Marcia A. Zug’s 2016 publication, Buying a Bride (New York University Press) is a timely narrative of the history of mail-order brides, from colonial days in the Americas (French and English) through the growth and westward migration of the United States, and into contemporary times. The nonfiction work is an easy read, informative, amusing, enlightening, and draws heavily from original sources. Ever wondered about the TRUTH behind mail-order brides–whether in today’s news, as a setting for favorite Old West Romances, or even pre-Revolutionary War? This five-star nonfiction book is for you!
Judge John H. Arbuckle promised divorces to unsuspecting men duped by mail-order brides from the East who padded their limbs, hips, bosoms or employed false hair or used cosmetic paints. Such elements of beauty were common in the Victorian American Era, at least among the wealthy. It must have been common enough among disillusioned bridegrooms for the Judge to rule (April 3, 1873) that “marriages into which a man is seduced by the use of (his list of offenses like makeup and padded breasts) without the man’s knowledge, shall stand null and void if he so desires”. Victorian ladies were guilty of nothing today’s generation hasn’t done. But just what padding devices and cosmetics were readily available in the early 1870’s?
Victorian-era Americans (both men and women) had ready access to commercially prepared human hair pieces. Women wore them to achieve the style of the day without cutting their hair or to achieve the fullness and length considered stylish and desirable when their own hair couldn’t grow to such amazing lengths. Mail-order catalogs of the period provided a wide variety of products, appealing to men and women alike, including products purported to restore gray hair to the color of youth.
Often, FACT is stranger than FICTION.
Interestingly enough, readers of Mail-Order Bride-themed Historical Romance aren’t likely to find much in the way of FACTS in the fiction we so love to read. But that doesn’t mean the true history behind the popular niche isn’t fascinating to those of us who read and write it. Risks were very well known. Newspaper reporters often were behind advertisements. Boredom lead truly unmarriageable people to engage in entertainment through the mail system and matrimony agencies. Practical jokes accounted for many…considered a gentleman’s sport in the era.
The term “Mail-Order Bride” is a 20th century development, though current popular fiction suggests it was common as early as the Civil War.
Matrimonial advertisements were published in newspapers far more often than a “catalog” of sorts. In fact more than one Matrimonial-type newspaper started up in the late 19th Century. The Matrimonial News did quite well in London, Germany, and the United States.