The term ‘mail-order bride’ is a generic term which covers the different ways in which a man out West could become acquainted with a woman he’d never met and invite her out to marry him. The phenomenon arose because men had moved West to fulfil very masculine roles such as mining and logging, and lived in rough communities where sex was provided by prostitutes. They sometimes outnumbered women by as many as nine to one. There was an absolute dearth of marriageable women and these men, committed now to their new home, felt the need for a feminine influence in making nice homes and a proper community with churches and schools.
This was the demand part of the equation; the supply occurred particularly in the south-eastern states where the Civil War had taken the lives of a disproportionate number of young men. Women faced a prospect of spinsterhood or widowhood, coupled with poverty, unless they moved away and found a husband. There were also women who for any one of a number of reasons (desire for adventure, ruined reputation, need to hide a criminal identity and start afresh) wanted to leave their homes far behind.
So how did the two groups make contact? It could be done through acquaintances who would be able to vouch for the attributes of the two parties – this was a safe way of doing it. Then there were matrimonial columns in newspapers, which accepted paid ads from either sex, often accompanied by a photograph. There were also brokerage firms and even ‘shipments’ of mail order brides who were enticed to come out without having a particular husband in view. One particularly successful venture was by a businessman called Fred Harvey who in 1882 advertised for waitresses in cafés along the Santa Fe Railroad, requiring them to be single and live virtuously for one year. By the end of the century, 5,000 so-called Harvey Girls had found husbands.
Once the couple had identified each other, the only way of getting to know more was by letter, and this was a slow and uncertain process that they often short-circuited. Prospective partners therefore knew next to nothing about each other when they committed to a marriage which would take place immediately, and if they’d bent the truth in order to attract a mate, there could be a rude shock awaiting one of them.
There are some horror stories about mail-order brides. One woman found that her husband had misrepresented himself (he was in fact a bandit as well as a miner) and their marriage lasted less than an hour. Occasionally women cashed in the train ticket they were sent by their eager groom and never set off at all, or they might make the journey at one man’s expense only to meet and marry another. Sometimes one or other party was already married, and of course the new marriage fell apart as soon as this was discovered.
The mail-order way of meeting was akin to an arranged marriage in that the building of trust and affection had of necessity to follow on from the marriage rather than precede it. But in fact a great many of these marriages worked well, the couple staying together till one of them died, and having numerous children. But were they happy? The ads give us a clue by revealing that it was partnerships rather than love-matches that were offered and sought, so maybe these people had different expectations from ourselves. We need to bear this possibility in mind when making our assessment – and also be careful not to confuse them with online adverts offering to put men in touch with “beautiful girls from … <another country>” which promote marriages of convenience for very different reasons to those who sought the original mail-order brides.