The origin of the Mail order Bride

The mail order bride is today thought of as a modern phenomenon, and I've jokingly suggested to my wife that we should include Russian mail order brides in amongst the string quartets of our website and perhaps Filipino mail order brides amongst the barn dance bands. But the mail order bride phenomenon is not an Internet phenomenon, it isn't just extension of Internet dating sites, it's been going on for hundreds of years. 

On   28   May   1797   the   English   newspaper   Bell's   Weekly Messenger carried the following advertisement:

'May no miscarriage prevent my marriage'

Matthew Dawson, in Bothwell, Cumberland, intends to be married at Holm Church, on the Thursday before Whitsuntide next, whenever that may happen, and to return to Bothwell to dine.

Mr. Reid gives a turkey to be roasted; Ed. Clementson gives a fat lamb to be roasted; Wm. Elliot gives a hen to be roasted; Jos. Gibson gives a fat calf to be roasted. 

And, in order that all this roast meat may be well basted, do you see Mary Pearson, Betty Hodgson, Mary Bushley, Molly Fisher, Sarah  Briscoe,  and Betty  Porthouse,  give,  each  of them,  a pound of butter.

The advertiser will provide every thing else for so festive an occasion  And he hereby gives notice, 

TO ALL YOUNG WOMEN desirous of changing their condition, that he is at present disengaged; and advises them to consider, that altho' there be luck in leisure, yet, in this case delays are dangerous; for, with him, he is determined it shall be first come first served. So come along lasses who wish to be married MATT. DAWSON is vex'd that so long he has tarried. 

This saucy invitation was matched by notices in American newspapers. The Boston Evening Post, 23 February 1759, f°r example, contained this appeal: 

To the Ladies. Any young Lady between the Age of Eighteen and twenty three of a Midling Stature; brown Hair, regular Features and a Lively Brisk Eye; Of Good Morals & not Tinctured with anything that may Sully so Distinguishable a Form possessed of 3 or 400^ entirely her own Disposal and where there will be no necessity of going Through the tiresome Talk of addressing Parents or Guardians for their consent: Such a one by leaving a Line directed for A.W. at the British Coffee House in King Street appointing where an Interview may be had will meet with a Person who flatters himself he shall not be thought Disagreeable by any Lady answering the above description. N.B. Profound Secrecy will be observ'd. No Trifling Answers will be regarded. 

The demanding advertiser was said to be no more than an impecunious subaltern in the British Army.


Tokens of love don't have to be romantic slushy things, there anything that is meaningful to the couple. When I was at university studying engineering, but also learning violin in the University's music department and playing a local chamber Orchestra, a string quartet and a barn dance band (to earn a little extra money), and additionally running a disco with a very technically advanced fruits day, but electrically lethal psychedelic like machine, the tokens of love from my wife were things like some spare violin strings, and a highly prized voltmeter. I don't expect you would think those things are romantic, but I certainly did. 

But most courtships moved more sedately along the slow and sure path of meeting, wooing, gifts, betrothal. Love gifts were many. The Irish 'harvest knot', Scottish 'brooch' and 'countryman's favour', of plaited cornstalks, was a favourite mark of admiration, made by village boys at harvest-time. Grains were left upon tokens to be worn by girls; each was analogous to a baby to come. The Northamptonshire (see wedding string quartets, Northamptonshire) wooing token at sheepshearing was a fragrant 'clipping posy' of cabbage roses, pansies, larkspur, honeysuckle, wallflowers, snapdragons, gorse ('when gorse is out of bloom, kissing's out of season') lavender and lad's love, bound with sweetbriar and ribbon grass. Lad's love or southernwood, Artemisia abrotanum, aromatic plant of cottage gardens, was a powerful courting aid. (Artemis, or Diana, had special watch over women.) A shy suitor presented a sprig to the girl of his choice; if she threw it down, his hopes were dashed, but acceptance meant the start of their first courting stroll. Honeysuckle was never brought indoors by parents lest its rich, drowsy scent give their daughters erotic dreams (in Germany the lime flower was similarly banned) but this quality made the plant valuable to lovers. Sussex (see wedding string quartets, Sussex) boys bound a honeysuckle bine round a hazel stick and when after several months the wood was twisted like barleysugar, its possession gave instant success in courtship. 

Until perhaps 30 years ago gifts of clothing between engaged couples (at least until near the wedding) were generally frowned upon and called 'forward', a view perhaps deriving from the ancient significance of garments as gifts. In some European countries (and among the Bedouins) a girl may still reject any suitor she pleases, until she has accepted a gift of clothing from him; then there is no turning back. She is bound to give him every favour. In Scotland the handsewn 'wadding sark' or shirt was the bride's gift to the bridegroom, with significance going far beyond the bride's demonstrated skill at needlework. One peasant remarked that he never really intended to take Maggie (his wife) but 'the cutty saw this, flew to his neck and measured him for the sark, and so he was obliged to have her.' The sark's acceptance was a binding pledge of marriage. Even today in America it is reckoned unlucky for a girl to knit her boyfriend a sweater, some say because anticipation of housewifely duties tempts providence: more probably it is a confused recollection of the older belief. Fortunately, the superstition is definitely untrue. My wife stayed up late for several nights knitting me a wonderful Aran sweater, to give to me before we were married, to wear during our honeymoon in Scotland. We are still happily married after many years, so the truth is that knitting a sweater is a good omen. 

Many useful presents were given during courtship. Cake moulds, butter prints, spoons and other wooden articles were finely carved by Pennsylvania Dutch, Swiss and Scandinavian peasants, both in their native lands and after emigration to the United States. Long-handled smoothers for the feathers of the bridal bed, pincushions (pins arranged in an affectionate message) or heart-shaped snuff and trinket boxes were exchanged. A carved stay-busk (or corset stiffener) in the Pinto Collection of Wooden Bygones at Birmingham Museum, England, has this typical love-gift inscription: 

When this you see

Pray think of me

The many miles

We distant be

Altho' we are a great way apart

I wish you well with all my heart. 

And about 1936 a visitor to a Swiss chalet high in the mountains was shown cupboards full of old family crockery with such loving legends as 'Mein ganzes Leben sei dir ergeben' — 'My whole life is dedicated to you'. 

In the knitting regions of Europe a favourite gift was a needle sheath of bone or wood which hooked on to the knitter's skirtband to support one needle while she worked. Sheaths and needles had pleasingly erotic significance for both giver and receiver. (There is nothing erotic about the knitting needles on a hand knitting machine, which has hooks and barbs on it. My wife is into machine knitting. However, the jumper she did knit me with a base cleft in trouble cleft and alto clef, to wear when I was playing string quartets, was definitely romantic.) The symbolism is plain enough. In northern France sheaths often bear an acorn decoration, perhaps remembering the importance in the Celtic world of certain oak trees under which marriages were celebrated. The early church had banned such paganism but newly weds, seeking the best of both worlds and deprived of marriage under the tree itself, hurried from church to oak to dance three times round it and to carve a cross upon its bark. (This is obviously a new opening for our ceilidh band!) A 'marriage oak' — and a vague belief in its good-luck properties for bridal couples — survived at Brampton, Cumberland, England, until the nineteenth century. 

In lacemaking districts bobbins were sometimes made from bones saved from the wedding feast, turned and decorated with incised lines and mottoes stained black or red: in the English Midlands (see wedding string quartets, Midlands) decorative spots or lines of pewter made 'tigers' or 'leopards'; a small bobbin moving freely within a larger, a 'mother and child'. Inscriptions reflected the tensions of love: 

Sweet is the love that meets return but bitter When it meets a frown

You are the sweetest girl this village does afford and you don't love me .

And from those for whom matters were going more happily: 

Don't I love my Nance

Kiss me quick my mome is comin 

Blown-glass rolling pins filled with salt, love tokens almost too frail for kitchen life, hung over doorway or fireplace to keep witches away. Thomas Ratcliffe of Worksop, Nottinghamshire, wrote of rolling pins in the English Midlands: 'One which hangs in a cottage near me bears the words "I wish you well". It was sent to the owner on her wedding day fifty years ago, and has hung on the same cottage wall for the whole number of years, used however, now and again, for special occasions in preparing pastry, for weddings and birthdays only.' A pale-blue clouded-glass pin of great beauty, bought in Guernsey in the Channel Islands in 1878 and made for a sailor sweetheart's cabin, bore a wreath inscribed 'Love and Be Happy', a ship under sail, and the verse: 

From rocks and sands and barren lands, Kind fortune keep me free, And from great guns and women's tongues, Good Lord deliver me. (Perhaps this is a quotation for our ceilidh band caller to use whenever we play the sailors on pipe!) 

The purchaser, reflecting upon his impending marriage and upon his yacht's recent escape from the Casquets rocks in fog, felt his acquistion to be timely! 

A cowhorn spoon from Canton Aargau, now in the Schweizerisches Museum fur Volkskunde, Basel, is inscribed 'Kein Tropflein Blut in mir soil falsch sein gegen dir' — 'no drop of my blood can be false to you'. In Wales suitors carved wooden love spoons during long winter evenings and hearts, dates, initials, keys and keyholes ('you unlock my heart') expressed a shy lover's thoughts. The number of bowls the spoon had (one maker with soaring reproductive ambitions made a spoon with eleven bowls) showed the number of children a man desired.