This ‘n That | Mail order brides, then and now

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By Mims Cushing
mail@floridanewsline.com

Are you considering using the internet to find a spouse? It doesn’t surprise me that people look for a mate via online dating. Why shouldn’t they? Adults with jobs are often buried in projects at the office from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., 8 p.m., 9 p.m. or longer. How are they going to meet anyone?  October is a very popular month to get married in Florida. It’s a little cooler, and a little less costly than in June.

Back in the mid 1800s, according to the book “Object: Matrimony: the Risky Business of Mail-Order Matchmaking” by Chris Enss, 30,000 unwed women lived in the East. Thousands of single men went out west to try to make a fortune. They wanted to start a family, and families started with a wife.

Many wives who became widows following the Civil War were lonely and poverty-stricken. Men began seeking brides via mail order, but this did not mean people could simply find a spouse from a Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog. They used magazines and newspapers to advertise themselves. A newspaper called “Matrimonial News” and a catalog called “New Plan Company” both published personal ads written by men and women.

A typical ad written by a woman might say something like entry number #297 in Matrimonial News: “Maude, 19, beautiful girl, medium height, fair, blue eyes, exquisite and well-defined features, amiable disposition and talented. Would make a loving wife, desires a young gentleman age 23, not stout, brown hair and mustache. Must have a knowledge of foreign languages, money no object.” I hope entries of today would use more modest language.

And this: “A 24-year-old lady seeks a gentleman in the West with a view to matrimony. She is of good character, tolerably well-educated and thoroughly versed in the mysteries of housekeeping.” I myself am still trying to figure out the mysteries of housekeeping.

Who knows how much people exaggerated their looks and minimize their flaws? And how much did the man inflate his net worth? Men would typically send money for the bride-to-be to meet him near his home via stagecoach. Sometimes the woman chickened out, took the money and disappeared. Perhaps the four-month trip to California was too much for her. Or maybe she read about the Donner Pass disaster and decided she didn’t want to be somebody’s dinner.

Back then, as today, some suitors hoped to marry a well-to-do wife to bulk up paltry earnings. One poor bank clerk was hoping to be smitten with a women whose ad read, “A lady with a good income and her own villa…”  etc. Imagine his surprise when he discovered the “lady” was his maiden aunt!

Traditionalists were critical of this bizarre way of selecting a partner. Similarly, 100 years later, in the 1980s, parents were less than thrilled that their adult children were using the computer to find a mate. That has changed. I have friends who are ok with their kids resorting to advertising in various newspapers and magazines or using the internet. I think it’s a good idea as long as people study their prospects with due diligence.

I wonder what mothers, grannies and aunties would have said in the olden days:

“Well, my stars, Lulu Mae. I find it right shocking that your child, Savannah Lee, is advertising her wares in newspapers.”

(Lulu Mae fanning herself, vigorously and rocking faster in her chair): “No good can come of this, Liza Jane. But you can’t give a lickin’ to a girl of 18.”