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.
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.
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!
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?
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