The Search for a Mate
As important as it is to us today, many couples in years past married for reasons other than love. Social status, political connections, money, companionship or security were considered much more important. Instead of being madly in love, many brides went into marriage hoping that love would come later.
According to Hearts West: True Stories of Mail Order Brides on the Frontier by Chris Enss, in the early days of westward travel, there was a recognized need for some method of introduction between men and women. This need was filled by the formation of matrimonial newspapers, such as the Matrimonial News, The Wedding Bell, and The Correspondent, which were devoted to the advancement of marriage. Even some mainstream newspapers jumped on board as popularity abounded. Both sexes could pay for personal ads in which they described their personal appearance, financial and social positions, and a general description of the kind of person with whom they desired correspondence, all in the hopes of searching for an appropriate mate. Such advertising wasn't cheap, however. Rates were $1.50 per word and, if a wedding occurred, both parties had to agree to pay an additional fee within one month.
Following are some true ads that appeared in newspapers in the late 1800s:
*A young Canadian lady, aged 26, a brunette, large eyes, height 5 feet 6 inches, accomplished musician, thorough housekeeper, well connected. Gentleman answering this must be tall, good-looking and refined and in every sense of the word a gentleman. I have no use for one who uses strong drink or chews that vile weed tobacco.
*An intelligent young fellow of 22 years, 6 feet height, weight 170 pounds. Would like to correspond with a lady from 18 to 22. Will exchange photos: object, fun and amusement, and perhaps when acquainted, if suitable, matrimony.
*I am fat, fair, and 48, 5 feet high. Am a No. 1 lady, well fixed with no encumbrance: am in business in 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 than 180. Of good habits. A Christian gentleman preferred.
*I am 33 years of age, and as regards looks can average with most men. I am looking for a lady to make her my wife, as I am heartily tired of bachelor life. I desire a lady not over 28 or 30 years of age, not ugly, well educated and musical. Nationality makes no difference, only I prefer not to have a lady of Irish birth. She must have at least $20,000.
Not all correspondence of this type ended happily. After corresponding for a short time, one potential bridegroom, Reuben Lane, walked on crutches from Barnsborough, Pennsylvania to Topeka, Kansas to marry Eliza Ann Parker, a widow 27 years his senior. However, once Mr. Lane arrived, the widow wouldn't have him, despite the 36-day journey he’d undertaken.
At the turn of the 20th century, many mainstream papers stopped running personal ads due to scandal and the threat of lawsuits. One such scandal involved Tillie Marshall who placed an ad stating she was a young widow with $20,000 and matrimonially inclined. Several men conducted a correspondence with her and sent her enough money to travel from San Francisco to Chicago, Washington, and New York. None of her admirers actually met the globe-trotting con-artist before she headed for Europe, with their money, at the expense of yet another suitor, some trusting foreign gentleman.
Some ads did pay off, however. In her book, Letters From a Woman Homesteader, Elinor Pruitt Stewart, a widow who came West seeking a better life for herself and her young daughter, described a couple she encountered on the road one day in 1914: “In a wobbly old buckboard sat a young couple completely engrossed by each other. That he was a Westerner we knew by his cowboy hat and boots; that she was an Easterner, by her not knowing how to dress for the ride across the desert. … It came out that our young couple were bride and groom. They had never seen each other until the night before, having met through a matrimonial paper. They had met in Green River and were married that morning.”
Elinor Pruitt Stewart was herself involved in a matrimonial venture. She moved to Burnt Fork, Wyoming, in 1909 to take a job as housekeeper to a Scottish farmer whom she later married. They had only known each other a short time, but as she later noted, "The trend of events and ranch work seemed to require that we be married first and do our "sparking" afterward. … Although I married in haste, I have no cause to repent."
The same types of marital gambles were also taking place in Canada in the 1800s. Men in an isolated part of Canada were desperate for wives in 1892. The following ad was placed in a widely circulated newspaper: As one of our leading citizens has lately succeeded in getting a helpmeet in Victoria, some of the other 55 unmarried men are anxious for "free trade" or "unrestricted reciprocity" with any city or province which has such treasures to spare. Our worthy stage driver offers a free passage to all unmarried ladies who may come this way.
Have you, or someone you know, ever placed an ad looking for love and/or a mate?
Stacey Coverstone writes western romance, both historical and contemporary. Her book, Third Time’s A Charm, won Honorable Mention for Best Western 2010 and is nominated for a CAPA award in the historical category for the same novel. Please visit Stacey’s website for information on all her books: http://www.staceycoverstone.com