenever the attention of the strangers should be exclusively engaged by conversation, or when they should all happen to be looking another way. And several times she half rose and then sat down; imagining that the eyes of all the visiters were upon her.

Mrs. Nelson at last made a sign for the children to depart; and Lucy, much confused, and with her face very red, was obliged to get up; which she did in great embarrassment, putting her hands behind her, and awkwardly trying to hold together the open part of her apron, but still keeping her face towards the company.

“I think, Mrs. Nelson,” said the observant Mrs. Halford, “your youngest daughter is the most respectful young lady I have yet seen. She appears to walk out backwards, like a courtier retiring from the presence of a King and Queen.”

Lucy, much ashamed, turned round and hid her face with her hands; and the visiters immediately perceived through the opening of the apron, her trowsers and the skirts of her jacket.

“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Nelson,” continued Mrs. Halford, “I thought you had only three sons, but I now perceive you have four. And I must also beg the young gentleman’s pardon, for mistaking him all dinner-time for a young lady; but it was the very large apron that deceived me.”

“I am not a boy,” cried Lucy, and bursting into tears, she ran out of the room. Her brothers, in pity to her, ceased laughing.

Mrs. Nelson then explained to her visiters that she had caused Lucy to wear boy’s clothes as a punishment for indulging a predilection, hitherto incorrigible, for the habits and manners of a boy; and Mrs. Halford then expressed her regret for the remarks she had allowed herself to make. She begged of Mrs. Nelson to oblige her by permitting poor Lucy to resume her proper attire. Mrs. Nelson, who was always glad to have an opportunity of pardoning her children, as it gave her much pain to punish them, went immediately to her daughter’s room, where she found Lucy lying on the bed crying, and the boys standing round and trying to comfort her.

They were all delighted when their mother told them, that though Lucy had worn boy’s clothes but a week, instead of a month, she would remit the remainder of her punishment. This kindness made Lucy very happy, and she gratefully promised her mother that she would sincerely and earnestly try to conquer her rude, boisterous, romping habits, and become as much like other girls as possible.

After Lucy had washed her face and smoothed her hair, Mrs. Nelson, dressed her in a nice white frock, and led her down stairs to the parlor, where the Halford family gave her a most encouraging reception, and the remainder of the afternoon was passed away quietly and pleasantly in the garden and orchards.

That night, when Lucy went to bed, she made a firm resolution to try to subdue her fondness for romping, and her love of boyish pastimes. At first she found great difficulty in keeping herself quiet, and even declared that “being good too long at a time made her head ache.” She was several times in danger of relapsing; but perseverance does wonders; and at length she became a modest well-behaved little girl, and took pleasure in all the occupations and amusements that are suited to her sex.

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