Thursday, January 15, 2015

Doing Research: Mail Order Brides & Arranged Marriages

One of the stories in my new series of Marienstadt tales concerns a mid-19th century marriage between a successful 30-something businessman in America and a pregnant and disgraced 15 year old from “the Old Country”—Ireland. In the story, Paddy came from Ireland as a teenager to work on the railroad but, being a very industrious young man, he made the decision not to marry until he had made his fortune and had a proper home to offer a wife. However, by the time he has made a success of his life, he discovers there are no suitable wives available. Then he learns that the teenage daughter of a friend from the Old Country has gotten herself “in the family way” by a married man. He sends for the girl, concocts the story that she was married but that her husband died to tell his friends, and promptly marries her upon her arrival. It turns out to be a reasonably good marriage and the story has a sweet ending.

As I was working on it I became interested in the customs and expectations about such marriages in the mid-19th century. The term “mail order bride” is commonly used for marriages at that time but it is misleading. It implies that the young women were just picked out of a catalog and sent for but the reality was quite different. Thanks to two factors—the building of the trans-continental railroad and the Civil War—there was a huge imbalance of unmarried people in the United States. The west was filled with single men who had worked their way west building the railroad. The east was filled with young women whose chances of marriage were slim because of the massive loss of men in the Civil War. It is estimated that in the late 1860s there were 30,000 unmarried ladies in the east with no husband material available. Consequently, if a woman wanted to marry her only option was to travel west. Thousands of women did.

At that time the generally accepted sentiment was that marriage was a matter of practicality and that love would come later. Usually marriages were arranged by a local clergyman or marriage broker. Though the betrothed couple sometimes communicated by letters before meeting, illiteracy was common so, unless there was access to someone who could write for them, they knew very little about each other before they met.

There are accounts of prospective bridegrooms meeting their new bride at the train station accompanied by a priest or minister who performed the ceremony then and there. The reason most often given was so that the couple would not be tempted to “sin” before marriage, but it is acknowledged that a far more common reason was that the men did not want to risk the girls taking a look at them and turning around to get back on the train. Among the Irish this was especially true because, being mostly Catholic, the marriage was not considered valid until it was consummated. A new Irish bride could expect to be married while still in her traveling clothes, then led across the street to a hotel where the marriage was “made valid”—so to speak.

All of this seems very scary and somewhat unsavory to us now but in the 19th century such marriages were often the only way many people would marry and have a family. In the west single men were not thought capable of managing a farm or ranch without a wife and children to provide stability and help as the farm or ranch grew. In the east single women were considered a burden that their families had to support if they couldn't find older widowers willing to marry them.

As I was doing this research I was somewhat surprised to see how many times married people described their marriages as happy or, at the least, content. They did not have the expectations of love and romance we have today. Both parties knew their duty and fulfilled it.

So my story of Paddy and Lacey follows the customs of the times. It will be interesting to see how it is received by contemporary readers. The Memory Quilt of Lacey Mulhearn will be added to the next Marienstadt collection. And all this research has added considerably to all the strange information swimming around in my brain.

Thanks for reading.

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