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A Short History of Mail Order Brides

Among the many criticisms that feminist use in their unrelenting attacks on the concept of international dating is that it is a recent phenomenon – something new and unsavory. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, mail order brides have a long, rich, honorable history.   

Men will look for women when it is difficult or impossible to find an acceptable mate at nearby. That is a simple fact. Today usually men are searching for a romantic match, but in the past other considerations were often paramount.

For instance, most of the marriages among European nobility before the nineteenth century were driven by the same factors that drive the modern mail order bride industry. A man could not find an acceptable wife within his local area or wanted a woman who brought something special to the marriage. Normally, the special element that the bride brought into the marriage was political.

These marriages were used to help cement alliances between noble families. Usually, the bride and groom had not met until shortly before the marriage and often because the tradition of men generally inheriting most titles, property, and wealth the bride often had the most to gain in these arrangements.

Mail Order Brides in Colonial America

The first record of mail order brides in what is now the United States was at the first successful English colony at Jamestown, Virginia. Jamestown was founded in 1607 and initially the colony was extraordinarily unhealthy and unprofitable. Initially, they were hoping to stumble on to mountains of gold and silver like the Spanish had done in Mexico and Peru, but that soon proved a fruitless endeavor.

Then a new charter gave each free male colonist his own piece of land to encourage individual initiative, but the settlement still hovered on the thin edge of failure until John Rolfe began to develop tobacco as a cash crop. The noxious weed and the sweet lure of nicotine turned out to be the gold the colony was looking for.

The colony boomed economically but it still had a serious social problem. There were almost no women. This meant that the men tended to drink too much, gamble too much, and generally live dissolute lives according to the reports at the time. It is certainly believable; bachelors will be bachelors whether in colonial, Virginia or twenty-first century California.

Of course, there were Native American women available in the early years of the colony, but that was sadly not a long term solution to the problem. Rolfe had married the Indian princess, Pocahontas, and a few other colonists also did the same, but the lack of resistance to common European diseases led to such a huge death rate among local Indians that soon large scale intermarriage with the Indians was not a possibility either.

So, beginning in 1620 the English began recruiting women to come to the colony as wives. One recent author explained,

Each woman was given petticoats, caps, an apron, two pairs of shoes and six pairs of sheets. They were provided free transport to the colony and upon arrival were given food and shelter until they married. The recruiters assured the women that they would not be forced to marry against their will and promised them wealthy husbands.

These mail order brides helped Jamestown flourish.

A letter in 1621 explained, We send you a shipment, one widow and eleven maids, for wives of the people of Virginia. But these were not just random women. They were chosen because they were believed they would make good wives.

The letter went on and explained, There has been especial care in the choice of them, for there hath not one of them been received but upon good recommendations. Upon arrival in Jamestown they were put up for auction and sold as true mail order brides in exchange for one hundred and twenty pounds of tobacco. In fact, these became known as Tobacco Brides.

It seems like a harsh system and it certainly is NOT the way modern international dating works, but the women apparently signed up of their own free will to improve their lot on life and most probably did. Tobacco was worth perhaps a hundred dollars a pound at the time so the men these mail order brides   married must have been among the richest men in the colony and certainly far better off than anyone they could hope to meet in England.    

Eventually, about 140 women came over and helped establish the colonies as ongoing communities and not simply boom towns. The men finally had women with whom to settle down and build families on the land that they owned.  

A similar process also occurred in the French colonies in Canada and Louisiana. In Quebec the French government sent nearly 800 filles du roi, the King’s Women, who were chosen both for their personality and beauty.

In Louisiana the French first experiments with sending female criminals, mostly prostitutes and pickpockets, but these Correction Girls did not make the social situation in New Orleans any better. In fact, they were blamed for increasing the most disreputable practices.  

Later Bienville convinced the government to send Casket Girls, who were selected more like the filles du roi, and proved to be a success. Today the joke in New Orleans is that every old distinguished family claims to be descended from one of the Casket Girls, but none brag about being descended from the much more numerous Correction Girls.

Casket Girls - Early mail order brides

 Such is life and memory in the City that Care Forgot.

For a really interesting in-depth look at mail order brides during the colonial period check out Lonely Colonist Seeks Wife. It is a fair and entertaining appraisal of the practice.

Mail Order Brides in the Early Republic

The practice of mail order brides continued to ebb and flow throughout the colonial period and into the early republic. Often the mail order bride process was informal.

A man would write his family in the old country to help him find a suitable wife and then when they had selected someone he would pay for his bride’s passage. The bride and groom might exchange letters, but given the low literacy rates and the nine months or so it took for a letter to travel back and forth between North America and Europe sometimes they never had any direct communication until the woman arrived on his doorstep.

This sort of informal mail order bride process still goes on today and is fairly common in immigrant communities around the world. It also drives the modern international dating business, because often men want to marry a nice Polish girl like their grandma even if the family has lost all real connections to Poland, the Czech Republic, or wherever.

Sometimes indentured servants became something like mail order brides. An indentured servant was essentially a slave for the term of their contract, usually five to seven years, but sometimes men selected an indentured servant with the purpose of marrying her.

In many ways using indentured servants as potential brides opened the door for far more abuse than more overt forms of arranged marriage, because the power imbalance between the man and the woman was almost total. It is hard to get details on this form of marriage, but it was a practice that happened fairly often.

Still the long lag time for letters and the expense and dangers of sailing from Europe kept the practice of mail order brides fairly limited until the 1840s.

Technology and the Picture Brides

For all of human history the speed of transportation and communication was limited to the speed of a good horse or a fast, well-handled sailing ship. The development of the steam engine in the 1840s quickly began to change that.

Soon, a letter sent on a fast mail packet could arrive in Europe in weeks instead of months. At first, most passenger service was still by sailing ship, but steamships soon took over that trade too. And once a lady arrived in the United States the growing railroad network made it much more safe and comfortable to travel even to the most remote regions of the country.

All of these developments led to the beginnings of something like the modern mail order bride industry in the 1840s and 1850s, but at that point many would be grooms placed personal advertisements in newspapers.

The development of the telegraph only played a marginal role in the mail order bride industry during this period, because of its cost and the incomplete reach of the wires. But it did lay the technological foundations that eventually led to the creation of the Internet and the modern international dating industry where men can instantly communicate with women almost anywhere on earth.  

The technology that really transformed international dating in the late nineteenth century was photography. By the 1870s it was possible to print and reproduce high quality photographs of women and that led to the creation of companies that published books of Picture Brides.

Like modern dating websites these picture bride books feature a lady’s photograph and a brief profile. They were a runaway hit and did not completely disappear from the mail order bride industry until rise of the Internet in the 1990s.

Mail Order Brides In the Old West

All of these technological changes were occurring at the same time as the last great phase of the settlement of the American frontier. During this period the West was almost exclusively a male country. Yes, some pioneer women came across the plains with their husbands and children in covered wagons.

Others made the dangerous voyage around Cape Horn to California in clipper ships, but the vast majority of the trappers, miners, and cowboys were single men. And without women they were no better behaved than their grandfathers in Jamestown, New Orleans, or Quebec.

This led to prostitution on a scale that is often ignored in even the most realistic portrayal of frontier life in books and on film. In many booming mining camps or rough cow towns the ONLY women were prostitutes. They have been sanitized in a million books, movies, and television shows, but most of these early women pioneers were prostitutes.

How do you really think that Miss Kitty in the old TV show Gunsmoke ever got the money to open her saloon?

And look at those dresses:

But the charms of a prostitute are limited and the mail order bride industry quickly developed to fill the void.

One of the earliest entrepreneurs was a lady by the name of Eliza Farnham who came to California in 1849 and was shocked and horrified by the uncivilized conditions under which most men in the California goldfields were living.

Wives wanted in the old West

She was also surprised by how often she found men admiring her beauty because she knew that she was an average looking woman and that she would not be nearly as enticing to men from more established parts of the Americas.

Eliza put together a project that she felt would help these men. She started to try and bring women to them. She developed an application process and worked hard to ensure that only the very best and most ladylike women would be chosen.

However, in the end, only 3 women came to the West. Men were disappointed and upset. Eliza had had a good idea but simply wasn't successful.

In 1864 a man named Asa Mercer took over where Farnham and left off and was highly successful in bringing brides to the Washington Territory. He shipped hundreds of women from the East coast to Seattle. Women actually paid for the chance to come to the West.

The reason for this is that, due to the war, there was an imbalance in the genders on both coasts. Men outnumbered women vastly in the West and the opposite was true in the East. Many men had moved west to the frontier and the war had killed many soldiers in the East. This left women in the East facing the scary notion of spinsterhood and possibly poverty.

Being an unmarried woman in that time was rare and a woman would have very little means with which to support herself. A widow of a soldier, for instance, might even have children to care for. Therefore, it was beneficial for both sexes for women to come to the West to meet and marry eligible bachelors.

The Creation of Modern Matchmaking Services

Around the same time that Mercer was bringing women across the country, the personal ad became a popular way to meet a spouse. The most well-respected and trusted matchmaking newspaper was The Matrimonial News. It charged the exorbitant rate of $1.50 a word, perhaps $30.00 a word today, for ads from lonely men seeking women, and sometimes women seeking men. It led to perhaps 3,000 marriages over the years.  

These types of newspapers were the beginnings of the modern matchmaking services. There were strict rules about the length of the ads, what should be written and more. All ads were numbered and letters or correspondences were sorted and distributed by employees of the paper. This kept names and other identifying information private and confidential! just as internet sites and dating services do now.

Just as happens now, there were also con-artists who took advantage of unsuspecting souls so people had to be cautious. However, it was a way for people to look outside of their town or neighborhood and broaden their horizons.

Here are some examples of some the ads men placed:

A Gentleman of 25 years old, 5 feet 3 inches, doing a good business in the city, desires the acquaintance of a young, intelligent and refined lady possessed of some means, of a loving disposition from 18 to 23, and one who could make home a paradise.
A few lady correspondents wanted by a bashful man of 36, of fair complexion. 5 feet 5 inches tall, weight, 130 pounds. Would prefer a brunette of fair form about five feet, between 18 and 25 years of age. Object, improvement, and if suited, matrimony.
A lively widower of 40, looking much younger, 5 feet 7 inches high, weighing 145 pounds would like to correspond with some maiden or widow lady of honor who would like a good home, kind husband and plenty.
Wanted to correspond with a young lady matrimonially inclined who would make a young man a good wife: am of good standing and good family, strictly temperate, a professional man and will make a kind husband.

They sound a lot like what men today write on match.com.

The women’s ads also have a timeless quality:

I am fat, fair, and 48, 5 feet high. Am a No. 1 lady, well fixed with no encumbrance: am in business in the city, but want a partner who lives in the West. Want an energetic man that has some means, not under 40 years of age and weight not less that 180. Of good habits. A Christian gentleman preferred.
I am a widow, aged 28, have one child, height 64 inches, blue eyes, weight 125 pounds, loving disposition. I am poor; would like to hear from honorable men from 30 to 40 years old: working men preferred.

The feminist critics can say whatever they want about so-called mail order brides, but the need and desire that the matchmaking industry fills in very real and always have been.  

Historical photo of early Japanese mail order bride

The Growth of International Dating in America

During the early years, before about 1880, most of the mail order brides going West were American women or at least women already living in the United States, but as the revolutions in communication and transportation continued to develop more and more of these women came from overseas.

One of the earliest waves came from Scandinavia, which was then a poor, cold, backwards area. It is still cold, but into the early twentieth century it was a backwater. First, there was a large wave of men who immigrated to the United States and then they began looking for women from home. Then the women began advertising to American men in such numbers that Swedish mail order brides became sort of a shorthand for all mail order brides.

And really, who can resist a hot Swedish blond?

Later, in 1907, Japanese workers in America began to look for brides using the "picture bride" system. Single Japanese women were not allowed to come to America. Therefore, Japanese laborers in America who wanted spouses of their own culture had to find a way to bring the women to them.

The system by which they found one another was very similar to the traditional arranged marriages in Japan and employed matchmakers who used pictures sent by the men to try and find a suitable spouse. They would then marry them officially in Japan and it would be legal for the wives to travel to America to be with their new husbands.

Later in the 20th century, mail order brides were often featured in catalogs and a man could choose a woman to meet and marry from almost anywhere in the world.

Though there are many people who look down upon this practice it is important to note that, as has always been the case, women were willing participants in this system. They submitted pictures and information about themselves and were certainly never required to marry anyone whom they did not want to.

For many women it served as an opportunity to meet a man that they felt would make a better husband than the men in their own country.

The Fall of The Iron Curtain - The Birth of the Russian Mail Order Bride

After the First World War and the passage of strict immigration restrictions the mail order bride business in the United States virtually died out until the 1970s. Then it slowly started again matching American men to Asian women, initially Filipinas. It remained a small, business though until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

At this time Russian women began to look for men to marry. Why didn't they marry Russian men, you ask? Well, in short, there are many more women than men and supply and demand simply made it difficult for women to find men to marry in Russia. With the surge of Russian women interested in becoming mail order brides the whole industry got a boost!

These were well educated, beautiful, young, fit Western women, and it turned out that a previously unknown demand for them existed in the United States, Canada, Australia, the European Union, and other Western nations.

Almost overnight the industry exploded, but by then the concept of mail order brides was already dead. Even in the 1990s it was really just international dating and that is a better term for the practice, because any man who has ever signed up for a mail order bride dating site knows that the women still have the power to say, Yes or No.

No one today is ordering a mail order bride at any reputable international dating site. Yes, Western men are more in demand in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia but they are not simply buying women. They are courting and romancing beautiful, talented, intelligent women.

Mail Order Brides in the Internet Age

In modern times, this type of matchmaking is done on the web. International dating sites offer the opportunity for men and women to meet and get to know one another no matter what country they are from. Live video chat, instant messaging, e-mail, text messaging and more all allow two people to get to know each other and correspond in a very personal way.

This is a great opportunity for many people because, though it is often stigmatized, international dating is simply a means by which one can broaden their pool of prospective spouses and find someone that they really feel that they can love. In many countries the male and female dating pools may be uneven and it can be difficult for people to find someone of the opposite sex who is suitable and compatible with them.

It is important to be aware of the history of the mail order bride industry in order to dispel the notion that it was founded on the idea of preying upon weak-minded women or that the men who have met their wives in this manner are sleazy or perverted. The first mail-order brides arose from a very real need to bring men and women together.

Over the years it has evolved and become very different from what it originally was. However, the same basic goal of bringing couples together in order to build lives and families is always at the forefront. Women are benefitting every day from the practice and many happy and beautiful couples had their start this way.