Hearts West

Up after five hours - princely! The other night I looked at the clock, saw that the alarm was going to go off in five hours, and thought, "Cool - I can read for another hour." Then I did.

I'm still on the Palin diaries (as I natter on about in my cheesemaking post, which lies half-finished in draft mode somewhere), but I'm also reading this book. It has been eye-opening, learning of the extent of the (what we would now call) personal ad industry in the late 1800s when the frontier needed women and some women needed the frontier.

Particularly revealing are the personals. They are every bit as shallow as their modern counterparts can be, but far more blunt. I've seen two so far where one party specifies that the other must have at least $20,000! In 1800s money! (Um, am I just clueless? Does everyone have $20,000 except for me? Can I have some? I swear, at every intersection on the drive home yesterday someone was carrying a Starbucks. Including some of my poor, urban students. I wish Keynes was alive to blog about this, from an economist's standpoint.)

(P.S. Thank you to Dr. Smith at UHV for making me learn all about Keynes and the Bloomsbury group. Also thank you to Upstairs, Downstairs for the episodes where Lizzie becomes involved with same.)

(P.P.S. So, yesterday Mike made some joke about the "Sackville-somethings" - probably namecalling one of the hams. As the chord struck, I said, "Wait... Sackville? What's that from?" "The Sackville-Bagginses in The Hobbit," he replied. Of course, but that's not what I was thinking of. For some reason I'd recently been reading up on Vita Sackville-West, brief lover of Virginia Woolf and peripheral Bloomsbury member. I wondered if the materialistic Sackville-Baggins clan was Tolkien's dig at the hedonistic Bloomsburys. Then I felt REALLY CLEVER. I got to enjoy being REALLY CLEVER for those five hours I was asleep; then I woke up, Googled, and saw that the idea has been discussed before. Now I'm just late to the party. Damn.)

(Back to the 19th-century personals.)

Both men and women in these ads seem to be more plainspoken than they'd be now about being fat or poor; however, there was enough misrepresentation going around for one judge to take a full-page ad every week in Matrimonial News, saying he will declare null (at the groom's request) any mail-order marriage where it is later discovered that the woman used wigs, face paint, falsies, or hip padding. Goodness.

Many of the stories are positive, though. Some I wouldn't consider to be tales of mail order brides per se - more like blind dates to the tenth power. Bachelor wants woman, bachelor tells friends/family back home, friends/family find a nice spinster, letters are exchanged, spinster travels west and is married within an hour of arriving. (Or bachelor travels back east to marry spinster.)

Incidentally, Mike is strangely irked by the term "bachelorette." He rails, "We already have a perfectly good word! People are just afraid to use it because it has a negative connotation!" Apparently the kids were playing some word game in one of his classes and each one argued that an unmarried woman is  called a "bachelorette." I don't like the word, either; it sounds so game-showy, but perhaps it's better to have this unencumbered, potentially empowering word in the mainstream instead of sad-shackled "spinster." (Or worse, "old maid.")

Anyway, this book makes a nice ripple in what seems to be a popular idea of matrimonial history, that our culture went from straight from arranged marriages to love matches. I don't know about other centuries and other places, but from the 1850s to early 1900s, there were apparently many "New World" people being introduced at a distance (by friends or personals), getting to know one another through correspondence, and becoming engaged, sight unseen. Some were shy or lacking conventional beauty, but many were also as "picky" as anyone now, willing to hold out for a "connection."

As someone who met her other half online, then spent almost ten years communicating at a distance with the exception of a two-month visit (albeit communicating orally for 12+ hours per day), the whole topic has been fascinating. Until recently, there was so much "OMG - Internet?!! How did you know it was... SAFE???!!!" when people learned about how Mike and I met.

Now, people are almost universally supportive (at least to my face), often talking about other couples they know who have met online. (And, if they are single, often sighing and asking me for tips on finding someone via the computer. Their eyes glaze a little when I say it helps if you're questing for a really buff sword and come across a mighty paladin who gallantly insists on covering you with his level 200 spells.)

It feels like we have become so much more enlightened about accepting distance relationships, but these 1870s couples - with their old leather diaries gushing about falling in love and their ten children and their golden anniversaries - are probably having a good laugh at our quaint ideas of "progress."

09 April 2008 |

Previously: The New (not Nu) Pike
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