Women's Work in the Long 19th Century

Here Comes the Bride - Cultural Context

The men living in mining towns often longed for female companionship. Some preferred seeking a wife to buying a temporary connection with a prostitute. Thus, the need for women opened up another new business enterprise-- mail order brides.

The picture of the man stuffing women into a box is an illustration for an article in a French magazine, La Charivari (Honeyman Collection, Bancroft Library). The original article described the shortage of women in California. The illustration satirizes the mail order bride system, which resulted from this shortage. Some men desired the stability in their lives that marriage could bring. The Alta California periodical commented upon the positive influence of women in bringing order to chaotic new towns: "Woman to society is like a cement to the building stone. The society here has no such a cement; its elements float to and fro upon the excited, turbulent, hurried life of California immigrants, or rather, we should say, goldhunters" (quoted in Levy 174).

While men wanted women for stability, many of the women wanted men for gold. John McCracken wrote to his sister telling of one such incident. "I heard not long since of the arrival of an old Lady and her five daughters. They came in a wagon and seemed quite happy to think there were such chances to get well married" (Levy 175). A very interesting advertisement from a Maryville newspaper of 1849 describes one woman's self-qualifications for marriage and what she expects in return from the man: "an old man need not apply, nor any who have not a little more education than she has, and a great deal more gold, for there must be $20,000 settled on her before she will bind herself to perform all the above" (Levy 176).

The lenient laws allowed for quick marriages and quicker divorces. According to the 1850 census, there were twice as many men as there were women in California. This ratio supported the business of the mail order bride. The thought that a human female could be bought out of a magazine, just as one would buy a dress or a coat, baffles the mind today. But there was a need for women and wealth was plentiful, so the system satisfied the basic economic condition of supply and demand.

The supply source for many of the brides came from overseas; this supply line was already in place to provide women to service brothels. Therefore, it didn't take long for smart businessmen to create a new product line: the bride. And, as the cartoon illustration suggests, there were plenty of women in countries such as France willing to seek their fortunes by being "shipped" to California.

 

 
 

Look at the other image that accompanies this one at the Honeyman Collection
at the Bancroft Library here (1/2 down the page)
.