Mail-order catalogs didn’t show up in America as early as you might think… and couldn’t have impacted the mail-order bride phenomenon as early as today’s popular fiction market makes it seem.
1872: Montgomery Ward’s first mail-order catalogue debuted in 1872–a single sheet (8×12-inches) that listed more than 150 items.
1881: first known printing and distribution of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog, selling tools and hardware.
1888: Richard Warren Sears started a business selling watches (only) through a mail order catalog.
1894: The Sears Catalog expands to include a large variety of items.
[1963: (Yes…1963) J.C. Penney had been in the retail business since 1905 when he opened his first retail store in Kemmerer, WY, expanded his stores, and finally mailed his first mail-order catalogue in 1963.]
That’s it. The sum total of United States-based mail-order companies in the 19th Century.
If we consider North America in whole, we need to add one more:
1884: The first Eaton’s catalogue was a 34-page booklet (Toronto, Ontario, Canada).
A Wikipedia timeline of mail-order catalogs shows the vast majority began in the 20th century (1905 to 1992) and most were outside the United States.
So–why the correlation (at least in today’s fiction) of “mail-order” and lonely men in the west seeking brides from the eastern and southern states?
Q: More specifically, why aren’t Mail-Order Brides accurately refereed to as Newspaper Brides” or “Letter Brides”?
A: An oddity of the development of the English Language. Just like the “Old West” became much more popular after the frontier had been swallowed up by settlement, the phenomena of “Mail-Order Brides” became more curious.
By then “Mail-Order” was a household term. Catalog purchases of nearly everything was a standard procedure for farmers and ranchers living in isolated areas. According to most historians, the term “Mail-Order Bride (or Mail Order Bride–no dash)” appeared in the language far later than contemporary fiction makes us believe. Who knows what, if anything, men called their pen-pals to whom they’d offered marriage…or hoped to offer marriage upon her arrival when she stepped off the train, stagecoach, or Conestoga wagon.
A terrific related article begins with this powerful opener:
“The term “mail-order bride,” as it applies to a marriage arranged via correspondence between American men and women in the Great Plains in the nineteenth century, is largely a misnomer. Twentieth-century folklore has it that a homesteader could peruse the Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalogs and order a wife to be delivered to his dusty doorstep just as easily as he could order a rifle, stove, or stomach cure, but the truth is far more interesting. Arranged long-distance marriage existed in the Plains in a range of communities, took a number of forms, and grew out of a variety of social, economic, and cultural phenomena, but never involved the literal sale, purchase, or ownership of women, as the term “mail-order bride” suggests.”
Note: Julie’s article references three helpful books; see Amazon box links (with cover images), below.
Coming next! NEWSPAPER Brides vs. Mail-Order Brides, including newspaper clippings, details of the companies serving as Marriage Brokers, public opinion on the matter and so much more.
Until then, what are your thoughts on the subject?
NEWSPAPER Brides vs. Mail-Order Brides Mail-Order Catalogs in the Old West Screen Doors, a new invention! Victorian Era Dentistry Advertisements Pencils: Common in the Old West? Paper: Common in the Old West? Victorian Era Feminine Hygiene Mail Order Brides in the 19th Century American West Book Review: Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier, by Chris Enss
Titles by Kristin Holt with the Mail-Order Bride Theme:
Copyright © 2016 Kristin Holt, LC