Mail Order Bride
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My name is Mary Clare Malloy
I was born in County Cork
At 18 years of age I sailed for the shores of ole New York
With 700 picture brides, torn 'tween hope and fear
At last we spot Manhattan, and the famous isle of tears

(from) The Man from God Knows Where: Mary Clare Malloy Tom Russell

We only knew each other by letter
I went to meet her off the train
When the smoke had cleared and the dust was still
She was standing there and speaking my name

(from) Prairie Wedding Mark Knopfler

Basic Information

A mail order bride - historically also "picture bride" - is a woman who contracts to marry a husband in a distant place, usually having been chosen by her prospective spouse from a catalogue, personal advertisement or matchmaking service. The level of correspondence prior to the migration - and assumed marriage - may vary, as may the bride's ability to select her husband, but in general this trope tends to favour the husband as the selector. Once the bride has migrated to her new homeland, she tends to be rather short of options besides marriage - indeed, her immigration may be conditional on marriage and failing to complete on the implied contract may lead to deportation. Failed or rejected mail order brides may be at particular risk in many eras, either from being cast out with few resources or from domestic abuse - although in the modern era, there are also a number of confidence tricks (commonly called "Green Card Scams" based on the name of the US immigration permit) whereby the groom is exploited financially, socially or otherwise. Note that for reasons of human social biology, it will almost always be women migrating to men, especially on this basis.

In the modern era, the idea of the mail order bride is seen as rather sordid and revolving around the importation of naive young women from developing nations to be exploited by socially defective older men from richer nations … like most cliches, this is something of an oversimplification, but has a foundation of truth to it.

Historically, picture brides were an important part of the colonisation process in many places - for example the American West - where the land was settled and developed by young, single men and virtually devoid of women. Even the few married settlers could well find themselves single again due to high maternal death rates and the general attrition inflicted by the frontier. Thus, it became necessary - if not exactly romantic - to find a way of pairing these men (who could be comparatively quite well off financially) with young women willing to marry them and, in an era where women had few choices other than marriage, there were many places in the old world where literally hundreds of women could be found willing to take the risk to improve their prospects. This normally mean trading a life as a slum dwelling factory labourer for the equally hard and possibly less certain life of a frontier farm-wife, but history shows that there were plenty willing to take that deal, even without the level of poverty that drove so many of the Irish West. Presumably those that made it West, but couldn't get on with their husbands, or who ended up alone for other reasons were subject to recruitment by people like Miss Kitty (at best).

Presumably, come another frontier, there will again be a call to gender balance the pioneers - unless human social biology has changed out of all recognition by then, it will still be mostly women being sent for.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • An interesting mcguffin for a fedex quest - a dozen or so young women, probably some of them relatively hard bargains in their own right - to be delivered to their husbands in the middle of nowhere.
  • As noted, can be recycled in space - or equally in the ancient world where a colonia of discharged legionaries or Klerouchoi must be found wives so that they can be relied upon to stay put.
    • Given the values dissonance inherent in the ancient world, "mail order" could be rather literal - a suitably cynical magnate might well actually buy a consignment of wives at the block, ship them out and manumit those that pass muster so that they can marry as free-women. Presumably those that don't can then be re-sold…
  • In the cthulhu-mythos, someone suitably malevolent could run a catalogue scheme passing of tcho-tcho … females … as Asian mail order brides.
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