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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
“16 Picture Brides Married, 195 Left,” New York Times (New York, New York), August 4, 1922, 10. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
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.
Rachel Calof, and J. Sanford Rikoon, Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 16.
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.
“Red Hair Balks Cupid’s Plans,” The Cairo Bulletin (Cairo, IL), December 18, 1907, 3. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.
“Mail Order Marriages: Two in Spokane Turn out Differently,” East Oregonian (Pendleton, OR), March 23, 1911, 6. 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.
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.