The Wild West of Yester-Year

Mail-Order Matchmaking
By Rachel Kovaciny

We might think internet dating is a new concept. Meeting a prospective spouse via a profile they posted in a matchmaking forum—only in the age of computers, right? Wrong! The concept of stating, in print and for the world to see, that you are searching for someone special... is not new at all. Long before, the internet, or computers, people found their future spouses using the printed word, advertising, and paid matchmakers. In fact, thousands of people met this way in the 1800s in America. 

We refer to this phenomenon as “mail-order matchmaking,” and the women who answered these advertisements are called “mail-order brides.” It sounds like a man could flip through a catalog and pick out the age, weight, and size of bride he wanted, then send off an order form along with some money. But finding a spouse long-distance this way worked a little differently than ordering a bathtub or a crosscut saw from Montgomery Ward or Sears and Roebuck.
People in the 1800s used newspapers and mailed letters in their search for a spouse. There were special periodicals devoted entirely to matching people up, such as the Matrimonial News and the New Plan. You could place an ad seeking a spouse in many regular newspapers. There were also matchmaking services that charged you a fee to provide you with the address of someone who answered the requirements and specifications you listed. 


But... why? Why would Americans in the 1800s turn to newspapers and matchmaking companies to find a spouse? Wasn’t that the age of small towns, close-knit communities, and old-fashioned courting?

The answer lies in two events: the Gold Rush and the Civil War.

When they discovered gold in California in 1848, thousands of men rushed there, eager to strike it rich. A few brought wives along, or left their wives at home intending to send for them when they made their fortunes, but most of the gold-seekers were single. Few of them returned home to the East, even if they didn’t find gold. They followed the news of another strike to a different place, got jobs, or claimed land, and started farms and ranches. After a while, they got lonely. So they started sending word back to the East, looking for women willing to travel to the other side of the continent and marry a stranger. They had to travel thousands of miles, either by boat all the way down around South America and back up to California, or by wagon across the vast wilderness, just to meet some guy for the first time and spend the rest of her life with him. Sight unseen. No cute selfies exchanged, nothing to go on except the words written in letters you’ve exchanged—letters that took months to reach you.


A few years later, the American Civil War broke out. By the time it ended in 1865, hundreds of thousands of men had died. Suddenly, the East had too many unmarried or widowed ladies, and the West had too many eligible bachelors. The mail-order matchmaking business took off. By then, telegraph lines stretched across the continent, and soon train tracks did too. You could send letters quickly, thanks to the trains. And, women could travel in (relative) comfort to reach their prospective husbands in a few days, not weeks or months.

Instead of bemoaning the lack of women in the West and the lack of men in the East, Americans found a solution to their problems. Unconventional? Yes! But it worked! Most of the women who traveled westward to meet a prospective husband ended up marrying them. Once in a while, when the hopeful couple met, one or the other decided not to go through with it after all. But that was rarer than you might imagine. Often, both parties would sign a prenuptial agreement, with the man promising to support his wife and not abuse her, and the woman promising not to nag or desert her husband. Then they said their marriage vows before the nearest preacher, sometimes an hour or less after they first met.

Were all those marriages successful? Actually, most of them were. Some failed. But most of these couples went into their marriages with their eyes wide open, knowing they would have to get acquainted at the same time as they started their new lives together, not beforehand. That awareness helped them. After all, these were not forced or arranged marriages someone else had set up and pushed them into. Both of them wanted someone to spend their lives with, and they made that happen.

So, the next time someone rolls their eyes about couples meeting online, or bemoans their inability to find a sweetheart “the old-fashioned way,” you can tell them mail-order matchmaking is more old-fashioned than they think!