A Cowboy Comes A-Courting

More Love and Laughter in the Old West

Margaret Brownley

  When a man’s on his knees proposing, resist the urge to look triumphant.


                                                   —A Suitor for Jenny


Cowboys had a way with words so it’s not too surprising that they used some purty colorful terms to describe matters of the heart, and that included courting. “Gittin’ hitched” was serious business and spooning or sparking no less so.

Nothing changed the concept of marriage and courting as much as the westward movement. Marriage offered a semblance of security in an unsettled land. For a widow or widower with children finding a spouse was a dire necessity. 

Rules that had defined courtships for centuries went out the window and marriages arranged by well-meaning parents were no longer the norm.  The idea of romantic love was a novelty that was quickly embraced and encouraged young women to leave home and family behind and travel west.

Sun burned skin soon replaced delicate complexions and feathered hats gave way to sunbonnets. Vanilla took the place of French perfumes and muslin and lawn replaced bustles and trains.

Free of the rigors of Victorian mores, these “new” females changed in other ways; Women asserting their rights politically also demanded matrimony democracy.  One woman came right out and said what others believed.  “My husband’s got to make himself agreeable to me.  If he don’t. there’s plenty will.”

ring-1Demographics in the west were on their side for women were vastly outnumbered by men.  In the mid 1800s one man lamented that there was only sixty or seventy women in all of Houston.   He never said how many of those women he’d be willing to take home to mom.

No longer under the watchful eye of chaperones couples took buggy rides, went on picnics, cuddled in the hayloft, and kicked up their heels at dances. A man having a fancy for a woman might give her a locket or coin. Couples financially strapped simply exchange locks of hair.  One gift that was popular in the early 1800s was the courting mirror.   A cowboy wanting to gift his lady-love in the latter part of the century might have hoarded coffee.  

Yep, that’s right coffee.  The coffee that won the west may have owed its popularity more to courtship than to taste or convenience.  John Arbuckle came up with what at the time was a unique marketing plan; He added coupons or vouchers to packages of coffee that could be redeemed for goods. Arbuckle’s catalog contained thousands of items.  28 coupons was enough for a razor, which no man in love would be without, but the most popular item was the finger ring. 

During the 1890s Arbuckle Brothers was the largest distributor of finger rings in the world.  In “Arbuckles,”  author Francis Fugate quotes a company official who bears this out: “One of our premiums is a wedding ring, and if all the rings of this pattern serve their intended purpose then we have been participants in eighty thousand weddings a year.”

Getting married wasn’t always that easy. Some communities didn’t have a regular preacher and had to depend on a circuit preacher who might not show up for months at a time.  It wasn’t unusual for a saddle preacher to ride into town and find couples waiting to wed with toddlers in hand.   As one old cowboy said, “There’s no cure for love—and nobody wants one.”

Anyone have a courting or dating memory to share?


 To preorder:

A Vision of Lucy (A Rocky Creek Romance)


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20 thoughts on “A Cowboy Comes A-Courting”

  1. Margaret, as always, a wonderful post. What is a courting mirror? I never knew that about the coupons in the coffe–when I grew up, I remember my mom opening up boxes of Quaker Oats and getting GLASS CUPS!!!

    Oh, here’s a courting memory. When I was in junior high, the rage was those “ID bracelets” –they were silver usually with links all around except for one long plate that could be engraved. If a boy gave you is ID bracelet to wear, you were going together. Sad day when he asked for it back, or if you decided it was time to give it back. Working up to that conversation was really hard. LOL

    Thanks for a great post!

  2. Hi Cheryl, a courting mirror was small and sometimes in a box. These were originally brought over from China by sailors but an American company eventually made them, too. They made perfect courting gifts at a time when jewelry was considered too personal. They were popular in the 1700s and early 1800s.

    I don’t remember the glass cups in Quaker Oats, but I do remember that FREE was the first word my kids learned to read. Any product with the word free blazoned on the box was promptly added to the shopping cart.

  3. For a woman (me) who’s really conservative, I have to admit I LOVE IT that a couple could get married and have children all while waiting for the preacher.

    It was just so sensible. I read somewhere that the Puritans did this. And no group is more conservative than THEM, surely.

    There just weren’t enough preachers. A couple would just move in together, or maybe make a public statement of marriage before their parents. When the preacher finally showed up, he’d bless the marriage and maybe baptize a couple of kids.

    A lot of times when we’re researching books we’re looking for ‘rules’. But I think one of the true facts of early America, before we had government in charge of EVERYTHING was, a lot of people made their own rules. Adoption, marriage and divorce, observing mourning, manners.

    There just weren’t rules for everything, so people did what they wanted.

  4. Don’t have any courting stories. I was just thinking about the changes made by women as they travelled west. The corsets went; the million petticoats went; the fancy hairdos went. All for more comfort. Pants were seen on a few women. (Bet that was a shocker). It just seems that it freed the women of a lot of nonsense. All the rules didn’t seem to apply when you were hundreds of miles from the nearest—-anything.

  5. Margaret, love your blog. I always picture a bowlegged cowboy with his hair slicked back and a bunch of windflowers in his hand when he went courting. Their seriousness was so funny. Most acted like they were going to their own funeral. They could barely swallow past the lump in their throat and talking was minimal. Personally I think the world would be a better place if men felt the same way now. Most go into marriage with the view that it’s only temporary.

    I remember the free glasses in boxes of oatmeal. It was always a treat to get one.

    Your new book looks wonderful! Great cover. Tell me again when it comes out so I can make a note.

  6. Hi Margaret, what a terrific blog and information! I think I’ve heard about “bundling”, an old-time custom when courting couples who lived far apart on a cold winter night could lie abed wrapped up separately with rolls of blankets inbetween, just so they could get to know each other. LOL Good one oxoxoxox

  7. Hi Linda, cowboys sure did take courting seriously, but they had a lot of competition. There just wasn’t that many women. If they blew it they were out of luck. My book comes out at the end of June. Thank you so much for asking.

  8. I was in the Peace Corps in 1968 -1971. Where I was stationed, chaperones were still “required.” I never did date there, but it was interesting to observe and I even needed a chaperone if I was going to be out. The attitude was men will be men and you should expect them to do whatever they could get away with. If you didn’t have a chaperone, you were fair game. One incident in particular was an eye opener. A young woman had gotten pregnant and the young man stepped up to make her his wife. A day or so before the wedding, he was killed in a car accident. To save family honor, his brother had to step in and be the groom. That is no way to start a marriage.

  9. Excellent blog. Following up on Cheryl’s ID bracelet, when dh and I started getting serious, we were “lavaliered” – meaning he gave me a necklace with the greek letters of his fraternity. The “pinning” came about a year later–that’s when I got to wear his frat pin. I had to learn to pin it on perfectly straight–that was a really big deal to some of his brothers. After that, getting engaged was easy. lol

  10. This was pretty lame but when hubby and I got serious, I made us little bracelets from those “baby ID” beads (from the old fashioned hospital ID bracelets) spelling our names. Never wore them, though LOL.

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