What is it about Mail-Order Bride Stories?

My new book, which comes out tomorrow, is about a fictional, newly established town in 1870’s Kansas. The men create a Betterment Committee, banding together to entice women from the east to come there as mail-order brides.

Mail-order brides have been around for ages, although the actual term “mail-order bride” was not in use much until after 1908. It didn’t appear in a major newspaper until 1929 when it was a headline in the New York Times.  That first major occurrence detailed the murder of Carroll Rablen by his mail-order bride, Eva, through the use of poison.

The first incidence of enticing women from afar for men in North America was in 1620 with the arrival of the Jamestown Brides. The Virginia Company was made up of men, many who planned to make their fortune in America and return to England. The founders knew that wives and families would make the men establish roots here in the colonies. The ratio there was ten women to every nine men, whereas in the Jamestown Colony the ratio was six men to every one woman.

westward expansion

Ninety middle-class spinsters (single women 30 years of age and older,) came across the Atlantic on a ship hired by the Virginia Company. They were promised a husband and given clothing and sheets as a further means of enticement to make the journey. Most of these women were from the middle class in search of a better life, and indeed they were able to share property with their husband and held a higher status here as the “founding mothers of America” than they had in England.

As men moved west and established towns, they advertised for women to come to help “grow” the towns and settle them. The Civil War played havoc on the notion that every girl would grow up to eventually marry when it wiped out so many men of marriageable age on both sides of the conflict. In the south, the dearth of men was even higher. That is when matrimonial agencies suddenly sprang up and posted advertisements in every major eastern newspaper.

Were these all honest, forthright ads? Of course not.

mail-order brides

One incidence I came across in my research fascinated me. Eleanor Barry was an orphan who became a schoolteacher. After answering an advertisement in the San Francisco Magazine, she started corresponding with a Louis Dreibelbis who professed to be a miner in another part of California. After several months of letters back and forth, she agreed to marry him and departed on a train to meet him.

As she neared her destination, four men boarded the train to blow up the strongbox that was filled with gold bullion and money. Eleanor asked that they spare her luggage telling them she was soon to be married. The leader acquiesced, blowing up everyone else’s but hers. It was only after she had reached her destination and married, that she realized the man who had spared her trousseau was the same man to whom she had just said her vows—evidenced by a familiar scar on his face.

In romance novels, there is a huge readership for these types of stories. I think this is due to the Cinderella story-line and the happily-ever-after. The first mail-order bride story that I ever read (and where I first heard the term) was Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan. It was 1986 Newberry Medal winner and Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the 1986 Golden Kite Award. I still remember lines from the book!

Mail Order Brides of Oak Grove

Why do you think this type of story is so appealing?
Have you read any mail-order bride stories that you enjoyed and would recommend?

Comment for a chance to win a copy of Mail-Order Brides of Oak Grove
(Print or ebook for the continental U.S.A. Ebook for outside the U.S.A.)

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26 thoughts on “What is it about Mail-Order Bride Stories?”

  1. I have read some and cannot remember the titles. I think it is a very brave thing to do and I like to read them and imagine if I ever would have done that.

    • Hi DebraG! How nice to have you stop by. I agree–it WAS brave for a woman to do such a thing. I imagine loneliness, desperation, for want of a better life, or escaping a situation…there were many, many reasons a woman would do this.

  2. Oh goodness, I love mail order brides stories. They are so much fun to read because you can always expect the unexpected. I read a fun one where the woman had advertised for a husband at the general store instead of the man advertising for a wife. I can’t remember the title or author. I am not sure if I could marry someone sight unknown and only knowing what they tell you by letter correspondence.

    • Hi Deanne! That story you mentioned does sound like a fun one to read. I think that’s part of the fun of them…just anything can happen! And when it is a romance…you just know there is an HEA (happy-ever-after) in there and not a dark, scary, or unhappy outcome. They are a “safe” fun read and it is all about how the two finally make things work. (My kind of story 🙂 to read.)

  3. I love mail-order bride stories, Kathryn, and the story of the schoolmarm and the train robber is great fodder for a romance novel. Will she reform him? Walk out on him? Or maybe even join him in his lawless acts?

    I like the idea of mail order brides because those stories show that love can be a decision, not just a feeling. When there is mutual respect and kindness, love can grow and flourish if you set your mind to it. The determination it takes to make a go of a marriage of convenience bodes well for a lifelong commitment of better or worse, and increases the believability of a true happily ever after.

  4. Mail Order Bride stories are so enjoyable. The strength it took for these women to leave their lives as they knew it and begin again…..amazing! Life is about choices and these ladies were very brave in facing the choices them made.

    • Hi Melanie,
      Nice to have you pop in! Part of the difficult choice, was that they would leave all they knew behind. It wasn’t like they could hop on a plane and go back to visit family like we can today. I just don’t know if I could have been that courageous.

  5. Great subject, Kathryn. Sarah, Plain and Tall is my all time favorite mail order bride story. Such a powerful book and movie. I’ve only published one mail order bride book but I’m currently writing a series featuring these women and having great fun. The reasons for marrying a stranger vary and I think that’s the draw for fans. It’s the uncertainty and doubt that the brides will find love. Never a sure thing.

    Love the cover of your new release. That cover really says romance and teaming with Lauri Robinson was a wise choice. She’s awesome. Wishing you much success.

  6. What a wonderful blog. Congrats on a new release. I love mail-order bride stories, also, even though I write Native American. Love the history, also. 1620 — goes that far back, huh? Another interesting tidbit is that some men married Indian women, and left them once white women came into the West. There were sometimes hard feelings about this — and families who felt they needed to avenge their daughter or sister or some such. Interesting times.

    • Wow! Karen. Very interesting! I can see where that would create very strong anger and a thirst for revenge. With my research, I did read about the men from Jamestown marrying the Indian women before the European women came over. My source said that what happened often was that the men were absorbed into their wife’s Indian culture and tribe and quit helping out at the Jamestown colony. That was another reason the founders of the colony wanted to bring women to help settle the colony.

  7. One she had no clue what her future husband looked like. Two most woman didn’t have many chooses back then and three most men who robbed trains did not do it for very long. Plus a story like this is fun to read.

    • Hi Kim,
      Oh so true! It is so different in today’s world, with the internet! Today’s MOB can quickly do a search (if they have internet) and find out what their intended looks like and a host of other information. Kind of scary that it is so easy, but that is life today unless you live off the grid. It makes it a little less scary.

  8. I love seeing the strength and courage the Mail Order Brides show in going off to the unknown. I am not sure I could ever have done what they do in leaving all that is familiar.

  9. I think it’s the foced proxmity and they have to get along:)
    my favorites:
    Eye of the Beholder by Ruth Ann Nordin
    Montana Bride by Jullian Hart
    Brides for Keeps by Melissa Jagears

    • YAY! Thanks for the suggestions! I just bought a book by Ruth Ann Nordin, however I don’t think it was this one. I have never read her before and the book caught my eye (I think it helped that it was discounted 🙂 That always grabs me!

  10. Hi Kathryn,
    I also love “mail-order bride” stories. I think it is the “Cinderella” syndrome. It is just a little more romantic, less traditional, – boy meets girl, conflict, love, marriage…story line (though I like those too!) I also like the “orphan train” story lines where families come together. I think overall it has to do with people who are alone (women, men, children) finding that place where they fit in and find hope. Ahhh…. I just finished a book so it is time for me to go find another one. Hmm – mail-order brides…….
    Love your books. Keep writing.

  11. Hi Phyllis! So nice to have you stop in again and “chat.” What a great analogy about the women finding where they fit in and finding hope. My kind of story 🙂

  12. I love mail order bride stories becuase they are so cute and sweet in the land of make-believe, but I think it would be terrifying in real-life.

    • Hi Naomi,
      Thanks for stopping by Petticoats and Pistols! I think they are “safe” in that way. The stories are a look back in time through rose-colored glasses. For me, they are enjoyable and an escape from the stress of modern day-to-day life and all that is going on in the news. I also like that they usually have down-to-earth values and consequences that play out.

  13. I really enjoy mail order bride stories. I think what stands out the most for me is the reason these women had that motivated them to become a mail order bride. I can imagine for some it was out of sheer necessity, but regardless of the reason, they had to be truly brave. Aside from that, I’d like to think some actually did find their happily ever after.

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