One of the short stories I’m polishing up is about a mail-order bride in the Old West. Researching this story was a lot of fun.
The high number of mail-order brides in the Old West was due to two main factors. The first was that an awful lot of single men had headed west to seek their fortunes, but most of the women who went west were married, so there was a disproportionate number of single men out west. The second reason was the Civil War, which had not only taken a toll on the male population, but had also created a number of widows.
This map was created in 1874 using data from the 1870 census. It clearly illustrates the problem…
It was time to take action!
Newspapers began to run regular “matrimonial columns” in which both men and women could take out advertisements. Specialized newspapers were created just for these ads – the Matrimonial News and The New Plan were among the more reputable of the bunch.
A man or a woman would place an advertisement including a brief description about himself/herself, and would list out any parameters desired – or required – in prospective partners. Letters went, at least initially, go through the paper. Interested parties would correspond by mail, and possibly exchange photos. If things got far enough, the woman would make the journey out West to meet her prospective husband.
Deciding to get married wasn’t a done deal – there are numerous stories of couples finally meeting in person, only to have one person realize the other had been dishonest. The newspapers even contained warnings advising their readers to be careful so as to not be deceived. Deceit happened anyway, of course. One young lady was traveling to get married, only to have her stagecoach robbed. One of the robbers had a very distinctive scar on one hand. After the robbery she continued on to her destination, met her soon-to-be husband…and realized he had the same scar!
Here are a few advertisements from papers at the time:
“An intelligent young fellow of 22 years, 6 feet height, weight 170 pounds. Would like to correspond with a lady from 18 to 22. Will exchange photos: object, fun and amusement, and perhaps when acquainted, if suitable, matrimony.”
“A Blonde, 20 years of age, has an extensive bank account, but no beauty, would like to correspond with some fine-looking gentlemen, with a view to matrimony. Is willing to exchange gold for a husband. Letters containing photos noticed particularly. Address, Miss Golden, Box 319, care editor.”
Boys, you’ll enjoy receiving my letters, for I’m a jolly girl. Age, 24; weight, 130; height 5 feet 5 inches; brown eyes; blonde hair, nationality, French; Catholic religion, occupation, stenographer, income, $1,000; play violin. Will write for fun or matrimony. Catholic preferred.
In reading through advertisements like these, a few things stood out to me. The language is a little different, of course, and when I write a story set in the Old West I try to make the characters sound as though they’re from that time. (Another thing I’ve found very helpful in getting the right feel for the language/vocabulary is reading memoirs written by people in the place/time I’m writing about.) The physical descriptions seem a little odd, but they make perfect sense when you think about the fact that this was all being done by mail. Some people did send each other photographs, but some didn’t. (I personally would have insisted on photographs…) The disclosure of financial worth also makes sense, but I find it a little off-putting. I’d worry that my prospective husband was interested in me only for my money – assuming I had money, of course!
The short story I ended up writing is titled “Object: Matrimony.” The protagonist, Lily, was careful. She and her prospective husband corresponded for many months, exchanged pictures, and she went out to Wyoming prepared to go back home if anything was amiss. But nothing was wrong – Edward was a perfect gentlemen. It wasn’t until after they were married that she discovered she wasn’t the first bride he’d ordered by mail…