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Wild Women of the West: The Bride Business

May 03, 2017

Living in loneliness on the plains or in the mountains of the West without female friends on hand except for the occasional traveler, who may or may not be inclined to be social, the solitary male exile was completely cut off from the companionship of a woman.  These lonely souls, who represented a mass of marriageable men, wanted opportunities to cultivate acquaintances.  One of the two alternatives available to them was advertisements placed in newspapers explaining their condition and requesting a wife.  The other avenue to the altar was the professional matrimonial agent.

As early as 1846, the marriage broker industry has thrived in their endeavor to introduce men and women from different parts of the United States for the purposes of matrimony.  The marriage broker was the Gentile edition of the ancient official Jewish Shad Chan, who suggested to parents where there is an eligible man or maid, obtained authoritative information on the important subject of dowries, and conducted the preliminary overtures.

This line of work was once referred to a mail order bride agency, the owners and matchmakers of the various companies abandoned the term in 1910, because they felt it was derogatory.  By the early 20th century the term seemed to imply that women were denied the chance to decide what men they would meet and marry.  Reputable marriage brokers prided themselves on full disclosure of both parties’ background and future endeavors.

In 1905, highly successful and honest brokers engineered 2500 marriages a year.  The average price for their services was 2.5% of the total net worth of the husband and they also demanded a fee from the ladies as well.  According to research done by reporters at the Washington Post in 1920, more than 60% of the marriages arranged from 1848 to 1899 were successful.

The newspaper cited an example of a happy union forged in 1899.  A naval officer’s daughter, who finding herself single at the age of 43, threw conventionality to the wind and became the client of a well-respected marriage broker.  The article noted that, “A gentle woman by birth and education, with no special claim to good looks, and only a small income, met, under the wing of the matrimonial go-between, a middle-aged stock broker, a widower with an income of $500 a year.  The marriage broker made all the necessary inquiries, and the couple decided to marry, with the very happiest results.”

“Though marriage brokering was sometime open to grave injury and abuses,” the reporter for the Washington Post noted in the October 15, 1920 edition, “the very fact of its existence and the enormous number of clients was recognition that marriage brokers served a real social want.  The necessity is the same everywhere.”  In parts of the United States in the late 1880s, particularly on the Eastern seaboard, where there was still a social life, a continual round of garden parties in the summer and dances at home in the winter, there was an excellent change to meet someone.  For many beyond the plains, however, there was no opportunity to make that certain someone’s acquaintance.

One out of every four matches ended badly.  Potential brides and grooms blame the marriage broker for botched unions.
Some felt the background of the individual they were to wed was not fully disclosed.  The money the brokers received for acting as a link between parties was not refundable.  For those men and women who changed their minds about marrying the person they were introduced to, either because they found the broker misrepresented their client’s character or the client turned out to have already been married, the matter could be brought before the Match Making Magistrate.  The mediation style court system was funded primarily by brokers across the country.  The Magistrate listened to arguments from all parties and eventually gave couples the choice to avoid a breach of contract by marrying then and there, or waiting a month after getting to know their intended a little better.

A couple in Independence, Missouri in March 1887, did decide to wait the suggested time before getting married.  The would-be groom was the first to voice his reservation.  During the crucial waiting period the hopeful bride had a change of heart.  Her intended turned out to be a scoundrel.  The woman in the case had contracted the marriage broker to secure a husband.  She was plain, in her late 40s, and weighed more than 230 pounds.  She was willing to pay the broker a $1,000 for a spouse and the suitor $3,000 on the day of their wedding.  According to an article in the March 16, 1887 edition of the Indian Journal, the man reconsidered the agreement once he saw that she had a “plump figure.”  He did not tell her his feelings right away.  First he convinced the woman to let him have the money to settle a few debts before they met at the altar.  The man never showed.  The woman endeavored to get her money back, but ultimately failed.

In spite of such disappointing episodes, marriage brokers and editors of publications designed for people seeking spouses defended their work to quibblers who claimed their occupation was “cold and unfeeling.”  “There is nothing really sordid in the frank recognition of the fact that marriages contracted in this matter-of-fact way are, in their genesis founded, one some extent, business like relations,” a profitable marriage broker shared with the Washington Post newspaper in 1920.  “Not sentiment alone, but the great natural law of give and take, is at the basis of the marriage relationship,” the broker explained, “and once this is admitted the proposition to establish matrimonial bureau, social marriage clubs, where millions can meet in social intercourse, will be regarded as a wise and necessary stop.”

Many forlorn farmers and cowboys agreed with the assessment that marriage was in part, a business arrangement.  They depended on matrimonial bureaus and magazines for a wife in much the same way as they did the mail order houses for their winter underwear.  The Hand and Heart Magazine began as a collection of advertisements from women in search of a companion.  Eager bachelors pored over the volume in an effort to find the perfect woman.

Published in London in 1888, the blue linen covered magazine had an initial circulation of 230,000 and cost readers a penny to read.  Featured along with the mail order bride ads were articles about how to be the perfect homemaker and mother, the importance of memorizing Scripture, and remembering the Sabbath.  Editors of Hand and Heart boasted that “its’ pages had something for the young as well as old readers.”

The most popular issue was the “Bridal Volume.”  Resplendent in a white, red, and gold cover it highlighted one particular woman looking for a spouse.  She was known as the ‘Bride Elect.’  The special edition also included a list of elegant and useful gifts to bestow upon the young lady should she be so lucky as to receive a proposal and get married.  The Bridal Volume also contained more than average assortment of bachelorettes desiring to leave the single life behind.  The following are two of more than 200 advertisements that graced the pages of the American version of the publication.

H&H #242 – We are three jolly and lively girls, all of the brunette order, having dark brown hair and dark eyes, we are all the same age and are quite good friends, 29 years old, of good form:  would like to marry three friends or three brothers – we don’t want to be too far apart:  want correspondence with gentlemen fond of riding horses and attending the theatre.

H&H #234 – A gentlemen of the brunette type, 29 years of age, 5 feet 10, of good character, and earning enough to support a wife comfortably, would like to correspond with a cultured young lady, with a view to matrimony.  References exchanged if desired.

Hand and Heart continued to be a well-read journal well into the middle of the 20th century.  Couples who owed their marital bliss to the magazine were written about in newspapers across the country. The Logansport Pharos newspaper in Logansport, Indian carried an article in the October 2, 1903 edition about a bride and bridegroom who met by mail. Thomas L. Linton, 77 years-old and Mrs. Cynthia A. Alford, 53 years-old, whose homes are at widely separate points, met by appointment in the Fayetteville County Clerk’s office, secured a license and were married.  When they met at the clerk’s office, it was the first time they had met in person.  Their courtship was conducted entirely through mail after becoming acquainted through a mail order advertisement.

A similar story made the papers in Biddeford, Maine.  According to the March 26, 1916 edition of the town newspaper, Winfred Wohlscleged of Pimo, Idaho and his bride, Mary Marshal were on their honeymoon following their marriage in Maine as the result of a matrimonial advertisement romance.  Miss Marshall answered a query to her advertisement in the Hand and Heart magazine from a man who shared with her that he was a prosperous young fruit grower from Idaho who wanted to marry.  They began to correspond and soon Wohlscleged popped the question by mail.

As the 20th century progressed and changed so did the mail order bride business.  By 1921, picture brides had become the rage.  Men and women (mostly) women from foreign countries wanting to come west) shopped for a spouse using a catalog that contained only photographs of the prospective husband and wife.  Readers interested in the looks of one another exchanged pictures.  This eventually led to an invitation of marriage.

The first picture bride in history was Mrs. Tomlkawa, who arrives in San Francisco from Japan in 1904.  She was soon followed by Mrs. K. Ishtomaro in 1905.  By 1925, more than 8,000 picture brides had traveled from ports around the world to San Francisco to meet their fiancés for the first time and marry.  The women were greeted at the boat by their soon-to-be grooms, clutching the pictures they had been given of their future brides.  The women held the picture of their intended high over their heads and the men searched the photos until they found their own.

Some Protestant churches in the west and women’s society clubs criticized the use of matrimonial agencies and, in particular, picture brides.  They argued that the practice was dangerous and suggested that naïve men and women “opened themselves up to be robbed of all their worldly possessions and money.”  A Portsmouth Daily Times newspaper columnist disagreed.  In an article dated April 5, 1921, Frederic J. Haskin wrote, “The fact is that picture marriages are probably as safe and quite as romantic as any other kind.  The peasant girl of Europe is accustomed to the idea of marrying a man she does not know, because over there the parent arranged marriage is the conventional thing.”

Referring to what he saw as “an invasion of picture brides,” Haskin noted that, “To most of us choosing a mate by photograph would seem even more hazardous than most methods, but in all the crowd of picture brides and grooms there were only a few instances of disappointment.  The very pretty English girl who had left an Italian villa where she was employed as a governess, to marry a man from Colorado, decided that she couldn’t go through with the arrangement when she saw her perspective mate.”  ‘I feel that I should marry you, sir, you’ve paid for my passage…but I simply cannot,’ she told him.  ‘You look very nice and kind, but I am sure we would not get along.  Your letters sounded different somehow.’

Another girl who was not disposed to accept kindly the husband fate had awarded her was not so polite.  She was a large, buxom Syrian lass, with a pair of find brown eyes that sparkled with excitement when she talked.  ‘I will not marry you,’ she declared contemptuously as she took in the grotesque appearance of the small built and somewhat elderly gentlemen who claimed has as his property.  You are not the same as your picture – no hair, perhaps no teeth – and you dare to think you can marry me?’”

Whether a couple came together by means of an advertisement, a matrimonial broker, or a photograph many men and women had productive relationships that lasted decades.  Their success rate helped make the business of marriage profitable.

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