DCSIMG
National Postal Museum logo

How

How did men and women meet through the mail?

How did they transition from a correspondence courtship to marriage?

How did mail-order marriages turn out?

The introduction of strangers requires a middleman. In the late 19th century personal ads and the help of mutual acquaintances were the means through which mail-order marriages were made possible. After the young man and woman had made each other’s acquaintance through a friend or personal ad, they would correspond by mail. Sometimes their courtship correspondence would be brief, providing only a physical description of their betrothed so as to facilitate finding them at the train station.1 Other correspondence courtships lasted a number of months.2 Jessie Betz and Otis Call corresponded for more than one year before marrying.3 Within the duration of the correspondence courtship, the man would usually propose, and if the woman accepted, he would often send money to cover travel expenses. This was particularly true when the bride had international travel costs.4

Newspaper clipping, titled, To Claim Mail Order Bride: Waterloo Man Departs for Germany to Wed Woman He Never Saw. Text reads, Waterloo, May 25 – Hans Torgler left Waterloo for Germany to wed a girl he has never seen except as the camera pictures her. Hans is banking on his aunt’s voucher for the girl and on letters written by the young lady during a period of months. They will return to Waterloo to make their home in a fine new house built by the groom-elect in north Waterloo. Mr. Torgler has been in America ten years and has spent most of the time in Waterloo as an employee in the Illinois Central shops. He has been thrifty, saving, and steady and has furnished a nice little home for the new Mrs. Torgler. The best wishes of a host of railway employes [sic] and others will follow Mr. Torgler across the water.
Hans Torgler traveled all the way from Waterloo, Illinois to meet his mail-order bride in Germany.
To Claim Mail Order Bride,” Evening Times-Republican (Marshalltown, IA), May 25, 1911, 2. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.
Hans Torgler traveled all the way from Waterloo, Illinois to meet his mail-order bride in Germany.
To Claim Mail Order Bride,” Evening Times-Republican (Marshalltown, IA), May 25, 1911, 2. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

Usually the woman would travel, but occasionally the man would instead. Sometimes a man traveled to meet his bride and escort her to their new home, but in a few instances the groom-to-be would move to his betrothed’s place of residence.5 Upon meeting, both partners had an opportunity to renege on the engagement, at least theoretically.6

PERSONAL ADS

Men and women sent in personal ads to both standard and specialized periodicals with the hopes of finding a spouse through the mail. Both papers included a mixture of personal ads and matrimonially-unrelated content. Proportionally, matrimonial periodicals offered more personal ads than standard newspapers, but given their mission, they covered a good deal of random topics. Standard newspapers often included a column or page of personal ads towards the close of the paper, whereas matrimonial periodicals tended to dedicate an entire front page to personal ads.7

Many personal ads were short and expressed little beyond the age of the writer, and their hope to meet a good mate. Occasionally, however, some authors did wax poetic.

Column of personal ads, reading: Business bachelor, 49, good appearance, wishes to meet small elderly maid or widow; object matrimony. Box 224. Call office; German, 35 years old, would like to make acquaintance of working girl; object matrimony. Box 292, Call office.; Get married; send for list, with photos and postoffice addresses free. Address C.M., P.O. box 121, Oakland, Cal.; Gentleman, 34, wishes to make the acquaintance of good girl or widow, not over 33; object matrimony. Box 493, Call office.; A Danish gentleman of 28 wishes to meet a respectable young lady; object matrimony. Box 474. Call office.; Colored man, aged 30, of some means, would like to correspond with young colored girl with object to matrimony. Box 350. Call office.; German working girl is anxious to meet mechanic, one who can supply a comfortable little home; object matrimony. Box 437, Call.; Mechanic, single, 36 years old, desires acquaintance of a good, honest, working girl; object matrimony. Box 269. Call office.; Educated young man of 30, stranger in city, would like to meet young widow; object matrimony. Box 272. Call office.; Gentleman of 35, with nice home, good position, would like to meet a refined lady; object matrimony. Box 216. Call office.; High class folks visit Mrs. de Long’s matrimonial parlors and are invariably pleased with results. 1245 Laguna. West 5699. Details 25c.; Refined young man wishes to meet young woman widow, no children; object matrimony. Box 191. Call office.; Jewish young man of good habits would like to meet Jewish lady matrimonially inclined; references exchanged. Box 218. Call office.
Men and women of all races and ethnicities sought to initiate relationships through personal ads. Perhaps the “German working girl” and the “Mechanic” would be a good match?
Matrimonials,” The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), February 7, 1909, 44. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.
Men and women of all races and ethnicities sought to initiate relationships through personal ads. Perhaps the “German working girl” and the “Mechanic” would be a good match?
Matrimonials,” The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), February 7, 1909, 44. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.
Personal ad, titled, Solicits Correspondence. Ad reads, A Bachelor of ability, good moral character, 45 yrs. of age, born and reared under Southern skies, desires to correspond with a true Southern woman, object matrimony. Address, Bachelor, Box 173 Shawnee, Oklahoma, Ter.
This hopeful bachelor lived in the Oklahoma Territory, but his personal ad was featured in a Texas newspaper.
Solicits Correspondence,” The Democrat (McKinney, TX), February 27, 1902, 8. Texas Digital Newspaper Program.
This hopeful bachelor lived in the Oklahoma Territory, but his personal ad was featured in a Texas newspaper.
Solicits Correspondence,” The Democrat (McKinney, TX), February 27, 1902, 8. Texas Digital Newspaper Program.

Immigrant men moved into the West, just as American men had, in search of a better life. They similarly faced a shortage of women. Due to the lack of women, some immigrant men turned to mail-order brides in hopes of finding a wife of their own cultural background. Foreign-language newspapers helped them to achieve that goal.

All newspapers had the opportunity to enjoy a wide circulation thanks to low mail costs.8 Unlike regional papers that focused on local news, ethnic newspapers had a reason to reach a national audience – to connect pockets of the same immigrant group. As such, personal ads in foreign-language newspapers like De Volksvriend [Friend of the People], which was based in Iowa, reached members of the Dutch community throughout the United States. Likewise, the Finnish publication Työmies [The Worker] from northern Michigan, and the New York Yiddish paper Forverts [Yiddish Forward] included personal ads that would allow immigrants throughout the country to find spouses of the same ethnicity.9

In addition to submitting personal ads in newspapers, hopeful lovers in the late 19th century had the opportunity to seek a spouse through matrimonial periodicals. Matrimonial periodicals were publications with the goal of connecting men and women to achieve marital bliss.

Newspaper clipping that reads, Our aim is high: To increase the number of home firesides, promote the happiness of other people, in short to do what we can toward mitigating woe and loneliness in any sphere or grade of life. Yours Respectfully, C.G. Horton, Editor.
The Matrimonial Bazar operated from 1869 through 1876 on a monthly basis.10
“Greetings to Our Patrons.” The Matrimonial Bazar (Chicago, IL), May 1876, 1.
The Matrimonial Bazar operated from 1869 through 1876 on a monthly basis.10
“Greetings to Our Patrons.” The Matrimonial Bazar (Chicago, IL), May 1876, 1.
Newspaper clipping that reads, To cultivate the noble aims of life and help men and women into a state of bliss is our aim.
“Our Purpose,” Matrimonial News (Kansas City, MO), January 8, 1887, 1.
“Our Purpose,” Matrimonial News (Kansas City, MO), January 8, 1887, 1.

Despite their stated purpose, however, matrimonial periodicals included content that had no discernable connection to marriage. In an 1897 edition of Matrimonial News, for example, there were feature articles on coffee, fashion advice about mourning costumes, and advertisements for hog cholera cures throughout the paper.11 Personal ads filled the front page from top to bottom but were not present anywhere else.12 That personal ads were featured on the front page, however, is distinctive from other newspapers.

Another notable distinction between standard newspapers and matrimonial periodicals was their circulation. Whereas many standard newspapers were mailed to a regional readership and were likely to facilitate mail-order marriages within the same state or area, the circulation of matrimonial periodicals spanned the United States and Canada. As such, men and women were more likely to find a potential mate across the country.

MUTUAL ACQUAINTANCES

In addition to personal ads, mail-order brides and grooms found each other with the help of mutual acquaintances. The most common intermediary were relatives of the groom, usually female, who would select a young woman whom they vetted on his behalf. Once they had made their selection, they would write to let the groom know. He would then wait to meet his bride off the train or boat.13

This method of introduction was particularly common for picture brides. In many ways, the picture bride phenomenon was an extension of arranged marriages – a practice that was still the norm in countries like Japan, and Greece.14  The custom, however, was seemingly foreign enough to American readers to warrant an explanation by newspaper articles.

Newspaper clipping that reads, 'As explained by an agent of the Travelers’ Aid Society, the term ‘picture bride’ is hardly applicable to the young women who have come to America to meet their intended husbands. ‘According to an ancient Greek custom,’ she said, ‘Greek brides are not won through courtship, but are selected by the parents of the young people. The procedure is for a young man to inform his parents that he is desirous of taking a wife, and his parents then proceed to find one for him. This selection is the result of mutual understanding between parents. In the case where the prospective husband is in a foreign land, a description and a picture of the bride is sent to the young man, who then commences a correspondence with the young woman, wooing her by mail. If satisfied with the young woman, the prospective husband notifies his parents of his approval of their choice and sends money sufficient to being her to these shores at least second-class. Upon arriving in this country, the young woman is taken under the wings of the Travelers’ Aid Society, whose duty it is to see that the couple meet, are properly married and on their way to their home. Agents of the society meet the ship, introduce the brides to their future husbands, fill out the marriage license applications and witness the marriage ceremony, see them to their train and speed them on their journey.
The Travelers’ Aid Society was a national organization with regional branches. In 1926, the Travelers’ Aid Society witnessed 1,252 marriages, presumably those of picture brides.
16 Picture Brides Married, 195 Left,” New York Times (New York, New York), August 4, 1922, 10. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
The Travelers’ Aid Society was a national organization with regional branches. In 1926, the Travelers’ Aid Society witnessed 1,252 marriages, presumably those of picture brides.
16 Picture Brides Married, 195 Left,” New York Times (New York, New York), August 4, 1922, 10. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Five young women stand on the deck of a ship. Most wear neutral expressions, but one offers a small smile.
These young women came from Greece to America as picture brides in 1921.
Courtesy of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island, National Park Service, photo STLI 24332.
These young women came from Greece to America as picture brides in 1921.
Courtesy of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island, National Park Service, photo STLI 24332.

Abraham Calof became the husband of Rachel Bella Kahn because of mutual acquaintances. Both were originally from Russia, but Abraham had moved to the United States. In 1893 he sent word to his sister, Chaya, that he was ready to marry. He requested that she pick out a suitable bride, and promised that he would send travel fare. Chaya was a tenant of Rachel’s uncle. When he heard that Chaya’s first pick for her brother had fallen through, he offered Rachel. 15

Rachel was amenable because she was 18 years old and still unmarried. As many of her friends were already married, she feared that she would end up a spinster.16 Further, Rachel was working as a maid, and her family life was in shambles.17  Marrying a man in America would be a new beginning.

A black and white portrait of a young woman. She has a serious expression on her face, has pale skin, and dark hair which is pulled back. Her gaze is slightly off to the side, away from the camera.
Rachel Calof travelled from Russia, to New York, and ultimately to North Dakota as a picture bride.
Calof, Rachel Calof’s Story, 16.
Rachel Calof travelled from Russia, to New York, and ultimately to North Dakota as a picture bride.
Rachel Calof, and J. Sanford Rikoon,  Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 16.
A black and white portrait of a young man. He is standing, and he wears an overcoat. He has a mustache, short hair, and a neutral expression. His gazes faces the camera.
Abraham Calof enlisted help from his sister to find a suitable bride in his stead.
Calof, Rachel Calof’s Story, 17.
Abraham Calof enlisted help from his sister to find a suitable bride in his stead.
Rachel Calof, and J. Sanford Rikoon,  Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 17.

Before she sent Rachel to be her brother’s wife, Chaya had Rachel demonstrate her worthiness through a series of tests, tasks, and inspections. Once Chaya was satisfied, Rachel and Abraham exchanged photographs and a brief correspondence.18 Rachel then began her arduous trek to the United States. After three weeks of sea-sickness she finally reached New York.19 Recognizing Abraham by the photo that she had received through the mail, she found her husband-to-be.20 He was good to her, and even told her that she should not feel obligated to marry him.21 Rachel slowly began to trust her betrothed and embarked with him to North Dakota, where his family had begun to settle. Approximately three months after they met, Rachel and Abraham married. 22 This length of time between meeting and marrying was longer than most, but it also demonstrates that mail-order marriages were not a monolithic phenomenon.

QUALITY OF MAIL-ORDER MARRIAGES

Mail-order matches are a historical curiosity, but did they work? Certainly there were scams, and newspapers were not shy about reporting on them. Whether this was proportionally representative of the fate of matrimony-by-letter, or simply a feature of news (sharing sensational stories), is something to consider.

Newspaper article heading that reads, “Red Hair Balks Cupid’s Plans: Mail Order Bride Forgot to Ask Prospective Husband about It: Trip Here in Vain: Kentucky Miss Declares She Could Not Live Happily with Man of the Sun Kissed Locks and Goes Home.
Mary Messey, of Bailard County, Kentucky, traveled by train to meet her fiancé, Michael Givven, in Kokomo, IN, but immediately renounced their marriage as a possibility because he was a red-head. She was quoted in a 1907 newspaper article explaining, “I just couldn’t live with a redhead man. I couldn’t. They are always so cross.” 
Red Hair Balks Cupid’s Plans,” The Cairo Bulletin (Cairo, IL), December 18, 1907, 3. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.
Mary Messey, of Bailard County, Kentucky, traveled by train to meet her fiancé, Michael Givven, in Kokomo, IN, but immediately renounced their marriage as a possibility because he was a red-head. She was quoted in a 1907 newspaper article explaining, “I just couldn’t live with a redhead man. I couldn’t. They are always so cross.” 
Red Hair Balks Cupid’s Plans,” The Cairo Bulletin (Cairo, IL), December 18, 1907, 3. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.
Newspaper article titled, Different Experience. Text reads, Frank Everett, a rancher at Chester, Wash., had a different experience with a ‘mail-order’ bride. Following an interview with the Spokane agent of a transcontinental railroad, three weeks ago, he dispatched a fat envelope, containing among other things the price of a first-class ticket and sleeping-car accommodations, also $25 for meals and extras, to a woman in Kansas City, Mo. The bride-to-be was due in Spokane on March 15 but Everitt did not lose faith until after waiting five days, when he admitted being ‘stung.’ ‘The girl, whose name I shall not make public, described herself as 24 years of age, fairly good looking and a first-class cook,’ Everitt said. ‘She wanted to come west and marry a rancher, but I guess she changed her mind after getting my money. I’ve been “bunked” and I’m going back to the ranch, but before I promise again to marry I am going to see the party on the ground.’
Some mail-order brides never even arrived at the station. Rather, they accepted the travel fare and pocketed the money.
Mail Order Marriages: Two in Spokane Turn out Differently,” East Oregonian (Pendleton, OR), March 23, 1911, 6. Historic Oregon Newspapers.
Some mail-order brides never even arrived at the station. Rather, they accepted the travel fare and pocketed the money.
Mail Order Marriages: Two in Spokane Turn out Differently,” East Oregonian (Pendleton, OR), March 23, 1911, 6. Historic Oregon Newspapers.
Newspaper article titled, Married-by-Letter Wives Seek Aid in Locating Husbands. Text reads, Washington, Aug. 18 – Unhappily-wed couples whose matrimonial ventures were innocently promoted by Uncle Sam through the medium of the mails, are inundating the Post Office Department with letters relating their domestic difficulties and asking for governmental aid, according to officials. The epistles containing the sorrowful tales of deserted brides who embarked upon the good ship Matrimony only to run afoul of the rocks of disillusionment and be left stranded are turned over to Solicitor Edwards, of the Post Office Department. The letters, Edwards says, often are pitiful in their contents. They plead for aid from the government in locating truant husbands. They tell of having been left in destitute circumstances far from home. Some blame the Postal Service for their marital woes. Others demand redress from the government, holding that they were wooed entirely through the mails, which, therefore, made the Post Office Department entirely responsible. An excerpt of one such letter, which is said by Solicitor Edwards to be typical of all, reads as follows: ‘I want to know if I cant [sic] start suit against my husband. We married through a correspondence club advertised in the newspapers, and he sent me money by a Post Office money order to come and marry him. He also courted me by mail. After the wedding he failed to support and take care of me and finally left me altogether. I want to know if I can do anything through the Post Office Department, as our business, such as arranging for marriage details, was transacted entirely by mail.’ Numerous letters of this kind are received by Solicitor Edwards each week. He invariably accords them to prompt rely [sic], explaining to the unfortunate wives that the department deals only with the collection, dispatch, and distribution of the mails – not mates – and has no control over the persuasively gentle language written in sealed envelopes by unscrupulous lovers seeking matrimonial alliances.
In 1922, Solicitor John H. Edwards of the Post Office Department received many a letter from disappointed mail-order brides. They sought his assistance in finding husbands who had deserted them, arguing that the Post Office had been instrumental in them meeting their spouses. They cited courtship correspondence, and travel fare via money orders as examples of postal involvement in their marriage. Solicitor Edwards was unable to help them.
Married-by-Letter Wives Seek Aid in Locating Husbands,” East Oregonian (Pendleton, OR), August 18, 1922, 10. Historic Oregon Newspapers.
In 1922, Solicitor John H. Edwards of the Post Office Department received many a letter from disappointed mail-order brides. They sought his assistance in finding husbands who had deserted them, arguing that the Post Office had been instrumental in them meeting their spouses. They cited courtship correspondence, and travel fare via money orders as examples of postal involvement in their marriage. Solicitor Edwards was unable to help them.
Married-by-Letter Wives Seek Aid in Locating Husbands,” East Oregonian (Pendleton, OR), August 18, 1922, 10. Historic Oregon Newspapers.

What, though, was the quality of mail-order marriages if both the man and woman stuck it out? Any discussion of quality is inherently subjective because people have different preferences and expectations. Beyond recognizing personal variations in expectations, however, it is also important to acknowledge the evolution of the institution of marriage.

For millennia marriage has served essential nonromantic purposes, like allocating resources, rights, and responsibilities.23 It has been a practical tool for social advancement of all economic classes. A marriage between agrarian families could result in joining adjacent fields. Merchant families could utilize a dowry as an influx of money for business ventures. Among the nobility, marriages were diplomatic tools.24 Marriage was for the benefit of the extended kin network, not the happiness of the couple.

Today’s love match is a new phenomenon. It emerged in the United States and Western Europe between the American Revolution and the 1830s, eclipsing strategic partnerships as the primary motivation for marriage.25 There are many reasons why this change happened in these times and places. For instance, in the spirit of the American Revolution, young adults were able to assert more independence and choose mates of their own, circumventing the parental network. Additionally, in response to the rigid logic that dominated the Age of Reason, some folks responded by championing subjectivity and the individual. Also, as industries began to dominate the labor market, young people had new opportunities to work outside the home. This also gave them the chance to fraternize with their peers with less supervision. 26 

The love match might have emerged at the turn of the 19th century, but that does not mean that it was immediately adopted. It is conceivable that because older notions of marriage had great momentum there was a period of gradual acclimation from arranged marriages to love matches. Perhaps mail-order marriages acted as a midway point by offering an element of choice to both men and women in choosing their spouses, without necessitating that the two be in love at the altar.27 Some mail-order spouses would come to love each other over the course of their marriage. Others simply did not associate love with marriage, and thus never expected their correspondence courtship to result in a romantic pairing.

1) Chris Enss, Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier (Guilford, CT: Two Dot Books, 2005), 33.

2) Enss, Hearts West, 9-10, 36.

3) “Mail Order Bride: Moffat County Ranchman Secures a Charming Housekeeper,” The Steamboat Pilot (Steamboat Springs, CO), March 3, 1915, 2. Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection.

4) Observation of various case studies inform this claim. For example: Rachel Calof, and J. Sanford Rikoon, Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 10.; Enss, Hearts West, 90.

5) For example, in 1911, Hans Torgler traveled from Illinois to Germany to escort his wife to her new home, but in 1873 Peter Patterson journeyed from New York City to Kansas, where he moved in with his wife, Louise Muntle, on her farm. “To Claim Mail Order Bride,” Evening Times-Republican (Marshalltown, IA), May 25, 1911, 2. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.; Chris Enss, Object: Matrimony: The Risky Business of Mail-Order Matchmaking on the Western Frontier (Guilford, CT: Two Dot Books, 2013), 81.

6) Financial vulnerability was a reality that could discourage women, in particular, from walking away from a less-than-ideal mate.

7) Two representative examples for the above-mentioned larger trends: Matrimonial News (Kansas City, MO), January 8, 1887, 1.; “Personal,” The Daily Express (San Antonio, TX), August 30, 1908, 49.

8) The Post Office Department has subsidized newspapers and magazines since its earliest days in an effort to make information accessible to citizens. National Postal Museum. “The Post and the Press.” Accessed 9 August 2016.

9) Suzanne M. Sinke, “Marriage through the Mail: North American Correspondence Marriage from Early Print to the Web.” In Letters across Borders: The Epistolary Practices of International Migrants, edited by Bruce S. Elliott, David A. Gerber, and Suzanne M. Sink, 75-94 (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2006), 85-86.

10) Scott, Franklin William. Newspapers and Periodicals of Illinois, 1814-1879. Champaign: Self-published, 1910, accessed through Google Books.

11) Matrimonial News (Kansas City, MO), January 8, 1887, 4,7.

12) Matrimonial News (Kansas City, MO), January 8, 1887, 1.

13) This generalized trajectory comes from my observations of individual case stories, like those of Rachel Calof, and Phoebe Harrington Silbaugh, as recorded by Chris Enss. Enss, Hearts West, 33, 60.;  Calof, Rachel Calof’s Story, 9.  I have been able to document more mail-order marriages made possible by personal ads than by mutual acquaintances. I imagine that mutual acquaintances were helpful, they just didn’t leave paper records in the same way that personal ads did.

14) Yuji Ichioka, “Amerika Nadeshiko: Japanese Immigrant Women in the United States, 1900-1924,” Pacific Historical Review 49, no. 2 (1980): 342.; “16 Picture Brides Married, 195 Left.” New York Times (New York, New York), August 4, 1922, 10. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

15) Calof, Rachel Calof’s Story, 9.

16) In the Jewish tradition, 18 was recognized as a particularly good age at which to marry; Calof, Rachel Calof’s Story, 8, 91-92, footnote.

17) Calof, Rachel Calof’s Story, 8..

18) Calof, Rachel Calof’s Story, 9-10.

19) Calof, Rachel Calof’s Story, 17.

20) Calof, Rachel Calof’s Story, 18.

21) Calof, Rachel Calof’s Story, 21.

22) Calof, Rachel Calof’s Story, 34-35.

23) Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 9.

24) Coontz, Marriage, a History, 6.

25) Marilyn Yalom, A History of the Wife (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 175.

26) Yalom, A History of the Wife, 176.

27) This hypothesis applies largely to domestic mail-order brides. As mentioned previously, picture brides were often in arranged marriages.