An Exploration of Mail-order Brides in America

WHEN & WHERE did mail-order brides live?

When did women marry men that they met through the mail?

Where were they from?    Where were they going?

Mail-order brides generally moved in a westward direction, but they did not always sojourn to the West Coast. Some moved from Illinois to Wisconsin, others from Maine to Colorado, and still others from Minnesota to South Dakota, to name a few examples.1 Other mail-order brides simply moved to a different part of their own home state.2

Newspaper clipping titled, Mail Order Bride: Moffat County Ranchman Secures a Charming Housekeeper.”  Text reads: “Married four hours after they first met. This short courtship was concluded at the residence of Mrs. M. W. Humphrey of Craig Wednesday evening when Rev. Carl wild joined together Otis B. Call and Jessie N. Beltz, says the Craig Empire. The young lady came in on the belated train something after 4 o’clock, was met by her intended husband and before 9 the deed was done. Now it must not be imagined that the two were altogether strangers before taking the step. Miss Beltz is a sister of Mrs. Frank LeClaire, who lived near Call’s place on the South fork. They had been courting by mail for a couple of years, and recognized each other instantly when the young lady alighted from the train. R. H. Green was one of the guests of honor at the wedding and being a mutual friend of the interested parties aided greatly their acquaintanceship. The bride is a charming lady who has made her home in Denver for several years. Mr. Call is one of the enterprising young ranchmen of southeastern Moffat county and has a host of friends who join in wishing both much happiness.

Otis Call and Jessie Beltz, both of Colorado, tied the knot in 1915. They had never met in person but had corresponded by mail for several years.
Mail Order Bride: Moffat County Ranchman Secures a Charming Housekeeper,” The Steamboat Pilot (Steamboat Springs, CO), March 3, 1915, 2. Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection.

Meeting a spouse through the mail, however, was not a strictly domestic phenomenon. The international iteration of mail-order brides was picture brides. Picture brides were women living overseas whose introduction to their prospective husbands came through an exchange of photographs in the mail. The term originates from the Japanese phrase shashin kekkon, which literally translates as “photo marriage.”3 In addition to Japan, countries such as Korea, Armenia, Greece, and Italy sent picture brides to the United States.4

Most mail-order marriages occurred between the 1880s and the 1910s, but they have been documented into the 1920s.5 The timing of picture brides from specific countries often correlates to US immigration law or domestic events. For example, in response to the Armenian Genocide, some women came to the United States as picture brides.6  The genocide ended in 1923, and newspaper articles from 1921 and 1922 demonstrate boats filled with Armenian women arriving in New York as picture brides.

Newspaper clipping, titled, 16 Picture Brides Married, 195 Left: 45 More Arrive and Join Those Now in Care of Travelers’ Aid Society: Soon All Will Be Wed. Agent in Charge Explains There Is Claimant Here for Every Young Woman. Article reads, Of the 200 picture brides who arrived in New York on Wednesday from Armenia, Greece, and Turkey, sixteen were married yesterday at the Municipal Building, according to City Clerk Michael J. Cruise. With the number that have already started for the West, there remained about 150 who are being cared for by the Travelers’ Aid Society.

16 Picture Brides Married, 195 Left,” New York Times (New York, New York), August 4, 1922, 10. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Newspaper clipping, titled, Hearty Welcome to Picture Brides: Bridegrooms-to-Be Happy When Girls Picked by Photo Land in New York: Hurry to Priest to Wed: Method of Choosing Is Good One, Says Clergy—Arrive from Italy and Balkans in Gay Garb. Article reads, New York, March 5 – Do you believe in love at first sight? New Yorkers have been asking one another the question ever since the arrival here this week of 300 ‘picture brides.’ Coming from Turkey, Armenia, Greece, and Italy aboard the King Alexander and the Providence, the cargo of bridges [sic] was unloaded at this port and met by prospective bridegrooms whom they had never seen before. The girls had been chosen by photographs shown the men by friends or relatives. A written proposal had been the result, and if the girl accepted this was followed by money enough for her passage. Three hundred of the prettiest girls in the Balkans and Italy took a chance, accepted the offer, put on their best dresses and their gayest shawls and started for America and matrimony.

Clara Savage, “Hearty Welcome to Picture Brides,” Washington Post (Washington, DC), March 6, 1921, 24. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

1) “An Epistolary Courtship: The First Meeting of a Couple on Their Wedding Day,” Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, IL), December 18, 1886, 9. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.; “Conducted Courtship by Mail: Pretty Southport, Me, Girl Weds Colorado Farmer Who Advertised for a Wife,” Boston Daily Globe (Boston, MA), January 7, 1898, 6. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.; “Sues for Clothes He Bought Wife,” University Missourian (Columbia, MO), April 30, 1916, 7. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

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

3) Yuji Ichioka, “Amerika Nadeshiko: Japanese Immigrant Women in the United States, 1900-1924.” Pacific Historical Review 49, no. 2 (1980): 342.

4) Between 1908 and 1920, approximately 10,000 Japanese women came to the United States as picture brides. Erika Lee, and Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 118.

5) Mary Richard and Elkanah Walker were married in 1838. A 1927 article, of the Longmont Daily Times, reports of a young mail-order bride who left her husband after one week of matrimony. Clifford M. Drury, Nine Years with the Spokane Indians: The Diary, 1838-1848, of Elkanah Walker (Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1976), 42.; “Girl Leaves Her Aged Mail Order Husband of Week,” Longmont Daily Times (Longmont, CO), November 15, 1927, 5. Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection.

6) Isabel Kaprielian-Churchill, “Armenian Refugee Women: The Picture Brides, 1920-1930.” Journal of American Ethnic History 12, no. 3 (1993): 3-29.