Not Always by Choice: Mail-Order Brides

I love reading and writing mail-order bride stories set in the Old West.  I’m happy to say that next month my next mail-order bride story The Cowboy Meets His Match will be published. And boy, oh, boy, does that couple ever clash!

It’s hard to imagine a young woman traveling west to marry a man she’d never set eyes on. The original catalog-bride business grew out of necessity. The lack of marriageable women in the west was partly responsible, but so was the Civil War. The war not only created thousands of widows but a shortage of men, especially in the South.

As a result, marriage brokers and heart-and-hand catalogs popped up all around the country. According to an article in the Toledo Blade, lonely men even wrote to the Sears catalog company asking for brides. (The latest such letter received by Sears was from a lonely marine during the Vietnam War.)

In those early days, advertisements cost five to fifteen cents, and letters were exchanged along with photographs. Fortunately, the telegraph and train made communication easier.

Not all marriage brokers were legitimate, and many a disappointed client ended up with an empty bank account rather than a contracted mate.

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 that they scandalized fellow passengers on the Union Pacific Railroad during their honeymoon.

Not every bride was so lucky. In her book Hearts West, Chris Enss tells the story of mail-order bride Eleanor Berry. On the way to her wedding, her stage was held up at gunpoint by four masked men. While signing the marriage license, she suddenly realized that her new husband was one of the outlaws who had robbed her.

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 traveled west to marry a stranger?

His first mistake was marrying her; his second was falling in love.

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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: April 20, 2019 — 8:56 am

15 Comments

  1. I think I would have done so if my prospects were very slim, keeping in mind the options for women at that time.

    1. Debra, yes, women didn’t have a whole lot of options back then. I don’t think the young women of today appreciate all the choices they now have.

  2. I enjoy reading mail order bride stories also. Not sure I could have been one unless I didn’t have any other choice but that was the way it was with most women back then.

    1. Hi Quilt Lady, it’s hard to know what we would have done back then, but it’s fun to think about.

  3. Margaret – That ad photo you shared warning men not to be deceived cracked me up and made me think about the catfish epidemic on social media. People pretending to be better looking, younger (or older) than they are in truth, lying about their financial status or occupation. It seems there truly is nothing new under the sun. It also planted an idea for a funny story – a hero who is against mail-order brides because he was burned in the past by a scheming woman with false hair and bolstered hips. Ha!

    1. Hi Karen, I love your story idea! Like you said, there’s nothing new. LOL

  4. This is a wonderful post. I love reading about mail order brides: what gets them into this position to start with, why they decide that they will give it a go, her feelings through out the initial process and what happens when she meets him. I dont know if I would do it, I like to know the person before I make any decisions about them.

    1. Hi Lori, it seems to me we still have mail-order brides. However, instead of meeting today through the mail, they meet on the Internet through dating sites. As Karen said, there’s nothing new under the sun.

  5. Margaret thank you for this fascinating post!

    1. You’re welcome, Caryl. Thank you for stopping by.

  6. Avatar

    I loved this post and I laughed at the reasons a marriage could be annulled because some of the reasons might still be in use today! I’m glad that I didn’t have to find a husband through being a mail-order bride!

    1. I laughed at that, too, Connie. The padded limbs puzzled me.

  7. If it was a matter of hardship or lack of opportunity, it might have been the best option.

    The fact it could be annulled if a man decided his bride met any of the criteria on that poster is telling of the risks a woman was taking.

  8. Denise, you’re right about the risks a woman was taking. On the other hand, if she wanted to get rid of him, she could simple bolster her hips.

  9. If circumstances where I lived were bad enough, I might be tempted to see what possibilities existed elsewhere. I would certainly hope the man I was corresponding with was legitimate. I would leave my options open, setting money aside, so I would have options if the situation was not a good one when I got there.

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