A Bit of History Behind Mail Order Brides

I thought I’d spend this blog talking about mail-order brides. Evangeline, my heroine in my upcoming Historical romance is a reluctant one.Brides71

Mail-order brides throughout history have had one thing in common—the big question. Is this potential future mate anything like his claims on paper? And the second most important question, will the strangers make a happy lifetime match?

The Matrimonial News, a San Francisco paper, was sold all over the country during the mid to late 1800s. Many a single woman and widow traveled west to marry strangers.  The paper was chock full of ads from lonely men or hopeful women looking for a chance at love, financial security,  or a new mother or father for their children.

Some advertisers misrepresented themselves, causing lawsuits and broken promises. There were rocky relationships and joyously happy ones. More often than not, the prospective groom would write the bride for several months before arranging passage for the woman of his dreams to come to him. A few women came with dark secrets, fears or—surprise—children not mentioned in her correspondence.

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Actual disclaimer accompanying the ads.

One woman, a con artist, was quite surprised when her intended mark had misrepresented himself and was poor as a church mouse. The ads were often filled with exaggerations regarding wealth and physical appearance. A smart woman made sure she had sufficient traveling money to return home or provide for herself if necessary.

The first group of woman to come to the new world as brides arrived in the Jamestown colony in the 1600s. But advertising for wives was in its heyday after the Civil War. The male to female ratio after the war, especially in the south, was one to five. Spinsterhood or remaining a widow for the rest of one’s life was an unappealing prospect.

Many young men had gone west in pursuit of gold, land, and other opportunities. Missing the comforts of home, they were anxious to find wives. Thus the Matrimonial News presented many willing men to the single female population back east. Even the homely woman had no problem finding a husband out west.

Many papers during the period after the Civil War carried columns dedicated to these paid announcements. Ads warned women against misrepresenting themselves by the use of false hair, padded bosoms and legs risk legal action. (Why would a woman pad their legs?)

There were articles posted of men who were arrested for trying to fake marriages or marrying women under false pretentions. The newspapers ran a disclaimer with the classifieds reminding readers they were not responsible for any falsehoods in the ads.

The length of the advertisements was surprising considering it cost $1.50 a word. The average wage at the time was between 18 and 34 cents an hour. These were desperate men. There were no weekend free opportunities like on dating sites today.

jewish mail order bride

Women also placed ads focusing on their finer qualities. Some included pictures. One woman, however, advertised herself as fat and 45. She was a businesswoman of means looking for a man over forty. Wonder how many lonely older men responded to her advertisement.

This bit of history opens the imagination to many plot lines. Secrets and Charades began as an idea in my imagination while I explored this interesting bit of history. In later posts, I’ll be sharing other interesting trivia on uncovered while exploring the lives and times of my characters.

What historical tidbit, news item or personal experience became the basis for one of your novels or WIP? I love to hear from my readers.

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4 thoughts on “A Bit of History Behind Mail Order Brides

  1. Cindy, what a wonderful and informative post! My novel FIVE BRIDES is based on the true story of Joan Hunt ZImmerman who came to America after WWII with only $30 in her pocket. She was 19, had no job and only a temporary place to stay. My novel, THE ONE TRUE VOW OF ALICE-ANN, which releases next June, formed in my brain after hearing a few WWII stories. And my novella, GOD BLESS US EVERY ONE (which releases in a few months as my FIRST Christmas novella–I’m so excited) was inspired NOT by the Dickens novella “A Christmas Carol,” but by the story BEHIND the story. So … it’s a story based on the story of a story. 🙂

    I think we novelists hear something and just RUN with it. We cannot help it. This is the way our brain works. So your reading about these brides and a story forming doesn’t surprise me at all. Can’t wait to read it!


    • Eva Marie,
      I read Five Brides and loved it so much. I’ve loved everyone I’ve read wiht your byline. God Bless Us Everyone and The True Vow of Alice-Ann sound very interesting.
      There were so many things that inspired the creation of the characters in my novel as I researched Women who went West. So much information that I’ve ample fodder for sequels.
      I’ve learned so great deal about writing reading your novels and from all you share with Word Weavers. Thanks for sharing your insights.


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