Taking a Chance–A Big Chance–On Love

Wanted a Wife

I am looking for a lady to make her my wife

as I am heartily tired of bachelor life.

I’ve always loved mail-order bride stories and am delighted to be currently writing one.  My heroine has a good reason for taking a a chance on love, but what about the thousands of other women who’d left family and friends to travel west and into the arms of strangers?

Shortage of Men—and Women

The original mail-order bride business grew out of necessity.  The lack of women in the west was partly responsible, but so was the Civil War.  The war not only created thousands of widows and grieving girlfriends, but a shortage of men, especially in the south.

As a result, marriage brokers and “Heart and Hand” catalogues popped up all around the country. Ads averaged five to fifteen cents and letters were exchanged along with photographs.

According to an article in the Toledo Blade lonely men even wrote to the Sears catalogue company asking for brides (the latest such letter received was from a lonely Marine during the Vietnam War).

Cultural Attitudes

Marriage was thought to be the only path to female respectability. Anyone not conforming to society’s expectations was often subjected to public scorn.  Also, many women needed marriage just for survival.  Single women had a hard time making it alone in the East. This was especially true of widows with young children to support.

Women who had reached the “age” of spinsterhood with no promising prospects were more likely to take a chance on answering a mail-order bride ad than younger women.

Not Always Love at First Sight

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Postal Museum

For some mail-order couples, it was love (or lust) at first sight. In 1886, one man and his mail order bride were so enamored with each other they scandalized fellow passengers on the Union Pacific Railroad during their honeymoon.

Not every bride was so lucky.  In her book Hearts West, Christ Enss tells the story of mail-order bride Eleanor Berry. En route to her wedding her stage was held up at gunpoint by four masked men.  Shortly after saying “I do,” and while signing the marriage license, she suddenly realized that her husband was one of the outlaws who had robbed her. The marriage lasted less than an hour.

The mail-order business was not without deception.  Lonely people sometimes found themselves victims of dishonest marriage brokers, who took their money and ran.

Some ads were exaggerated or misleading. Men had a tendency to overstate their financial means. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to embellish their looks. The Matrimonial News in the 1870s printed warnings by Judge Arbuckle that any man deceived by false hair, cosmetic paints, artificial bosoms, bolstered hips, or padded limbs could have his marriage nulled, if he so desired.   

Despite all the things that could and sometimes did go wrong, historians say that most matches were successful.

No one seems to know how many mail-order brides there were during the 1800s, but the most successful matchmaker of all appears to be Fred Harvey. He wasn’t in the mail-order bride business, but, by the turn of the century, five thousand Harvey Girls had found husbands while working in his restaurants.   

Under what circumstances might you have considered becoming a mail order bride in the Old West? 

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Margaret Brownley
Margaret has published more than 46 books and is a N.Y. Times Bestselling author and two-time Romance Writers of America Rita Finalist. She writes historical novels set--where else?--in the Old West! She has written for a day time soap and is currently working on a new series. Not bad for someone who flunked 8th grade English. Just don't ask her to diagram a sentence.
Updated: March 17, 2019 — 8:35 am

13 Comments

  1. I would consider it if I needed a new start, if there was nothing left for me and no prospects.

    1. Hi Debra, I think that’s how most of those early brides felt before leaving home. It’s still scary.

  2. I guess I would have done it if I had nothing left and had no other choice if life.

    1. Hi Quilt Lady,
      Woman didn’t have a lot of options in the 1800s. Aren’t we glad we live in modern times?

  3. Welcome today Margaret. This is a fascinating article. I love to read about mail order brides, I think because I like reading about their hardships becoming something worth while and lasting. I think that if I were in desperate straights I might consider becoming a mail order bride. Which is probably why so many did at the time.

  4. Hi Lori, yes,it’s fun to read about hardships becoming something real and worthwhile. I guess that’s what makes mail-order bride stories so popular.

  5. Wow, I cannot imagine it! I don’t know that I could have been one. It would have to be a serious situation to make me be a mail order bride. Maybe no family and completely broke?

    1. It is hard to imagine, Susan. But desperate times….

  6. Congratulations on the upcoming book, Margaret! I love it. They did a good job as usual. I love mail order brides stories and my current series is one. I think the popularity springs from the fact that so many things could go wrong and there are hundreds and hundreds of scenarios and reasons why a woman would choose to take this chance. Also, after the Civil War that killed off thousands of marriageable men, women had little chance of finding a husband and having a family unless she traveled west.

    Good luck with your series! Wishing you all the best.

    1. Linda, thank you. You’re right; there are hundreds of reasons why a woman would take a chance and just as many things could go wrong.

      (And for those of you that haven’t yet read the first book in Linda’s Outlaw Mail Order Brides series, I encourage you to do so. You’re in for a treat!)

  7. Margaret, congrats on your upcoming book.

  8. Mail order bride stories are favorites. Since opportunities were so limited for a woman to support herself respectably, any situation that left me “stranded” with no home or means of support would be a strong incentive to consider becoming a mail order bride. I would hope that I would be able to tell from the letters exchanged the true nature of my future groom. Looking forward to seeing a new part of the country and starting a new life would encourage the decision to take a chance.
    I hope the series is a success.

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