March 15, 2009

Mail Order Brides

by Vickie McDonough

I don’t know why I’m fascinated with stories about mail-order brides, but I am. Maybe it’s the romance writer in me, or because I love stories where you know right from the start that a particular character is going to have a rough road ahead. Can you imagine how difficult it must have been for a young woman, often still a teenager, to leave family and the only home she’s known to travel west to a strange town and then marry a man she’s never seen before? Talk about gumption—or maybe it was desperation. Whatever reason, it makes for a great story line.

Men may have discovered the West, but women tamed it. They brought with them a desire for community, established churches and schools, and pooled books together to form libraries. Besides tending their home and raising a garden and a crop of children, women partnered with their husbands in planting, ranching, and building towns. But in the beginning, women were few and far between out west, causing men to use desperate means to find a wife, including advertising for them in newspapers back east.

Mail-order bride advertisements found in newspapers and magazines included very personal details about the women, such as age, height, eye and hair color, and yes, even weight. Some ads mentioned the bride preferred country life to living in a city, while others might rule out a specific religion or race. Many women had attended college or had a profession such as nursing or bookkeeping. Not all mail-order brides were young. Some were spinsters or widows up in their fifties and sixties, looking for companionship and security. Some ads mentioned the bride as a woman of means or that she owned real estate or was to inherit a certain amount of money. I suspect these women had more than their share of marriage offers from eager men.

Often couples would converse via mail for months or years before agreeing to marry. Those marriages had a foundation to build on and were more likely to succeed. Pictures brides, where a man saw a photo of a friend’s or co-worker’s sister or other female relative and started writing to her, also often resulted in marriage. Though many marriages were good ones, others weren’t, and there are instances where a bride arrived in town to discover the groom refused to marry her. Some of these less than stellar men were sued, resulting in the bride receiving a hefty financial settlement. And sad to say, some of the marriages weren’t a success and ended in divorce.

In Heart West, author Chris Enss recreates the stories of real-life mail-order brides. I found this book very interesting and helpful while researching a story I’m working on.

It would be interesting to learn how many of us have ancestors who were mail-order brides, but alas, much of that information has died out through the years. Do you know of a mail-order bride in your family lineage or have you read a good mail-order bride story?


brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Vickie, I, too, never tire of mail order brides. Their stories are fascinating! I'm reading Amanda Cabot's Paper Roses, a mail order bride novel and it's so well written. Hearts of the West is one that I'd like to add to my library. Thanks for your post.

Abi said...

Yes, I've read mail order bride stories. Love them.