Online Dating in the 19th Century

With guest blogger Becca Whitham.

Online dating is not a new phenomenon…at least matching two people over a distance before they meet in person isn’t. During the 1800’s, it manifested itself as mail-order brides. The Telegraph Proposal is the final book in what Gina and I call our “mail-order brides gone wrong” series. We wanted to explore pitfalls of modern online dating using an historical setting. In our first story, The Promise Bride, we looked at what happens if the person you’ve been corresponding with was lying with malicious intent. The second story, The Kitchen Marriage, explored what happens when the family of the person you’ve been dating thinks only desperate and dishonest people resort to matchmaking services. And the final book looks at what happens when the dating service matches you with someone you not only know but don’t like.

Our research turned up fascinating stories which, if you changed the dates and a few particulars, read like they were ripped from today’s news stories. Women were often lured away from home with the promise of something better only to find themselves lost in the underworld of drugs and prostitution. There were stories of individuals falsely representing themselves to get money. Here’s a quote from The Chicago Tribune (which we added to the opening of The Kitchen Marriage): “…(Here’s) a fact that all women who ever answered a matrimonial advertisement or ever intend to answer one should remember: No man who has the ability or the means to support a wife in comfort needs to advertise for one.” The article was written December 28, 1884, but doesn’t it sound like advice you hear today?


To combat the perception that only desperate people would advertise for a spouse, services bloomed to help vet prospective candidates. Today we have, eHarmony, ChristianMingle, and others. My husband vetted someone. He was a pastor in Washington State at the time, and one of our congregants had been corresponding with a woman in Florida. Her pastor called my husband and said, “Okay. Tell me about this Greg fellow. Is he who he claims to be?” My husband was able to assure the Florida pastor that Greg was indeed telling the truth about himself. A few months later, after the woman had come to Washington for some in-person courting, my husband performed their wedding.

In the 1800’s, matchmaking agencies offered vetting services. For The Telegraph Proposal, our principal characters were tricked into a correspondence courtship by a well-intentioned but deceptive member of such an agency. However, instead of letting the ruse stand, we blew it up early in the story. I don’t know about you, but I hated how the movie “You’ve Got Mail” ended. Had I been Meg Ryan’s character, I would not have lovingly wrapped my arms around Tom Hanks’ neck and kissed him on that bridge after discovering how he’d tricked me. I’d have slapped his face and stomped off! So that’s what happens in The Telegraph Proposal. Our characters had to learn how to find their way back to love after such a disaster.

This skill is something we all need. My husband and I have conducted close to a hundred marriage retreats, and we always talk about how couples need to learn how to fall in love with the person they actually married as opposed to the one they thought they had. Some couples figure it out before marriage, others—like my husband and me—must figure it out afterwards. The opening sentence of The Telegraph Proposal sums it up: “Marriage did not make women experts on men.”

Becca Whitham (WIT-um) Award-winning author, paper crafter, and Army wife, Becca and her twelve-foot long craft cabinet follow her husband of thirty-five years wherever the army needs a good chaplain. She thinks the cabinet should count as a dependent. So far, neither the army nor the IRS is convinced. In between moves from one part of the country to the other, she writes stories combining faith and fiction that touch the heart. She’s a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and Romance Writers of America. You can find her online at


Ruthy here: Becca has graciously offered to give away a copy of The Telegraph Proposal! Leave a comment below to be entered… and tell us what you think of online dating. The good… the bad… and if you’ve got a great story to share (like Ruthy’s nephew and his lovely wife, married 12 years and three kids, met at we’d love to hear it!

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44 thoughts on “Online Dating in the 19th Century”

  1. I have read of the success stories but it hasn’t worked out that well for anyone I actually know, so I have to say I am a little wary.

    • I think we all should be wary. As the hero of our first story in this series said, “Anyone can be anything in a letter” (or online). But I know of some great matches that have come from dating services, so I guess it’s like any courtship…you have to really get to know the person in-person before committing.

  2. I’ve heard of many success stories but I sure didn’t have any luck just finding friends let alone anything else…lol

  3. Welcome- I have heard success stories about on line dating. I’ve jokingly asked my husband before, if we were to put up our info on an on-line dating site, Do you think they would match us up? We both laugh because we are opposites in many things, but we do have a lot in common I guess that’s why we’ve been happy for 19 years.
    Great blog

    • How could you forget or leave out, “”? ? Fantastic blog with some excellent dating/marriage advice and warnings! Both the books you’ve talked about sound awesome! You and your husband are doing great things to help couples. I’ve never read one of your books and would love the opportunity! Thanks for stopping in at P&P, I truly enjoyed it!

      • Thanks, Stephanie. I’ve not heard of, but it sounds like the “Alaska Men Magazine” I once contacted about a story idea. There are certain unique qualities needed to survive that kind of life. I hope you pick up the series and enjoy it.

  4. I’d be too busy worrying if someone I met online was really who they said they were. I myself would never go on an online dating service. I’ve heard more horror stories then happy ones.

    • Can you imagine how horrible you would feel if you DID work up the nerve to use one only to discover they’d mislead you? Our poor hero doesn’t respond well, but we figured he would be forgiven as the breach of trust was horrid.

  5. I’ve had cousins that met their spouses through on-line dating. They have been together for several years.

  6. On line dating may work of for some people it just wouldn’t be for me. I have heard so many crazy stories that I would be afraid of it.

  7. I know a few couples who met on and are very happy. So I am happy for them. Your book sound like a fun read. Thanks for telling us about your stories.

  8. I’m too pessimistic to have ever done online dating. Thankfully I met my hubby, of 20 years, at my church. I always wondered how many mail order brides actually ended successfully! Crazy times.

    • Can you imagine the extra layer of uncertainty when you didn’t even have Skype or some other video chat service to see if the person was honest enough to represent his appearance truthfully? And traveling long distances when it was so expensive and possibly irreversible? I may write historicals, but I’m deeply grateful to live in the hear and now.

  9. since I married HS sweetheart at age 19 almost 40 years ago – no idea on this stuff – working at staying married now!

  10. Many years ago there was a computer program which existed. You filled out a form and it matched you with someone similar. At that time no one was worried about anything. I was matched and thrived.

  11. My husband and I met eachother on eHarmony. We corresponded for about a month before deciding to meet in person. After that first date, we both knew we had found “the one”. Eleven years later, we’re happily married with two kids.

  12. Our son-in-law’s sister met her husband on line. Before they met in person they discovered they were living just two blocks apart. We also know a very happy couple who met through Christian Mingle. I have to admit we also know people for whom the internet match was not good. No matter whether by letter or e-mail some matches are good and others are not. But, meeting in person without a dating service doesn’t guarantee a good match either.

  13. Your book sounds great! I know quite a few couples who met online, one is a niece of mine! It’s just like the personal ads used to be, no matter what, you’re taking a chance! I’ve met some real creeps at church, and some really nice ones other places! You’re not guaranteed a good thing, no matter where you meet.

  14. I’ve never known anyone who had a good experience with online dating, but I’m sure there are plenty of success stories out there or it wouldn’t be such a thriving business. When I was single, people were constantly advising me to try it but I was never brave enough. Your book sounds like a fun read. I’m going to put it on my wishlist.

  15. I just love this cover. Her lovely face speaks volumes. I look forward to reading this book. My dad found his second wife on Christian She is a lovely lady. Our son found his wife on line dating service. They have been married four years now and we just adore this young lady. As with anything, common sense is required.

  16. I am sure it has worked for some, but I still don’t totally trust it. Our nephew met his wife on line and they did OK for quite a few years, almost 20, but things came up. They are divorced but still on friendly terms.
    Vetting is good, but no matter how many times you write – in letters or on line – you really don’t know the person as well as you will upon meeting them in person and spending time with them. Often by the time that happens, commitments have already been made or it is impossible to turn back. Some people are very good at hiding who they really are until it is too late, but that would be easier on line.
    I have met and worked with several people that have struck up relationships on line and been scammed for thousands of dollars. These people post pictures of beautiful young women and appeal to lonely, usually, men asking for help and stringing them along. Meetings are sometimes arranged, but often never happen after many dollars are spent to make it happen. Explaining that it likely isn’t the woman in the picture but probably some 400 pound guy in his mother’s basement or a call center type place running the page. It is hard to convince them it is all a lie.
    Another aspect is current mail order brides, especially from Asia, come to the US with unrealistic expectations. Household help is common over there. When these young women come here, marry , then discover they must cook and do housework, they are very upset and feel they are being used as slaves. It is also true of women who have married servicemen who were stationed in their countries. It will make for a very unpleasant marriage. I have been called on a few times to try and talk with these young women and explain the cultural differences.
    Sorry off topic, but it shows the pitfalls of not having first hand knowledge of the person and the situation.

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