Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mail Order Brides

By Anna Kathryn Lanier

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY! Don't forget to leave a comment and your email for a chance to win FREE BOOKS!  All month the Sweethearts of the West will be giving away free books. Today, leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of SALVATION BRIDE, my own mail order bride story.

With the promise of quick riches in the gold mines and free or cheap farm land, men flocked west for freedom and fortune.  They left behind women and civilization. At one point in the Washington Territory, men out-numbered women nine to one. reports that in 1850, white women were only 3% of the non-native population, with about 800 females to 30,000 males in California mining regions. It was so bad that even the newspapers were lamenting the woeful lack of females.  In 1851, the Alta California editor wrote, “We want a emigration of respectable females to California: of rosy-checked ‘down east’ Yankee girls—of stout ‘hoosier’ and ‘badger’ lasses, who shall be wives to our farmers and mechanics, and mothers to a generation of “Yankee Californians.”  

It is easy to understand why men wanted a mail-order bride, but why did the women want to take a husband they had never met? Of course, the answers are as varied as the women.  However, I think stability and security was the number one reason.  Women at that time were still not allowed to own property in most cases.  A young, unmarried woman would have a hard time making it alone in the east, as would a widow.  To many women the west beckoned with the same call of freedom and riches as it did to the men.
Chris Enss has a wonderful book, HEARTS WEST: True Stories of Mail Order Brides on the Frontier. I’ll be referencing her book for this lecture. Ms. Enss explains that even in the west, there was a “need for some method of honorable introduction between the sexes.”  From the 1870’s through the 1890’s, this came in the form of Matrimonial News, a periodical “to which many unattached men and women subscribed…. It was printed in San Francisco, California, and in Kansas City, Missouri.  It was issued once a week and the paper’s editors proclaimed that the intent of the material was the happiness of its readers.”  During the paper’s three decades of operation, it is estimated that over 2,600 couples corresponded, exchanged photos and married.

To avoid publishing the names and addresses of those posting ads, numbers were used instead.  Ms. Enss reprinted several ads taken from the January 8, 1887 Kansas City edition of the Matrimonial News.

241 – 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.

228 – If there is a gentlemen of honor and intelligence between the ages of 35 and 50 who wants a genuine housekeeper, let him write to this number. I am a widow, 34 years old, weight 110, 4 feet 5 inches in height: am a brunette and have very fine black hair.

292 – A girl who will, honest, true and not sour; a nice little cooing dove and will to work in flour.

245 – 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, weight not less than 180. Of good habits. A Christian gentleman preferred.

In the Matrimonial News, May 1873:

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.

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.

One successful marriage was that between William Silbaugh and Phoebe Harrington. Both were born in West Virginia, but William went west due to poor health, ending up in Idaho.  Once he decided he needed a wife, he sent a letter to his aunt, asking her to “shop for a woman for him, and to send the candidate on once she met his aunt’s approval.”  His aunt chose Phoebe, a seventeen-year-old domestic servant, who felt going west was the only way to improve her lot in life. Less than hour after meeting face to face, they married.

William had a homestead in Magic Valley, and set up household with his new bride in a tiny, two-room shack with no windows.  There she blessed him with seven children as he struggled to make the farm work.  However, the soil in the poorly named valley was not good for growing, as it turned out.  After working for 25 years to make something of his farm, William finally moved his family north to a ranch near Salmon.  There, the family was finally “living the life William had dreamed of providing them.”  After 47 years of marriage, William was killed in a car accident in 1958.  Phoebe lived to be 84 and died sixteen years after her husband’s death.

Another mail order bride also came with the approval of the groom’s relative.  Rachel Kahn was sent from Russia to marry Abraham Calof after she passed the test of patience his sister her put her through.  But Rachel’s expectations of a better life in America weren't fulfilled as she’d hoped.  Abraham met Rachel in New York, as she got off a ship at Ellis Island.  Together, they traveled by train to his home in North Dakota.  Though she knew life would be hard on the plains, she was not prepared for the site that met her in the form of Abraham’s family, dirty and dressed in rags, the men shoeless and faces weathered and forlorn.   Worse were the living arrangements—a 12 by 14 foot shack with one bed, table, two benches and a stove.  Not so bad, except the unmarried couple would share it with his parents, brother, sister-in-law and their two children.  Rachel wondered if she really had traded up in life.

As they awaited their marriage, the couple came to know each other better on long walks.  Abraham reassured her the living arrangements were only temporary and would improve.  The wedding took place in November 1894.  Her joyous day turned to bitterness when she realized they would not be spending their wedding night alone, but with several other people and the livestock.  She cried herself to sleep that night.

The family continued to struggle, even as they added to their family, several girls and boys.  Bit by bit, though, as the wheat fields prospered, so did the family.  Just when they thought their luck would turn for good, a very large and promising crop was destroyed by a hail and rain storm just before the harvest. Some of the local families did not recover from this disaster, but the Colafs did. 

By 1910, their homestead was several times larger than the 160 acres they’d started with. They’d also begun to break horses.  They were very involved in their Jewish faith and their community.  Abraham introduced new farming ideas to the local farmers and the family helped build the first school in the area.

The couple was married for more than fifty years and had nine children. They lived on their North Dakota farm for more than twenty years, after which they moved to St. Paul, Minnesota.  He opened a dry goods store and she raised money for charities.  In 1936, she began writing her life story. “Rachel called their marital and pioneer experience ‘a life worth living.’”

Mail order brides have interested me for some time, to the point I wrote about one in SALVATION BRIDE, published through The Wild Rose Press and available for the nook and kindle.

Happy Valentine's Day! 

Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. ~Doug Ivester 


  1. I love mail order bride novels!!

  2. Anna Kathyrn--I truly love mail order bride stories. I don't know how many I've read, but remember that O Pioneers by Willa Cather was a mail order bride story. That one is a classic.
    I vow that I will write a mail order bride story!

  3. Anna--Oh, p.s.--I just love #245's description of herself!

  4. So there was an equivalent to eHarmony back then. LOL those are great descriptions and what a wonderful post about Mail Order Brides. Great job, Anna!

  5. Anna Kathryn, I love mail order bride novels, in fact, my Marrying Minda is just one story LOL.

    What a scary decision that must have been.

    I'm drawing a blank right now about the title, but in the 70's, there was a cute Western TV show about Seattle and a bunch of mail-order brides. I thought it was all so romantic.

    A house without windows, yikes!

    Fun stuff today!

  6. Great post, Anna! I loved reading the ads, especially the one by the "fat" lady.

  7. Hi, everyone! (I know, I'm lazy, I don't answer everyone by themselves. Thanks for stopping by. I love mail order bride stories, too. Paty, I never thought of it as

    Tanya, I had to go google the show! I did remember that Bobby Sherman was one of the stars (so was David Soul). It was called HERE COME THE BRIDES.

    The ads were very 'matter of fact,' weren't they?

  8. OOOPS, I forgot to add I'll give away a copy of SALVATION BRIDE. I better go add that to the post!

  9. Anne, this is fasinating information. I can't imagine being a mail order bride. There have been many storie about them and of course as you mentioned a great TV series "Here Come the Brides".. I never missed an episode...
    Thanks for offering up a great giveaway..

  10. Now they use online dating services and emails more than ads. lol

    Morgan Mandel

  11. I also love the mail order bride story. It's amazing how well some turn out, but I can see where just have stability was a plus for a lot of couples. My favorite was the one where she had to have at least $20,000 - that was a grand fortune in those days.

  12. Great site and I LOVE mail order bride stories! Good luck, Sweethearts! :-)

  13. I couldn't help but notice the one gentleman who said he did't care what race the woman was except a woman Irish born. I thought how typical of that time period when the Irish immigrants flooded the shores of America and were considered dirty, lazy and no account.
    I have always loved reading stories about mail order brides. There are so many interesting variations in how the bride and groom came together and the ways in which they found love after all.
    A wonderful article for Valentine's month.

    starcriter at yahoo dot com

  14. Hi, Morgan, Kathleen, Paisley, Gina and Sarah. Thanks for stopping by. I think we find Mail Order Bride stories interesting because in most cases, except for a few letters exchanged, it was strangers meeting and marrying. I left out the story of the woman who married a stage did she know he was a stage robber? Because he robbed her stage when she was riding to meet him to marry. The marriage lasted less than an hour, with the woman stating it never took place. She went home in shame.

  15. Mail Order bride stories are great. I enjoyed your post,Anna!

  16. Anna Kathryn, I love mail order bride stories. I can't imagine traveling all the way from as far as Russia to wed a man I'd never met--nor living in such cramped quarters. Women of the time had little options, though, unless they wanted to live the life of a spinster. I don't know what I would have done.Great post.

  17. I love mail order bride stories! They are some of my favorite reads.

  18. Sorry forgot me email it quiltlady110 AT gmail DOT com

  19. Anna Kathryn,
    I love the one that says, "I'm fat, fair and 48..." LOL This is just a wonderful post, as always! I'm sorry I'm late getting here, but I truly enjoyed it.

    I love mail order bride stories, and may write one yet--there's so much potential for surprise.


  20. Congratulations to Gina for winning a copy of Salvation Bride. And thanks again to everyone who stopped by and commented (and those who stopped by and didn't comment!)


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