Can You Really Just Go Online and Order a Wife from Some Other Country?

Scott L. asks: Can you really just go online and order a bride/wife from some other country? Seems like this can’t really be a thing because of immigration laws, right?

While people have been sending messages back and forth to arrange marriages sight-unseen throughout history, the slightly more modern concept of mail-order brides is generally considered to have originated during the days of the American Frontier- a region that, for a time, was decidedly lacking in members of the female persuasion. At the same time, the east coast of the U.S. had something of a surplus of single ladies, especially following the Civil War.

Thus, farmers, miners and ranchers frustrated with the lack of women they didn’t have to pay, but could rather woo with their abilities with a spittoon and then start a family with, instead eventually took to placing ads in newspapers across the country looking for love. Single ladies on the other side, often motivated by getting out of their present situation and finding a devoted man, in turn likewise took to placing ads for prospective husbands.

Much like online dating today when matches were found, the pair would invariably exchange saucy letters and at a certain point even photographs to see if they were suited for one another. Also like today, this form of match making came with a huge social stigma with it generally considered that the men were just out to get sex and exploit women, while the women were out for financial gain of some sort, or in more modern times just out for a green card. However, with exceptions, the reality for the most part seems to indicate that, then as now, the majority’s motives were not nearly so sinister or selfish.

As law professor and author of Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches, Marcia Zug, states when she started researching the book, “I expected to find that… mail-order marriages are fundamentally harmful and that these problems are long-standing. I was surprised that this is not what I found. Despite significant risks, mail-order marriages are typically beneficial and even liberating for women.”

On that note, the ultimate goal for many men in the days of yore was simply to find a companion in life and someone to start and raise a family with- pretty much like the motivations of more traditionally established relationships. Indeed, many of ads from men looking for brides reflect this quite explicitly. For example, consider this one from one lonely, and quite frank, 19th century man:

I inclose my photograf with My Full Description. It shows the features as nachel as can bee only it is to Dark; I am very lite Complexion, Gray eyes, Orbon hair, 6 foot high, waight 190 lbs, inclined to be hump shouldered; A Muskler Man and a widower 28 years old with A Commen Schol Equations, but have Got Anof to Atten to Enny Business, I am strictly Morrel. Don’t use tobacco nor whiskey… I hav Only One Thing to Offer, And it is Neither Lands Nar Gold. But a Strong Arm and a True Hart and will lay Down My Life for the Rite Girl and Be Happy, for I am tired of living Alone. The girl that Steels my Hart and takes my name for the Remainder of My Lif I will make Happy, for I am hunting a Girl that I can idolise and Make a Angel of.

Of course, others just wanted a more traditional arrangement for the day- love and emotional companionship not really considered at all. Case in point, an Arkansas man who wrote in 1855:

Any Gal that’s got a bed, a coffee pot, and a skillit; knows how to cut out britches, can make a huntin’ shirt, and knows how to take care of children, can have my services until death parts both of us.

However, given a study concerning mail order brides, conducted in 1890 by criminologist Arthur MacDonald, this latter type of ad is unlikely to have swayed the typical woman looking to engage in such a mail-order relationship.

He noted, much to his consternation, that a large percentage of the women placing and responding to these ads were primarily looking for a much more liberal and equal relationship than they could get with their local stock of men. As one woman he interviewed about her motivations in taking part in such an arrangement noted, “I am very independent, and I have views of my own which some people do not approve of.”

Yet another stated, “I am tired of the society act, and fancy I’d like just a tiny bit of bohemianism.”

Also of note when reading these ads is that the women are unusually forthcoming given the time period they were written in, prompting the aforementioned law professor Zug to surmise that such ads were quite liberating for women of the era as they allowed them “to take a more active role in the courtship process”. For example, consider this very frank ad written by a Missouri woman from 1910:

Attractive woman, not a day over thirty, would be pleased to correspond with eligible man. Not absolutely necessary that he should be young. Would prefer one with property, but one with a good paying position would be satisfactory. The young lady is of medium height, has brown hair and gray eyes, not fat, although, most decidedly, she is not skinny. Her friends say she is a fine looking woman. Object matrimony. Reason for this advertisement, the young woman lives in a little dinky town, where the best catches are the boys behind the counters in the dry goods and clothing stores, and every one of them is spoken for by the time he is out of his short pants.

Or how about this excerpt from an ad placed by a group of women from Calgary in 1916:

We have looked over the eligibles here, but find most of them standing in front of the bar or out autoing with somebody’s else wife. We don’t call them men. What we want is a real man with real brains and real honor; a man who would like a good, clean wife and a good clean home and honor them both… Now, if some good bachelor with plenty of backbone, brains and brawn; who keeps himself scrubbed and brushes his teeth; who pays enough attention to his fingernails to keep them from going into mourning for past decency, wants a home and a homey wife, and thinks he can stand a little scolding once in a while to give spice to life, we shall be mighty glad to hear from him and all about him.

Also yes, you read that last part right- this ad was indeed written by a group of area women looking for a potential male suitor. Even a century ago, men looking for love had to deal with ads about hot single women in their area apparently.

Not only that, but also similar to the modern world of online dating, we even uncovered a few 19th century news stories of men posing as young women, fake profiles, pictures and all, in such mail order bride ads. From the few stories we found, it would appear the motive was primarily to make a fool out of men who responded to the ads. In one case reported in the New York Times in 1876, supposedly multiple men were involved and even invited a prospective husband to meet, at which point they doused him in sulfur flour, paraffin oil, and pelted him with rotten eggs as he ran away.

Moving on to the modern day, the process for finding a bride is a little more streamlined with there existing nearly 3,000 mail order bride agencies worldwide, around 500 of which operate in the United States.

For the most part, these agencies are functionally similar to a more traditional dating service with the goal being simply to facilitate meetings between compatible people- just those who sign up here are more explicitly looking for marriage.

Another major difference, at least in the United States, is that such mail order bride services must adhere to the terms of the The International Marriage Broker Regulation Act of 2005. In a nutshell, this requires the agencies in question to perform extremely extensive background checks on prospective male clients. Said background check will generally be used to ensure the person has a clean record, and will also be used to discern exact details of one’s personal finances and marital status. This information is then fully disclosed to women who are interested in a particular prospect to help them make an informed decision. It is also required by law in the U.S. that the agencies insure that no man on the service can contact a given woman unless she gives explicit consent for said individual to be able to do so.

In a nutshell the intention here is to protect women from being taken advantage of or misled, which naturally is a risk when brought to a country that is wholly foreign to them, often with little way to get back.

On this note, Zug notes, “The idea that men are buying women and that the women have no say, no free will, basically that they’re trafficked [is not true] … mail-order brides are very much, in most cases, in control. It doesn’t mean that it always works out. But they know what they’re doing in the sense that they believe that this is going to be something that offers them an opportunity to improve their lives.”

Of course, often in such modern potential matches there exists a language barrier that hinders progress in initial meetups. As such, most mail-order bride services offer translation services, allowing clients and prospective partners to communicate more effectively- a service it should be noted most agencies charge handsomely for, along with many other fees leading to frequent accusations being levelled against some agencies that they’re just preying on emotionally vulnerable men and attempting to milk them for all their worth, with little care as to whether they actually ever find a match. In fact, the longer it takes to find a match, the lonelier they potentially get and the more the company can make off them.

As one individual whose made something of a career in trying to help men and women who sincerely want healthy relationships find each other, Mark Edward Davis, once put it: “The online dating scene, their business model, is designed to keep you on the website, feeding the meter, not finding a wife.”

Another popular service offered by some, but not all, mail-order bride agencies is international trips to meet prospective partners in person at events not unlike singles mixers. Said events allow clients to meet in person to see if there’s a spark, with translation services often being on hand to facilitate communication. As you can imagine these trips aren’t cheap and as such, limit the dating pool to reasonably wealthy individuals.

This all brings us around to the meat of the issue- cost. Although mail-order bride agencies are hesitant to reveal the amount of money they earn per male client, it has been estimated that, even beyond considering the normal costs associated with the immigration process when marrying someone from another country and attempting to get them citizenship, most clients will have spent between $6000 to $10,000 when all is said and done. Because of the amounts here, this generally sees the users of such services being older men who are either independently wealthy of have a large amount of money saved.

Again looking at more modern times, reasons for using a mail-order bride service vary, though most queried men report that they simply became disenchanted with dating people in their own area for various reasons, sometimes just lack of any options, and other times just lack of options that the person likes. As one gentlemen aptly put it, “after my divorce I noticed that the dating pool was very shallow, and wide.”

As previously alluded to, women who sign up today report signing up for vaguely similar, though slightly more varied reasons- mostly centered around that they simply want a better life for themselves in a better environment, more freedom than they have back home, and a stable and loving partner- a sentiment it’s hard to disagree with since that’s more or less what most people want from a relationship.

On this note, as in the days of the wild west, a curious trend noticed by experts who’ve interviewed both men and women involved in the mail-order bride industry is that: “The mail-order bride business as it now operates may be in the perverse position of attempting to match independent, nontraditional women with very traditional Western men.”

Or to put it another way, the mail-order bride industry is in the hilarious position of trying to match men with ultra conservative views of marriage with confident, often very liberally minded women.

For example, as one man looking for love abroad via a mail-order bride service stated, he felt that his local women were, to quote, “too interested in what I was worth. With women’s liberation in the USA, I had them calling me, coming to my house. Before, the man called the woman when he wanted to date her; the woman was not the initiator. Now is so different from what I grew up with, so I thought that the best thing to do was to meet someone that can’t just come to my house.”

On this note in a study looking at why American men who use these services so strongly go for Latina women, it was found that the men in question tended to be looking for women who adhered more to the stereotypical classic mold of a wife- dedicated to home and children while letting the man take the lead in more traditionally manly roles.

As one such man stated, “The husband and wife are equal partners in the family structure, though not the same. Men and women are different in physical and mental abilities. I feel that the wife has her place in the family structure, such as giving more care to children, the house, and things of that nature. The husband should take care of income and things of that nature.”

On the other end, the Latina women generally considered even these American men to be suitable because they found them to be, to quote the author of said study, “more faithful, less jealous, and less chauvinistic than” their local men.

Or as one Colombian woman who ultimately married an American man stated, “I met men in Colombia, I was married, I had my experience. I decided to look for something different, try men from another culture that might be better than ours. American men are more serious; [they] worry and respect their wife.”

On this note, in an attempt to explain this seeming paradox, the aforementioned Marcia Zug surmised in an interview with The Guardian “that it’s all about perspective”, noting that “for many of these women an unliberated American man seems like a feminist” when compared to the dating pool in their respective countries of origin.

Then again, it doesn’t seem like this is all that big a deal considering what little data we have access to suggests that the divorce rates for marriages brokered by mail-order bride agencies are in the ballpark of the rates for the average U.S marriage, though of course the potential for deportation until some level of citizenship or residency is established perhaps provides extra motivation to stay together, where someone found locally might have just left a given bad situation. On the male side of things, given the large percentage of men with very traditional values and views on marriage participating, they likewise might be slightly more motivated to stay together even in a bad situation, both because of these views and also potentially knowing the possible consequences to the woman should they divorce her.

In any event, to sum up the answer to the question posed- yes, you can indeed go online and find a bride through so-called mail-order bride agencies, and remarkably people’s motivations both in the days of the wild west and today in entering into such arrangements seem pretty much to be the same, and not really that different than the motivations most everyone has when wanting to find a companion in life.

And for the curious, it turns out there are also mail order husband websites out there, but as you might expect, they aren’t nearly as popular as their lady-filled counterparts.

Also for those curious- yes the author and editor of this piece’s suggested ads were a complete mess after researching this topic, even prompting the editor’s wife to ask some pretty poignant questions when later observing said ads that were coming up on his computer…

We’d also now like to apologize for the ads you’re no doubt now getting thanks to reading this piece.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts:

  • An enterprising businessman by the name of Fred Harvey in the late 19th century managed to make quite a profit off the lack of single women in the west via hiring what became known as Harvey Girls to work in his restaurants, hotels, and dining cars. His idea was to hire single women, who were required by their contract to remain single while employed by him and work for a minimum of a year. They also had to be upstanding citizens, well educated, and generally good looking, and once employed were watched closely by so-named House Mothers to make sure they didn’t do anything unladylike and kept to a strict curfew. With these ladies working at his establishment- and the men around knowing well they were single- naturally the men flocked to his businesses like the Salmon of Capistrano in an attempt to woo the single ladies into becoming not so single. For passengers just passing through on trains, it also created a nice environment to eat and stay at. This scheme worked amazingly well for the women and Harvey. The women got a chance to travel the country safely and for free and make a decent wage for the day ($18.50 a month, or around $500 today, plus room and board). Further, when they wanted to after that first year, they could leave if they found someone along the way they wanted to marry. And thanks to the Harvey Girls’ outstanding reputation and the shortage of women around, their prospects on that side were also good, with a wide range of suitors to choose from. As a side effect, in excess of 5,000 men eventually found wives among the Harvey Girls, with marriage being by far the number one reason Harvey Girls, who again were required to stay single, ultimately quit.
  • Something of a counterpart to mail-order brides was also experienced by Asian men in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. Called Picture Brides, this was a result of thousands of Asian men moving to the U.S. with the promise of work, and then settling in predominately all male communities. Lacking sufficient women, they sought them out from their homelands, often through a matchmaker who, among other things, would use pictures to help find a match. Much like similar arrangements today, the benefit to the men was to find a willing female companion to start a family with when for whatever reason their local prospects were grim. The benefit for the women was likewise similar to today, including economic, getting out of a bad situation back home, starting over in a new life, the potential for more freedom in a different culture, and just simply to more easily immigrate to America, especially after the passage of the Japanese-American Passport Agreement of 1907. As one picture bride headed to meet her new husband in Hawaii at the turn of the century noted, “Hawaii’s a free place, everybody living well. Hawaii had freedom, so if you like talk, you can talk, if you like work, you can work.”
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