"Mail Order Brides"
The History, Stigmas, and Misconceptions
This article is intended to take a cursory look at the history of the popular phrase "Mail Order Brides." "Mail Order Bride" is a very emotional phrase that automatically comes with a negative connotation. It is perceived as demeaning even though the vast majority of people are unclear of the rich history associated with the phrase. Unfortunately, that history led to some of the common stereotypes and stigmas that have carried over to today.
Today's matchmaking landscape is much different then what we had twenty years ago, let alone 200 or 300 years ago, yet the same term Mail Order Bride is still used to describe International Introductions; in other words, a man and a woman who reside in different countries who form a relationship and ultimately marry. Despite all the governmental and private studies proving that International marriages enjoy much lower rates of divorce and spousal abuse than domestic marriages, they still are viewed by many as existing on a lower level than a marriage between two individuals from the same country. Part of this attitude by the general public may be attributed to the history of the phrase "Mail Order Bride," which many still mistakenly equate with couples who meet Internationally today.
Let's take a look at the history of "Mail Order Brides" and see how the men and women back then compare to the men and women of today.
We could spend weeks talking about all the different cultures and how Mail Order Brides impacted each, but due to time and resource constraints, we will focus mainly on America and its history with Mail Order Brides.
We can trace the first Mail Order Brides all the way back to Jamestown in the early 1600s.
Jamestown was prospering and growing significantly. John Rolfe, who had married Pocahontas, introduced the cultivation of tobacco and gave the colony the economic stimulation it badly needed.
With the new charter in effect that gave each free colonist a tract of land, the settlers were moving forward. Now that each man had his own piece of rich Virginia soil to plant and build a house, they lacked one very important element: women!
One of the most significant events in colonial history took place in 1619 - the arrival of the first white women to Jamestown. The Virginia Company of London had sent several shipments of Mail Order Brides in return for payment in tobacco for the women's passage to America.
We can clearly see that Jamestown had a large demand for women. We can also see that there were women who were not meeting the men they desired in London and were willing to take the chance to go to Jamestown. If you think about it, if not for "Mail Order Brides," our country may not have evolved into what it is today. Those were very lonely and trying times, and at certain points the colonists came very close to failing. I am sure the women that came over contributed greatly to the success of the colonies and helped to build the foundation of our country.
If we fast-forward a couple hundred years, we move in to something more closely resembling what most Americans think of as "Mail Order Brides," and it all began with the great California gold rush of the mid 1800's.
On January 24th, 1848, gold was discovered at Sutters Mill in California. It did not take long for that news to spread and the great gold and land rush to begin. Courageous, adventurous men - men who thought outside of the box and were willing to take chances - packed up and moved West in search of land, gold and fortune. They started carving out cities and territories, settling the west, but one main ingredient was still missing: women! Sounds familiar.
Where there is a need, there is someone to fill it. In 1849, there was an average looking woman named Eliza Farnham who knew that she was no beauty but was astonished to be the target of admiring eyes wherever she went in the Gold country. She was so shocked at the barbaric lives the men were leading that she began a campaign to bring proper ladies to the West which she thought were needed to civilize it. There was a rigorous application that the women had to complete to guarantee that only the best and most virtuous women would arrive on the ship Angelique. To the dismay of the hopeful bachelors, only three women disembarked, leaving many angry and frustrated. Even though Eliza had the right idea, she was unable to turn her idea into a successful enterprise.
Men outnumbered women nine to one in the Washington territory in the 1850s and 1860s. Again there was a need, and in 1864 an entrepreneur, probably the first "Mail Order Bride Agency" or Marriage Broker as the government unfortunately refers to them, Asa Mercer, attempted to fill that need. He hatched a plan to fill a ship of beautiful, willing ladies from the Eastern seaboard and bring these marriageable women to Seattle. Only eleven women came, again leaving a lot of disappointed bachelors. Trying again in 1866, to the bachelors delight, he brought over 200 ladies. Asa was also able to find his own bride among those he recruited.
The constituents of the territory were so pleased with Asa's matrimony efforts that they elected him to a seat on the legislative assembly. One paper ran the following: "Mr. Mercer is the union candidate for joint councilman for King and Kitasp counties, and all such bachelors, old and young, may, on election day, have an opportunity of expressing, through the ballot box, their appreciation of his devotedness to the cause of the union, matrimonial as well as national."
Imagine what would happen if someone like Asa ran for public office today, championing their efforts in bringing men and women together - what has changed? Why was it so positive then, and now so negative? The answer may very well have to do with the change in marriage itself and cultural differences, but we will get to that soon.
What was notable in Asa's case is that the women themselves paid $225.00 each for the opportunity to risk the long journey in hopes of meeting their special someone. Why would they do that? The civil war was winding down. War casualties and the mass exodus of men to the West meant there were far more ladies than gentlemen in the eastern U.S. Marriage was a very important institution then and if a woman married by her early twenties she was in danger of becoming an old maid or spinster. It is funny how we always look at this through the male perspective - we call the women "Mail Order Brides" as if they have no say or choice in the matter. However, they were the ones paying for their own passage in search of Mail Order Husbands!
Then, as now, the media had conflicting ideas about the legitimacy of Mr. Mercer's enterprise. The New York Times endorsed the plan to ship women to the new territory, and that helped in Asa's recruitment efforts. Other papers, however, sounded alarms, saying that Asa was a procurer for dens of iniquity in the West and warning that those leaving the safety of their families and communities would suffer unmentionable fates. There were other negative editorials as well.
The Lacrosse Democrat printed that "the surplus sweetness of Massachusetts spinsterhood would be wasted on the Washington Territory. Dr. Mercer has arrived in Boston and perfected arrangements to return at once with a cargo of bay State Virgins, in black stockings, candlewick garters, shirt waists, spit curls, green specs, false teeth and a thirst for chewing gum".
Another detractor, Anna Dickinson, was vehemently against the plan. She wrote many newspaper articles citing arguments such as "How your Washington bachelors can be fathers is a subject rather for a hearty laugh than for any serious debate."
It is truly amazing how similar those arguments are to the ones we hear today. We hear the men are unfit and the poor women are too weak and fragile and will have a terrible life. How dare they do something so different to try changing their lives for the better. Those opposing this didn't really care that there were not enough men for the women in the East at the time and didn't care that these women may never know the joys of marriage or motherhood.
It was also around this time that the newspapers started getting involved, and the personal ad was employed as a way of communicating with and finding your match. The Matrimonial News, a San Francisco matchmaking newspaper, was dedicated to 'promoting honorable matrimonial engagements and true conjugal facilities' for men and women through personal ads. This was truly the forerunner for matchmaking organizations today. Even then, not all matrimonial agencies were legitimate, and many disappointed brides or grooms were left with empty pockets after contracting for a mail order mate.
The Matrimonial News was a legitimate and respected tool for those seeking matrimonial assistance. Each edition began with the same words:
'Women need a man's strong arm to support her in life's struggle, and men need women's love."
The first paper or brochure for 'Mail Order Brides" had a strict code of rules and regulations. You were required to accurately and truthfully describe your personal appearance, height, weight, and your financial and social positions, along with a general description of the kind of persons with whom you desired correspondence. (not much different than today. Ads of forty words or less for males were published once for twenty-five cents; it was free for the women. If either the man or the woman went over forty words they were charged at the rate of one cent per word. To avoid publishing names and addresses, the ads were numbered and the publisher sorted them to their correct destination.
The following are a few examples of the profiles listed in the Matrimonial News:
283 - A Gentleman of 25 years old, 5 feet 3 inches, doing a good business in the city, desires the acquaintance of a young, intelligent and refined lady possessed of some means, of a loving disposition from 18 to 23, and one who could make home a paradise.
287 - 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.
280 - A lively widower of 40, looking much younger, 5 feet 7 inches high, weighing 145 pounds would like to correspond with some maiden or widow lady of honor who would like a good home, kind husband and plenty.
225 - I am fond of fun, age 18, height 5 feet 5 inches, weight, 140 pounds, have auburn hair, dark eyes; I want a gentleman correspondent, from 20 to 25. Object, fun and perhaps matrimony if suited.
245 - I am fat, fair, and 48, 5 feet high. Am a No. 1 lady, well fixed with no encumbrance: am in business in the city, but want a partner who lives in the West. Want an energetic man that has some means, not under 40 years of age and weight not less that 180. Of good habits. A Christian gentleman preferred.
241- I am a widow, aged 28, have one child, height 64 inches, blue eyes, weight 125 pounds, loving disposition. I am poor: would like to hear from honorable men from 30 to 40 of old; working men preferred.
292- A girl who will love, honest, true and not sour; a nice little cooing dove, and willing to work in flour
In the three decades that the paper was in existence, close to 3,000 couples who advertised with the newspaper corresponded, exchanged photos, and eventually married.
In Arizona, clubs were formed to prevent shootouts over the few eligible females. In 1885, six Tucson wives started the Busy Bee Club.
Considering the history, what seems to be the common factor that motivates the men and women to be willing to leave their communities and travel vast distances to unknown lands in search of their soul mate?
The answer seems to be clear - a lack of opportunity on both sides. This lack of opportunity to find that one special person is what has driven the so-called "Mail Order Bride" phenomenon since the beginning. It really is simple supply and demand. Now, it really depends on your point of view to determine what the supply and what the demand actually is. Look at the West in the 1850s. Many men went west to settle the frontier where they were missing one very important element: women. However, the women in the East were also missing a very important element: men. Many of the bravest and most desirable men were killed in the Civil War, still fighting its battles, or exploring the west in search of land, gold and fortune, so the women living there at that time had very few marital prospects. This is why many of them opted for the so called "Mail Order Bride" approach, but you can just as easily say "Mail Order husband" approach. In the West, the demand was high for women but the supply was low. In the East, the demand was high for men, but that supply was low as well.
Today it seems that the women who choose to place their profiles on sites like ours are passive, almost like a commodity, just waiting for someone to come along and take them away from their terrible lot in life. That concept is just not the case, we know that here, and we have been assisting these men and women in finding each other for fifteen years. These women cannot find a suitable husband where they live and are actively involved in their search for a husband. In many cases the women greatly outnumber the men and, furthermore, the available men are not desirable due to factors such as alcoholism, fidelity issues, not wanting the responsibility of marriage, etc. Why should these women be forced to choose only from this prospective pool of possible grooms when there is a much more attractive, much larger population outside their community? These women are not passive; they are active in their pursuit of a husband and are taking charge of their destiny, much like their sisters did who got on that boat in London for passage to Jamestown. It was easy for these women. They were warned by the media and others, even their families, that they were going to end up as prostitutes and their lives were going to be a living hell. However, they endured and found success despite pleas from their family and friends. The vast majority of women who made the trip did find their soul mate, did get married, and did live very happy and more prosperous lives. Just like today, the more things change, the more they stay the same!
While there are groups trying to prevent foreign women from their opportunity to meet their soul mates abroad (and better their lives) based on the premise that she may be abused, may have a tough life, or may be used as a prostitute - all things that were said in 1850 - the domestic women here today in America, are being abused, living tough lives, and becoming prostitutes at much higher rates according to every study we have seen. Who is helping them? Why are Mail Order couples held to such a higher standard than domestic couples? There is an abuse shelter here in Phoenix that is celebrating 10 years this month and they do a great job helping abused. During their speech this week they said that 1 out of 4 American women are abused; that is twenty-five percent of all American women. That number is far higher than the studies that have followed Mail Order couples, yet the perception is that these women are at a much higher risk.
In order to get an even better idea of the negative stigmas associated with the term "Mail Order Bride," I think it is important to look at how marriage has changed and evolved in the United States. Again, we do not have enough time or resources to investigate the concept of marriage across different cultures; even today marriage varies greatly from culture to culture. Some allow cohabitation, some don't. Some allow divorce, some don't. Some give all the power to the husband, and some don't. For our purposes, we will focus on marriage in the United States.
In many cultures in the past and even today, marriage was arranged by the parents or the elders for economic and other reasons. Love had very little to do with it. If you were lucky enough to be in love with or fall in love later with the person that you were told to marry, that was fortunate but by no means the rule.
When our country was founded, some of the most important tenets our society were based on freedom of choice. Freedom to choose your own religion, your own occupation, and of course your own life-mate. This is where love started entering into the equation and men and women were free to follow their hearts. However, marriage also was a very important part of society. It allowed two people to come together and assist each other in forming a life, sharing and passing down property, and most importantly raising children.
Obviously there were changes to marriage as our country matured, but it was still a very important institution, almost a cornerstone to the fabric of our society. Because of that, there were social stigmas for people who did not marry, gave birth to children outside of marriage, or divorced. Then came the 60s, the sexual revolution, the pill, and the feminist movement. All of these factors changed the marital landscape dramatically, for bettor or for worse. The most dramatic change was the skyrocketing rate of divorce and single parents in the 70s and 80s. The image of the Ozzie and Harriet lifestyle, whether it ever really existed or not, was now gone for good, replaced by a much more individualized, "me first" thinking. Marriage and children were no longer one in the same. Single parenthood became much more prevalent and was even promoted by Hollywood.
After the 1960s, women no longer felt it necessary that their lives follow the once popular childhood rhyme- first comes love, then comes marriage, then the baby carriage. Alternate families and lifestyles are much more prevalent in our modern society.
The problem is that today we see that the nuclear family did and does, according to most studies, a much better job raising children than alternative family structures such as single parent families or co-habitating families. There are many reasons for this and scholars debate this issue constantly, but what seems to be clear is that children raised with a mother and father in a loving and committed relationship tend to do better than those who are not. That is not to say that every nuclear family is perfect, but again, if you look at the overall statistics you will find that a traditional nuclear family seems to be the best. One of the reasons for that compared to a single parent structure, is of course that if you have two people sharing and dividing the duties. You are going to have more time and resources to devote to the children. Curiously, children fare better with a married couple than a co-habitating couple, but why is that? The answer may be in the type of people who choose to marry. Those people may think in more traditional and committed ways and there may be a greater sense of commitment to each other and the family structure. It can also provide more security than other structures such as just co-habitation. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, since the 60's the nuclear family has come under assault and is not as popular as it once was. This may help to explain why both the men and the women who are searching harder and outside the normal parameters are looked at differently; they are suspect. Both the men and the women are searching for something that is more traditional in nature, which is frowned upon by many in today's society.
Again, if we look at what has happened to the idea of marriage since the 60's and the fact that many women view marriage much differently than they did then, it takes us back to the supply and demand equation. If a man is searching for a woman that shares a more traditional view of marriage, his pool of prospective candidates is going to be much more limited than it once was. Many foreign women find that their pool of responsible, marriage-minded men are very limited as well. Thus, both groups are forced to expand their search outside of their boundaries, very much like what took place here over 150 years ago.
Based on what we have discussed in this article thus far, I believe that a list can be compiled listing the top ten factors, contributing to the "Mail Order Bride."
1. In the past, the women came to the men (or vice versa in some cases) sight unseen to marry, sometimes very quickly, much like the arranged marriages of the old country. America is all about choice and opportunity and controlling ones destiny, so even today when one says "Mail Order Bride," it is as if the man is bargaining with some entity to purchase a woman. In today's International Introduction arena, nothing could be further from the truth.
2. Newspapers and other social commentators denounced the men of the West as unsuitable husbands and fathers, warning that the women venturing off to marry these men would be forced into prostitution and face unimaginable horrors. We know that was not the case. Most women eventually married and lived very happy and fulfilling lives. However, those stereotypes persisted. The media today continues to prolong and enhance the stigma by only focusing on negative, isolated stories. For the most part, they ignore thousands of success stories, just as they did in the 1850's
3. There were some unethical companies operating in the 1850s, just as there are now, that have given the industry a bad name. However, these instances seem quite exaggerated. You can take any industry and find the good, bad, and ugly. Try taking your car to ten different mechanics or calling ten different plumbers to you r house and observe the range of ethical treatment you get. I believe any industry will include both ethical and unethical companies.
4. Some of the women in the 1850s were not as virtuous as advertised and took advantage of the men, deceiving them with fake teeth, fake bosoms, etc. Some of the men will deceive the women. Again, we are dealing with real people here and, whenever you do that, you are going to have good, bad, and ugly. That hasn't changed since the beginning of time, so to blame that on Mail Order Brides is a bit of a stretch.
5. Not every marriage succeeded. The marriages then, as now, were held to a much higher standard. If they did not succeed, it was thought to be indicative of all "Mail Order Bride" marriages. However, Mail Order Bride marriages then and International marriages today actually survive much longer and suffer a drastically lower divorce and abuse rate than domestic marriages. That's a fact that the media just doesn't want to discuss, even though studies support it.
6. "Mail Order Bride" was seen as an act of desperation by the majority. It was publicly and privately denounced, as many new and innovate ventures frequently are.
7. Change in the way we view marriage and family, beginning in the 60s, continued to have a profound effect during the 70s, 80s, and even today. Those that sought a more traditional family structure with a committed nuclear family were not looked upon favorably; the institution of marriage itself has been assaulted since the 60s.
8. Egocentrism - cultural differences - as recently as 1967, it was a felony in the state of Virginia and many other states to marry outside of your race. The aptly named "Loving" case made it to the Supreme court in 1967. The court rejected the century old argument suggesting that bans on marriage across the color line imposed equally on all races. They called such laws an effort to maintain white supremacy, insupportable in view of the 14th amendment. The opinion reiterated that marriage was a fundamental freedom.
9. Age differences - In American culture even small age differences are seen as a possible problem. In many other cultures, the women seek older men because they feel they will be more responsible, loyal, mature, etc.
10. Threatened. We have received many calls through the years from American women wondering why we provide this service and what is wrong with them. I talk with them and assure that there is someone for everyone. Some people feel the need to search the world over for the right person while others are content to limit their search to their immediate surroundings. It is simply a matter of preference, but some people are threatened by the fact that these options exist.
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