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This is backstory with us, the American History Guys. I'm Peter Onof, 18th Century Guy. I'm Ed Ayers, 19th Century Guy, and I'm Brian Balla, 20th Century History Guy. Matrimonial. A young gentleman of highly cultivated mind, refined manners, the first respectability, and in good circumstances, having sought in vain for a kindred spirit within the circle of his acquaintance, has concluded to try the virtue of advertising in order to reach the rest of woman kind. Full description of person, character, qualifications, accomplishments, etc., indispensable. All answers sacredly confidential. Address box number five, 313 post office. Now 150 years ago, ads like this could be found in the pages of New York's biggest newspapers every day. It was the heyday of the penny press. Papers like the New York Herald, the Tribune, the Sun, and the Times
had all discovered that they could support themselves through classified advertising. And their readers had discovered that classifies could be a pretty good way to cut through the loneliness of the big city. I mean, there were a lot of really strict rules of etiquette against men and women talking on the street if they were unequainted. That's Pam Epstein, a graduate student at Rutgers University, who is writing her dissertation on these 19th century personal ads. And so you reach a point where you have met every single woman of your acquaintance and you're not in love with any of them and you don't see a future with any of them. And so you have to do this. This is the step that you have to take. Now it's not that the ads ever became mainstream. Pam Epstein says they always retained a certain back alley, whisper, whisper, hush, hush, wink, wink kind of quality. But still, by the 1850s, they were a common sight in newspapers all over the urban north. Why it was the 1850s? I mean, then you can go into the whole issue of you have more and more of a market-oriented economy,
where people are using the market in their daily lives. And so, you know, you advertise for a house, you advertise for a servant, you advertise for a job, and why not advertise for a wife. The newspaper that I've been relying on the most actually started charging more money for matrimonial ads than any other ad because I think that they saw a real opportunity to take advantage of people who wanted to find a spouse. Urbanization, alienation, the steady creep of commercialization. All these things sound so big and, well, impersonal. And yet, these very forces were propelling the sudden blossoming of personal ads, shaping the most intimate parts of American's lives, meeting and getting to know the man who had become their husbands, the women who had become their wives. And so, for the rest of the hour today on backstory, we're going to look at some of the other ways courtship conventions have changed over time and ask what these changes have to do with things like the economy, the media, war and peace and technology.
As always, we'll trace the tale from colonial times to the present in the hopes that we can better understand why things are the way they are today. But first, we're going to return to Pam Epstein, the graduate student we were hearing from just a moment ago. Ed invited her to share a few of her favorite personal ads from the 19th century and she was happy to oblige. The gentleman who followed and was several times noticed by the lady dressed in cloth basket, who called in the store in Nassau Street about half past four o'clock on Tuesday afternoon and then proceeded by way of Ann Street to Broadway and got into a 23rd street stage would be delighted to make her acquaintance. Please address Paul Vincent, Broadway Post Office. This type of ad was actually really common. You would see these gentlemen sitting across from the lady in the stage coach would like to make her acquaintance. This particular one, I think, was a guy who was chasing after this woman and when she notices him several times, it's because she's noticing a guy following her.
I noticed she said advertise for a wife. Did this tend to be men more than women? Run these ads? It did tend to be more men than women, but yeah, there actually were a lot of women. The men tended to be a whole lot more eloquent and I think the reason for that is that women had less money. Women didn't have jobs. If they did have jobs, they were being paid as well and matrimonial advertisements aren't free. So women needed to be a lot more careful with their words and so they were very, very direct. A young widow, unencumbered, would accept friendship of refined, temperate, elderly gentleman of means, matrimonially inclined. Seemstress, 265 Harold, 23rd Street Branch. This ad I actually don't think was a woman looking for a husband. I think it was a woman looking for a patron. A patron? Was that me?
I guess it's a more polite way of saying a sugar daddy, really. I don't know what other term to use. And it seems unusual for her to have identified herself as a seamstress. Perhaps the reason she said that is to let the guy know she's got a job but one that doesn't earn her a whole lot of money and so she could use the friendship of a man to sort of get her through, you know, help pay the rent and pay the bills. Metrimonial. The world is so full of poetry, beauty and glory and I have no one to share it with me. No one to read with me, my Shakespeare and Milton, to enjoy with me nature, art, letters, society. I seek, therefore, my other and better half, my compliment and peer, equal though not like. Myself a new Englander by birth of liberal culture and pursuits of about 35 years of age, a gentleman and a Christian in my aspirations. Ladies, so-minded, will please address Mr. Christopher Lighten, box number one, four, four, times office.
You start to see these ads fade a little bit by the 1890s. I think there's a lot of different reasons for that but I think one of them is that people start noticing that this is a big deal that lots of people are looking for spouses in this way. Why don't we capitalize on that and turn it into a business and so you start to see matrimonial agencies, a lot of which turn out to be fraudulent and taking people's money. You know, if you'd like to meet a spouse, you send money basically to this address. And I think that this makes matrimonials less desirable than they even were before because now they're being associated with something that's kind of sleazy. They definitely never go away. I think that they lose the sort of romance that you see in ads like the one by Christopher Lighten. They seem to, as a rule, get shorter and I think that, you know, after about 1910, you also see society just being a lot more open to people meeting each other in a much more casual way
and so I think that ads like this become less necessary. And yet you have the paradox that we're living in sort of post every kind of revolution now and people should feel free to connect with people of whatever kinds of backgrounds or orientation or definition. And yet now we seem to have more mediated relationships through the internet. It would seem counterintuitive that in a time where anything goes, we still need these kinds of tools to connect with each other. Yeah, it never goes away. I mean, it's been really fascinating to me to see the way that the language has changed, but the sentiment does seem to be pretty much the same. So love is always hard. Love is always hard. Penn Epstein is a PhD candidate in history at Rutgers University. You can read more of her explorations in the world of 19th century personal ads on her fascinating blog, We'll link to it from her own site, Ed, it sounds to me like it would have been really pretty tough
for people to meet their matches back in the period that you were talking to Pam about. But I'm curious to know what it would have been like even earlier. Peter, could you give us a sense of how people actually met each other, met their future husbands and wives back in the 18th century? Well, Brian, I think the short answer is they were virtually born knowing them because they came out of small village communities, a lot of face-to-face transactions. And you wouldn't want to marry a stranger. You'd want to marry somebody of your own faith, somebody who you could rely on. Somebody you had learned was trustworthy over an entire lifetime. So it's familiarity that makes the kind of courtship that we're talking about in the 19th century unnecessary. Yeah, so a totally different world. Yeah, it really is. But that doesn't mean that important things weren't happening and changing in the world of courtship, precisely because that kind of image I gave you of static intimate village society
is radically transforming in the late colonial period. You wouldn't be willing to tell us about that transition period. I just might. Let me start by talking about premarital pregnancy rates. Premarital pregnancy? Well, the number of women who came to the altar already pregnant. Now, this is scandalizing you. This is not the story we'd like to tell about the good old family values in old New England. What were the numbers like? Well, if you go from the 1670s, now this is the baseline for you in the Puritan period, the heyday of Puritan theocracy, if you will. The rate is something like 2%, it's trivial. But those rates of skyrocketed to 30 or 40% by the 1770s. 40%. Yeah, yeah. This is not the 1960s you're talking about. No, it's not going to be the 1760s. 1760s. Believe it or not. Unbelievable. But we shouldn't reach the conclusion that this high rate of premarital pregnancy
meant the end of the family as we know it and lots of children born outside of marriage. Because most of these premarital impregnations led to legitimate children, that is, the brides were pregnant, but they had children within marriage. They got in under the wire. But a lot of these pregnancies are a result of parental sanctioned interaction between boys and girls. And by that, I mean the custom of bundling. Bundling is a traditional custom that comes from England in which young people who intend to marry eventually will spend the night together in the home of the young woman. And theory is not supposed to involve sexual intercourse because bundling means that you're semi-closed and that you're lying there together. In some cases, there's a little piece of wood between you or in one amusing case, they promise to put a Bible between them.
But you get carried away. You go too far, as we would say. That's not the end of the world. Ordinary folk expect this to happen. And they, in fact, think it's a good thing because the important thing is family formation. That's always the goal of courtship. So how are you going to guarantee that a family will form and that your daughter won't be seduced and abandoned? That's the great, great fear of the late 18th and early 19th century as seduction. And of course, the testimony of neighbors and witnesses is crucial if it ever came to court. It doesn't go to court very often. So Peter, this is really kind of the first bait and switch. The guy thinks it's about not having sex, he has sex. But that's not what it's really about. The parents don't mind the fact that families are being produced. But it's really about the switches keeping that guy there. Yeah, exactly right. Under wraps.
Well, remember, we want to hear what you had to say about all this. Leave us a comment at where especially interested in hearing your stories about how your grandparents and great grandparents met their husbands and wives. When we come back, we'll hear a little more about bundling and we'll return to the century of driving movies and long walks on the beach. We'll be back in a minute. Don't go away. This is backstory, the show that looks to the past
to explain the world around us today. I'm Peter Onof and I represent the 18th century. I'm Ed Ayers and I represent the 19th century. And I'm Brian Ballot representing the 20th century. Today on the show, the history of courtship in America. When we left off, our early America guy, Peter, was describing the colonial New England custom of bundling, which involved young sweethearts spending the night together in the girl's home. It wasn't supposed to be sexual, but the premarital pregnancy rate suggested it often was. And you were saying, Peter, that the basic idea was that, hey, these kids are going to do it anyway. So we might as well document the act just in case this guy takes off before the baby comes and we have to take him the court.
What I'm wondering is this? Why were parents suddenly so concerned about the guy splitting? Well, that's a great question, Brian. There are lots of answers to it. One is that the traditional ways of exercising parental control were losing their efficacy. They weren't as effective. Of course, historically, fathers would have plenty of land, especially in places like New England, but throughout the colonies, that they could distribute to their sons. But by the mid-18th century, there's less and less land, more and more mobility, and that's the key thing. You're going to have to move to a new part of the province, or even beyond the province to find land to make a form. And think of the American Revolution, this is a new perspective on it, maybe, as a vast acceleration of a mobile population, that is, the war takes guys all over the place. Yeah, it just beats it up. Right. And that increases risk for parents and daughters, particularly, that they will be abandoned and maybe...
And opens up a lot of new land, by the way. Well, that's absolutely right. It works for economic development, but it threatens the family. So I get it. Because these folks are going to move, and they can't be controlled through handing out land, they've got to begin to exercise some kind of self-restraint. They've got to figure out how on their own, not to make babies and split up. And so, what this bundling is, is really kind of a practice session for trying this self-restraint, but not getting carried away. It's all done within the home. Yeah, exactly right, Brian. Family is less effective as a mechanism of control. And therefore, the onus is on the young woman, because, of course, she's got everything riding on her success in the courtship game. Yeah. So, one of the things that becomes important is what we might call a relocation of virtue. A virtue is classically a male thing. A man are strong and brave and fearless.
And virtuous. And, well, virtuous. Can you imagine saying that about modern guys? Well, in this period, it's women who become virtuous. And what that really means is that women are exercising control over courtship, over their own sexual lives. And that control, the exercise, translates into a whole new idea of the moral force of female choice and the health of the society. It goes not just in terms of restraining their man and their husbands, but educating their children. This helps explain, too, why the birth rate declined so rapidly across the 19th century as women become sort of the controllers. Yeah, that's right. That's right, right? Absolutely. Well, I'm going to hit the fast forward button now. We've already talked a little bit about what happened when young men and women left the farm and headed for the city and how the new Victorian ideas about romance and sentimentality ran smack up against the cold, hard reality of the big city.
Where it was just plain hard to meet members of the opposite sex. I want to pick up the story now. In my period, by the first couple of decades of the 20th century, those big cities had only gotten bigger. But those old-fashioned rules of etiquette had begun to break down. And middle-class teenagers were beginning to spend time together in public in ways they'd never had before. It was the dawn of dating. And it's all chronicled in the book from front porch to backseat by historian Beth Bailey. In it, she describes how the earliest form of dating was essentially a popularity contest. It was all about how many dates you could get. I spoke with Beth recently and she explained that even the most respectable young women were encouraged to cultivate the image, if not the reality, of multiple gentlemen's suitors. If you went out dancing, if you went to a party to dance with your escort, the worst thing that could happen is that you danced with your escort.
You were supposed to, as a woman, be constantly circulating in the top. Right, what's the term you use getting stuck or something like that? Getting stuck is social failure. Getting stuck, if you're a man, you cannot abandon your partner. You cannot say thanks for the dance and walk away. You're stuck with her until somebody takes her off your hands. Now, you talked about a guy. I mean, he's literally stuck. So stuck that he holds a dollar bill behind his back. Is that right? Yeah, I'm circling the dance floor over and over with the same woman, and he can't find anyone who's going to cut in. He starts waving a dollar bill behind her back, hoping he's going to attract someone. And a dollar at this point is actually enough money to make somebody notice. Sure. And she sees what's going on and tells him, make it five, and I'll go home. That's a great start. Now, we should say this is the system in the 20s and the 30s to a certain extent. But one of the themes of your book is no matter where you dip in in history,
parents would have found this appalling because they had a completely different system for courting. So could we just go back a little bit and could you remind me what the system before dating was? The system before dating was calling. And calling meant anything from, you know, rural areas where a young man would come over and talk to the girl and sit on her front porch to a very over elaborated upper-class practice that involves calling cards and many elaborate rituals. But the young woman or her family could invite a young man over to call. He would be received, they would chat. She might play the piano for him. Her mother might serve some lemonade. It was a practice that took place largely within the home. So I'm struck when you describe that earlier system of calling. It seems to me that women might have held the upper hand in that at least in terms of controlling who they get to see.
Well, men always had the upper hand in the sense that they were the ones who issued the proposal for marriage and were expected to support a wife and family for the rest of their lives. But in the sense of courtship, women had a lot more right of initiative at least because women were deciding who was appropriate and issuing an invitation to their home. Once the invitation was to go out, it was assumed that any kind of public expense was going to be borne by the man. So what that meant is that the right of initiative shifted. So no longer did women invite men, men invited women. And what's happening with this shift is young people are also claiming the right to escape from parental supervision and to claim some kind of privacy by going out into the public where they're away from the supervision of family and community. And so it's flipping control from women to men in some way. But it's also shifting the meaning of privacy. Privacy takes place in the public, not in the private realm anymore.
And of course, this is why people who are moving to cities and droves at the end of the 19th or early 20th century, they find it liberating. Yes, they feel much freer. And dating actually is something that's borne from urban working-class culture. The practice of calling and going to sit into the parlor doesn't work so well when you have a tenement in which dozens of people are crammed into a small amount of space. And so what happens increasingly with the rise of commercial amusements, whether it's amusement parks or dance halls or restaurants, is that young women go and seek men to pay for their entertainment. And what people don't realize today is that the term date actually comes from prostitution and not the other way around. People at the time, as dating started to be the practice, understood very clearly that this was a financial or an economic exchange. Men's company plus money equals women's company plus what? And that doesn't mean sexual intercourse often.
It means instead flirting or making the man feel important or whatever. But there was always a sense that the equation was unbalanced. So it wasn't only parents who were saying, what's going on? My daughter looks like a prostitute with her short skirt and rolled stockings and bobbed hair and makeup. It was also some young men saying, I can't afford to keep company with nice girls. I have to purchase their company. And this isn't so good. Right, so parents in the 20s would have been objecting to the fact that all of this was going on outside of the house and beyond their supervision, even beyond their immediate communities supervision. Guys were objecting to having a cough up money for basically access that used to be free. And girls were complaining that there was increasingly kind of expectation for something in return for that money, is that a? Yeah, that's a very good summary. Well, let's move forward to the 50s, because there's another shift.
And I actually found this just mind-boggling. I finally kind of get this merry-go-round system down, the more people you dance with the bigger man you are, or the more popular girl. And then all of a sudden, going steady is the thing. Now, how did that happen? It's really complicated to think about how that happened, because it did seem to happen very quickly, more or less during World War II. And one way it happened is because the age of marriage dropped quickly and dramatically. Young people were getting married, younger and younger and younger. And so if half of all brides were under 19 by 1957, the pace of courtships sped up a lot. And younger people, I mean, as young as 11 or 12, almost mimicked young marriage by being with a single person. Right, so they couldn't literally get married at age 11, but they were... Not in most states, anyway. They were emulating it, right? They were emulating it.
But they didn't really expect that this was going to be the next step to marriage. People thought they were going to go steady with lots and lots of people over time. It was more like what we call serial monogamy. Now, don't tell me that parents objected to going steady. I mean, who could object to bringing home a nice guy? And he's pinned you. And it's got to beat this merry-go-round going out with 27 different people in order to establish your state. That please don't tell me they objected to that. You'd think, wouldn't you? I mean, it seems so safe and so wonderful. But this is also the period where young people were starting to say that it's okay to have sex with somebody if you love them. And going steady, in many ways, provided a safe, loving environment in which people did a whole lot more experimentation than this rapid turnover. I've got one date early in the evening and another date later in the evening kind of model. So, you know, a Catholic priest said that it was a serious occasion of sin unless people were about to get married
and various high schools outlawed going steady. So, they outlawed going steady. Yes, you could get a high school for going steady. They said, be promiscuous. Go out with lots of people. Whatever you do, don't go steady. This is, that's wild. Don't do it, don't do it. The other argument that parents made, and that was made in popular magazines and advice books, is that young people needed to learn how to compete. And that the dating world was one of the best places to hone your skills of competition and put your best foot forward. So, if you could always count on good old Freddy to show up for the date, and you didn't have to worry about making yourself beautiful and figuring out how to flirt and attract men, you would not develop your skills of competition. And even worse for men, because if they didn't have to go out and struggle for the popular girls, they weren't learning how eventually to become successes in all spheres of life. It sounds like the strangest argument in the world, but it sounds like Milton Friedman, actually. I mean, and running throughout your book is this kind of market model of dating.
I think that through the 20th century, there was a powerful economic model of dating that was based on notions of scarcity and abundance and negotiations of value. And one of the things that happened during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, in part with the rise of feminism and women's claims to economic independence, was a realization that sex and love and relationships were not necessarily a scarce resource that had to be struggled over, but instead was a potentially abundant resource that could be shared without consequence. Oh, you need his love. All you need is love. And love is abundant and to love the one you're with. And a lot of parents were very nervous about that. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Beth. Thank you. I really enjoyed it. Beth Bailey is a history professor at Temple University and the author of From Front Porged Backseat, Courchip and 20th Century America.
Her new book is America's Army, Making the All Volunteer Force. You can listen to more of my interview with her, including the story of her parents first date at Love the one you're with. If you're just tuning in, this is backstory and we're the American history guys. We're talking about the history of Courchip and we've arrived at the point in the show when we stop talking just long enough to feel the few questions from you, our listeners. Let's go to the phones. First up today, we have Mary, joining us all the way from Zoug Switzerland. Welcome to the show, Mary. Hi professor, honor professor. I use him professor. Hello. Terrific. Hello, Mary. We're talking about Courchip. So let's get right to the heart of the matter. What's on your mind? Yeah, well, I've been with my husband now for eight years and we got married two years ago.
And I kept asking him over the years, I want a ring. I want a ring. Right, right. And then he kept giving me rings from wherever, from a Vinox mark, what do you call them? Like a business market, so whatever. Even one from Tiffany's. But it wasn't one of the big rock things. I was so confused with me because I was really starting engagement with Ming at least in Western culture with normal. And he told me in Switzerland, they don't do that. And I had never realized it. And that's why I thought, oh gosh, maybe this is really an American thing that has been built up over, I don't know, wire, how long would lower angles wilder have been on? The patron saint of this show. OK, so here's the deal. We have, in fact, the son of a jeweler on the panel today of experts who knows all about engagement rings. And then we also have Ed Harris, who knows everything. So let's begin with the jeweler. Well, have I got a ring for you, Mary?
Now, I'm not going to draw on my jewelry expertise. Since they pay me the big bucks to be a historian here, not a jeweler, I will tell you that the whole meaning of engagement changed significantly at the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th century. It became much more formalized. They made announcements, they sent out formal announcements. It's interesting. And it actually put a lot of pressure on the women, especially, who now publicly were kind of connected to these guys. So it seemed to have all the downside of commitment with not the upside yet. What occurs to me, Brian, is you're talking about indicating to a public in which nobody knows you, but you show your ring. I mean, that establishes your status, whereas in the colonial period, what you had was the reading of the bans in church, a public announcement in which the intention to marry was indicated.
It would be read out on, I think, three successive Sundays or something, and a amount of time passes. And so a ring is a substitute for common knowledge that people would have in villages. That's the basics. So that's why there weren't jewelry stores back in colonial right there, there were other reasons too, Brian. I asked you a question quickly. Yeah, it's your call. Yeah, because from what I've understood is that the bill is to really start pushing a lot of campaign in the beginning of the 20th century. That's true. See, that's my guess. Or let's just say, that's what I know with certainty, now that you've said it, which is that this is a product of a global age of commodities in which people could expect to have a gem from the other side of the world as a common part of a widespread ceremony. And so the great accomplishment of the 20th century, I think, on this regard has been to make the diamond seam something we've always had, that's eternal, that's an investment that will always endure,
and that's always been around. But in fact, like so many things that seem ancient, in fact, it's quite new. So engagement even within the United States is kind of a changing animal, Mary. So I'm not surprised that the tradition is really different in different countries. Well, thank you so much, Mary. Thank you, Mary. We have enjoyed talking with you. Bye-bye. Bye-bye. What's your favorite thing you should have put a ring on it? It's time for another short break. When we get back, we'll take more of your calls about the history of courtship in America. Remember, if you'd like to be a caller on a future show, visit our website to see the topics we're working on. We're at More backstory coming up in a minute. We're back with backstory, the show that takes a topic
from the here and now and explores its historical context. I'm Peter Onuf, 18th century history guy. I'm Ed Ayers, the 19th century history guy. And I'm Brian Ballot, 20th century history guy. Today on the show, we're looking at the history of courtship conventions in America. We've been fielding your comments and questions at, and our producers have invited a few of you who weighed in there to join us on the phone. Hey guys, we got a call from Jenny, from San Francisco, California. Jenny, welcome to the show. Hi, thanks for having me. Well, it's great to have you here. And what's on your mind? Well, I have a question that's wrapped in a story. Whoa. Ready? Okay, shoot. My grandfather used to tell a story about riding the trolley in Philadelphia as a young man. This would be in the early 30s. And he claimed he saw my grandmother in a shop window and fell in love with her and elbowed the fellow next to him and told that guy, there's the woman I'm going to marry.
Well. And, you know, as a youngster, I thought, well, this is a beautiful story. But over the years, I was amazed at how often other people told me almost exactly the same story. Oh, great. Your grandmother must have been quite a looker. Yes, right. But I've even seen movies that sort of joke about this. It seems almost common. Well, you know, that's like the whole myth of the self-made man, Horatio Alger, the man who decides by sheer force of will that he's going to marry a particular woman. That epitomizes the whole idea of the modern American male ego. So you don't think women hung out in shop windows just so they could get noticed. Oh. That's not American. That's a woman. So my real question is sort of, was this some sort of common romantic notion
of the 20th century? You know, what's this about love at first sight? Is this? Right. That's the idea. So I will just begin the answer by saying that the idea of love having any connection with marriage at all is a modern invention. You could say it begins, it has its origins in the elite classes of the 18th century, the rich people who began to cultivate notions of sentiment and love and then marriages that were in the modern mode between people with mutual attraction. Of course, love at first sight is just a radical way of seeing. We didn't get married because anybody told us we should or because it made any sense. It's the very senselessness of it that makes it. So romantic and romantic is the key word. But you don't have that in traditional early modern societies because there's too much at stake. So in some ways, we both take marriage so seriously
that we talk about love and we then get all this heavy symbolism. On the other hand, we don't take it nearly as seriously as previous generations did. Yeah, I would just add to that, Jenny. I was fascinated by the kind of moving trolley car and shop window, which is both our very 20th century. And you've got your grandfather in motion in ways that he wouldn't have been at least in the early 19th century, maybe late 19th century. But particularly the future grandma in the shop window, well, you know, the 20th century is when women started both working in department stores and also shopping in department stores. And what really strikes me as particularly 20th century is that this is entirely about the public sphere. And there's nothing about home making here. There's nothing about cooking.
There's nothing about retiring to the house. This is all about kind of the merger of an intimate relationship eventually and the public sphere. You might be interested then in my great aunt, her sister, who's 99 years old now, tells me that this story is complete Bunko, they met at the public pool. But I also think it's a very interesting place for a couple to have met. Yeah. Because I guess I really hadn't thought of folks in the 30s at the public pool checking each other out. But this is what, of course they would. But you know what strikes me is that looking at, and I thought Brian was brilliant about talking about moving by and then looking at the window and capturing this image, a moving image, I think the movies really provide the framework for this. Because what he doesn't know is anything about her. I mean, wherever he first saw her, it was within an idealized framework and literally framed. Yeah, literally framed.
Then I think the window does that. Yeah. Wow, that's a good stuff, guys. That's good. Yeah. If only we knew the truth now. No, we didn't. We love this call. We want to marry it. Let me ask you, Jenny, are you married? I am. I am married. And so how did you meet your future husband? We were set up. A throwback to kind of more of a 19th century marriage, huh? Practically arranged. All right. Jenny, thanks for the call. Oh, no. Thank you. Thanks so much. Bye-bye. We have a call from Marissa in Lafayette, Louisiana. Marissa, welcome to the show. Thanks for hopping me. Well, pop a question. Well, my question is actually inspired by a book that I read as a little girl called Sarah Plain and Saul. But it's a book that's set in the late 1800s in the Midwest. I saw the movie, right? Yes, yes. There's a movie. Yeah, it was an excellent movie. I played the video game.
All right. All right, Marissa. Well, anyway, in the book and the movie, the main character is the woman Sarah. And she actually responds to a newspaper ad that this man living, I think in Kansas, had placed for a wife. And they exchanged letters and eventually she goes to live with him and they wind up getting married. So, you know, as I read the book, it always struck me as kind of crazy that somebody would actually go and marry someone that they had never even met before a new nothing about beyond what they wrote in the letters. But I found out that this actually really did occur these male-order brides. Yeah. So, my question is, you know, what motivated people to actually participate in these marriages? Right. It's a little bit shocking to our sensibilities that people would make these arrangements at such a long distance without love at not first sight, you might say, or not love. Well, Peter, doesn't this have a long history back even into your antiquated, irrelevant period? Oh, yeah, absolutely.
I mean, it seems to me, even though it was not male-order, it certainly was buying wives. Oh, they came by the boatload to Virginia in the 17th century. Well, because, of course, the first settlers in Virginia were a bunch of very greedy and selfish guys. We are in Virginia. We shouldn't say this. And the problem, of course, was an absence of women, and therefore the impossibility of passing property on the irony of this, the wonderful story of Virginia is that women were brought over in great numbers and developed an important role in passing on property in a kind of matriarchy developed. As a result, guys would die and women would become key players in the economy and would marry serially, as we imagine men doing in their fantasies. But you wanted to know specifically from a woman's perspective, why they would do this? The Ed Peter, any clues? Well, I think it has a lot to do, historically, with demographic imbalances. And that's in places like the Frontier, like Kansas.
There just weren't a lot of eligible women. Conversely, in New England, particularly, there was a surplus population of spinsters. So was that because there were no eligible men around? Yes, got it. They all gone out west, where they then... Right, where they needed brides. Exactly. Where, you know, Tugville says, Alexis Tugville, the French traveler, he goes to Michigan, which was in the middle of nowhere in the 1830s, and he finds people in a rustic cabin in the middle of the wilderness reading newspapers. And I think that's key to your question, because that is an incredibly important mode of communication. What's clear, obviously, is it takes two to have this relationship. So it requires a real shortage of women in one place and a perceived surplus of women in another. Right? So sometimes this happens because of war. The American Civil War, one reason that New England, after the Civil War, was so full of women as many of the men had been killed in the same thing as true in the American South as well.
But I think that it also requires a real imbalance of economic wear with all. You have to be pretty desperate, I think, to agree to marry a man you've never laid eyes on. And so I think that what you find is that a lot of these people were immigrants in the 19th century. And they would be in a place marked by great gender imbalance because the men had left and any prospect of having a family or having a livelihood involved going to where men were because of the way that laws were structured, the way that property was structured, the chances that people had. So all of this, of course, is a derivative of the fact that women were subordinate to men. And they needed men as a vehicle to provide for them and to be able to be sort of a vehicle of upward mobility. So it's not something I don't think anybody would have chosen. I think it was an adaptation to a disequilibrium, either in the nation or more often I think abroad. But Ed, I think it's a corrective to the usual view of sentimental romance that triumphs in the middle classes in the 19th century.
Marriage is still about family making. And family, it's a household system of production or at least consumption. You know what you're getting when you get your mail order bride? Somebody you really need, somebody's going to make the butter, somebody's going to make the baby. Somebody who's going to make the home work. As opposed to matching astrological sums. Yeah, we're not talking, and we're not really talking about stars aligning and that kind of stuff. We're talking about making a family. So we see it through the prism of romance and sexuality and the kind of choices we make in our sense of our personal dignity and integrity. And that's really neither here nor there, I think, for a lot of people when crunch time comes. And this is a business relationship. Yes, exactly. Boy, we really know how to take the fun out of Valentine's Day, don't we? Right, we'll just look at it. Thanks for coming. Thank you very much. Thanks a lot.
Bye. Thanks a lot. Bye. Bye. If you're just tuning in, this is backstory. And where are the American history guys? We're taking your calls about the history of courtship in America. We're also fielding your comments at our website, We've got time for one more call today and it's going to be from our hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. It's Blake. Blake, welcome to the show. Glad to be able to be on. So what's on your mind? Well, I was very interested in this particular topic. My family's been in Virginia for a few generations and I married a woman from Long Island City, Queens. And had a little bit of a tense time for a couple of years, getting my 100-year-old grandmother used to that fact. Oh, you married out of state? Well, I married her above the Mason-Dixon line. Whoa. In any case, I thought having been a kind of an amateur historian of the Civil War, how difficult it must have been during the Civil War, as well as after the Civil War for young lovers to overcome the differences, both religious and sectional, between North and South.
Right. Well, certainly was the case for many generations, even unto the present generation, that quite a few southerners would not tolerate the idea at all somebody in their family marrying a Yankee if they could help. And partly for Civil War reasons, but also just for general principle, you know, just sort of a cultural reason. But the irony is that novelist and short story writers instead focused on this as one of the central tropes of 19th century American literature, the marriage of the former Union soldier and the southern bell, as the sort of symbol of the reunification of the country. This began in the very first novel published after the Civil War to still endure to the present day, Mrs. Ravenel's conversion from succession to union, which has quite the, you have to admit the sexy title. Yeah.
But the point being is that like the country as a whole, Mrs. Ravenel, who had been a staunch successionist, falls in love with a union soldier and thereby finds her way back into the union. And that became one of the most common story lines of literature after the Civil War. So even at the same time that a lot of people would never cotton to the idea of marrying a Yankee, it became quite prominent in popular culture. And how much do you think that the gender differences almost mitigate the military differences? I think of course about the 20th century in war brides, Americans go over and you know marrying Germans or marrying Vietnamese in the case of the Vietnamese war. It's almost as if the men fought men and you can make it all okay through these reunions with women. What you know what's interesting is that after the Civil War it became very clear to people that white southern women were the least reconstructed of anybody. And it's partly because they could afford to be.
You know, they could get away with the same things that really would have put men in prison because there was still this idea during reconstruction that you know still, you know, these women don't really matter for one thing. And so their men folk actually kind of put them up to it to go ahead and resist. So they were kind of safe in that way? Yeah, they're safe at the same time. They were often very sincere and just despised these Yankee men who would come down. So I guess what I'm saying is that you inherited a rich tradition of gendered Yankee hating. But I think it would have been unusual for a northern young woman to marry a southern man. That's not the way the story has often been portrayed. Did you read a lot of literature before you decided to get married? No, it was oral literature on self-lication. But I think it's part of the romantic literature though that you got to meet cute, there's got to be an obstacle, there's got to be something to overcome or you don't have a story. If you just have people falling in love, what's the story to that?
So the fact that there are these cultural gaps and I think we can trivialize it, we can laugh about it. But the marriage choices that Americans make indicate their sense of what the greater American family is really like and deep down inside you, northerners and southerners, you're the same people. Now the real boundary now in the expansion of the mating game, so to speak, is across racial boundaries. And I think we've all experienced, if we're old enough, a lot of this in our lifetimes of how those boundaries have been perceptibly changing. And I think romantic stories about crossing boundaries are one of the ways in which we codify this in our popular culture. Well I'd go beyond, I'd say it's along sexual lines. Same sex marriage. Not even racial boundaries as that forbidden line to cross. So you were a pioneer in your time many years ago, Blake, and we applaud you for pushing the frontier and being part of this larger reunion that makes us all a big happy American family.
And I could tell that Long Island City accent has not rubbed off on you, Blake. No, I fight that, I fight that. All right, thanks Blake. Thanks for calling. Well, we're always willing to cross boundaries here at backstory, but the one boundary we can't cross is the end of the hour. But it's always the conversation continues online. Drop in at and leave us a comment, a question, a love note, whatever we'd love to hear from you. And while you're there, sign up for our podcast and join us on Facebook and tell us what topics you'd like to see us take on in the future. The address again is Don't be a stranger. Backstories produced by Tony Field with help from Catherine Moore. Jamal Milner, Master of the Show. Gaby Alter wrote our theme and special thanks today to Emma Jacobs and Eric Verkerky. Backstories executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
Major support for backstories provided by the University of Richmond, offering a combination of the liberal arts with law, business, leadership studies, and continuing education. For more information at Major support also comes from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation committed to the idea that the future may learn from the past. Support also comes from the David A. Harrison Fund for the President's Initiatives at the University of Virginia, UVA's Miller Center for Public Affairs, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Carrie Brown Epstein and the WL Lions Brown Junior Charitable Foundation, James Madison's Montpelier, Marcus and Carol Weinstein, Trish and David Crow, Randy and Lucy Church, J.M. Weinberg, and an anonymous donor. Peter Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation professor of history at the University of Virginia. Brian Ballot is a professor of history at the University of Virginia and UVA's Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. The next story was created by Andrew Wyndham for V.F.H. radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
Love Me Did: A History of Courtship
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In this episode, the History Guys explore three centuries of pre- marital intimacy. Did economic considerations used to play a greater role in coupling? In what ways have dating practices challenged class & racial boundaries? Has the idea of "romance" itself morphed over time?
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Chicago: “BackStory; Love Me Did: A History of Courtship,” 2010-00-00, BackStory, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 3, 2024,
MLA: “BackStory; Love Me Did: A History of Courtship.” 2010-00-00. BackStory, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 3, 2024. <>.
APA: BackStory; Love Me Did: A History of Courtship. Boston, MA: BackStory, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from