The Chick is in the Mail
Inside the mail-order bride industry — offering love for a few quick, easy payments
By Tom Huddleston, Jr.
With the bevy of matchmaking reality programs, church-basement singles-mixers, and Internet stalking opportunities available to today’s romance-deprived man, it’s a wonder that mail-order brides manage to maintain relevance. Nonetheless, desperate Romeos still consult catalogues, agencies and advertisements to find their overseas Juliets for a long-distance love connection.
The practice, traced back to the mid-1800s on the American frontier, is a multi-million dollar industry that benefited greatly from the Internet Age. Bride-buyers once had to flip through tangible catalogs to search for their future spouses in the same way that they might peruse a Sears pamphlet for a new washer and dryer — “Check out the knobs on that one!”
The Internet, though, now allows prospective soulmates to post profiles on Websites and exchange introductory “love notes” — aka negotiations — with men across the world. In 2004, a U.S. Congress subcommittee hearing estimated that nearly 500 international marriage broker operations were functioning in various corners of the globe, arranging several thousand marriages between American men and foreign women each year.
While today’s betrothal businesses usually specialize in matching women from impoverished countries with more prosperous counterparts, it was originally the other way around.
Chris Enss’ book "Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier," explains how the 19th Century Gold Rush drew enterprising men deep into America’s frontier only to leave them dirty, bearded and without girlfriends. As those forlorn forty-niners soon discovered, enthusiastic cries of “There’s gold in them hills!” just aren’t as satisfying without a reassuring feminine response of “Aw, of course there is, dear. Of course there is.”
Enss writes that many men joined heart-and-hand clubs, which connected them with women on the East Coast, providing news and sometimes photographs as well as opportunities for correspondence.
After the initial niceties, a frontiersman would invite a woman to join him in the West where all of her dreams of marital bliss would be realized as she worked day and night, gave birth to a dozen little farmhands, and eventually died of typhoid fever before being buried in the backyard next to the family dog.
Of course, such successful results only led to further industry growth and now we have a booming trade who’s only drawbacks are false advertising, rampant corruption, immigration problems, and countless cases of spousal abuse involving brides who don’t speak English.
Now, it may be easy to scoff at the patrons of these services, but it’s not so different from kids cutting out dozens of cereal box UPCs and sending away for a Lego submarine or a "Where’s Waldo" watch. In both cases, what seemed like a great idea ends with a product arriving at your doorstep that was made in some distant country and is nowhere near as cool as it looked in the picture.
Illustration by Amelia Bienstock
Tom Huddleston, Jr. is a regular web contributor of Jerk Explains it All.