State Historic Site

Trail End

Rosa-Maye Kendrick Harmon's wedding table (Kendrick Collection, TESHS)

The American Wedding

Courtship & Marriage Rituals, 1889-1929

A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site

August 1996 - December 1996

(Private Collection)

Marital Expectations

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, most brides went into marriage hoping that love would "come later."



FINDING THE IDEAL PARTNER


For the bride who was not of the privileged classes, marriage often meant something other than white lace and promises. Just finding a husband in the first place could be difficult, particularly after the Civil War when thousands of young men died in battle and thousands more moved West to make new lives for themselves. 

To make ends meet, many American women (and men for that matter) went into domestic service or nursing at an early age and were unable to take part in the courtship rituals allowed middle and upper class Americans. Ingenuity and perseverance were needed to find a worthy mate if the most enticing qualifications – money and social standing – were not in abundance.

Many single women lived in Eastern cities while thousands of single men lived in the West. The problem was getting the two groups together. The Matrimonial News, a San Francisco matchmaking newspaper of the late 1800s, desired to "promote honorable matrimonial engagements and true conjugal felicities" for "amiable" men and women through the publication of personal advertisements: 

  • A bachelor of 40, good appearance and substantial means, wants a wife. She must be under 30, amiable and musical.


  • A lady, 23, tall, fair and good looking, without means, would like to hear from a gentleman of position wanting a wife. She is well educated, accomplished, amiable, and affectionate.


  • Aged 27, height 5 feet 9 inches, dark hair and eyes, considered handsome by all, his friends unite in saying he is amiable and will make a model husband. The lady must be one in the most extended acceptation of the word since the advertiser moves in the most polished and refined society. It is also desirable that she should have considerable money.


  • 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.


  • Young lady of good family and education, considered handsome, would like to correspond with some gentleman of means, one who would be willing to take her without a dollar, as she has nothing to offer but herself.


Although much more direct concerning finances, these ads are remarkably similar to those found in today's singles columns. Such advertising wasn't cheap, however: rates were $1.50 per word and, if a wedding occurred, both parties agreed to pay the magazine an additional fee within one month.

That such ads paid off is not in question. In her acclaimed book Letters of a Woman Homesteader, Elinore 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 …

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 known each other only 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."



FOREIGN AFFAIRS

In farming, ranching and mining communities, where many men were recent immigrants from Europe and Asia, contracting for brides from "the old country" was not unusual. While part of this had to do with language and custom, some immigrants felt that young American women were too modern and outspoken. The American system of courtship was also thought to be a bit too undignified. As noted in 1914 by Hu Shi, future ambassador to the United States from Nationalist China,  

Our women do not need to offer themselves in social intercourse for the sake of marriage; nor need they labor to find a spouse for themselves. This gives weight to the dignity of women. But in the West it is not like this. As soon as an [American] woman grows up she devotes herself to looking for a spouse. … Those who are plain and dull or who do not want to lower themselves to charm men end up as old spinsters. Thus, lowering women's dignity and making them offer themselves as bait for men is the flaw in Western freedom of marriage.   

Rather than take a chance on American women, many an Irish wheat farmer, Czech coal miner and Chinese merchant wrote home requesting "maidens of good moral character" willing to travel across the ocean for the purpose of marriage. Basque sheep ranchers in Johnson County, for example, had brides sent over from their home villages in the Pyrenees, while Japanese miners had their brides sent sight unseen across the Pacific.