You’ve probably heard about mail-order brides, a service where desperate women advertise themselves online in the hope that a man from a developed country will marry them. Obviously, these arrangements are about finding a higher quality of life, not true love. But they have been happening since long before the dawn of the Internet. What if we told you that this bizarre industry dates back several centuries? In fact, mail-order brides were essential to the foundation of the United States.
Commissioned by King James I, the Virginia Company of London established colonial settlements across North America. In 1607, some of the English settlers from the company founded “James Fort,” later known as the Jamestown settlement. While it became famous as the first permanent English settlement in the United States, Jamestown was originally renowned for another curious reason.
Starvation and disease ravished the Jamestown population at first, so the settlers adapted by expanding their agricultural activities and making a fortune off of their tobacco crop. But not everyone was happy. Although there was the case of the successful tobacco pioneer John Rolfe marrying the famed Native American princess Pocahontas, most men were single.
By 1619, almost all of the inhabitants of Jamestown were male. As a result, most of the settlers were unable to find wives. While their inability to find love was indeed a legitimate concern, there was an even larger issue at play, namely the future of the settlement. Without women who could conceive children, Jamestown couldn’t last beyond one generation.
But why was there such an enormous gender imbalance in Jamestown? Firstly, many women were reluctant to leave behind their comfortable lives in England for a future of uncertainty in North America. Secondly, when reports of famine, starvation, and the disease reached England, any open-mindedness that the women may have still had was completely quashed. From then, Jamestown only continued to deteriorate.
Naturally, the lack of women frustrated the male masses, many of whom deserted Jamestown. After all, what was the point of working to the bone without reaping any rewards? Clearly, the Virginia Company had to come up with an initiative to save the settlement, and fast.
Determined to secure Jamestown’s survival, Virginia Company treasurer Edwin Sandys came up with an idea that was ingenious, if a little unorthodox. As he put it, increasing the female population was the only way to make “the men more settled [and] lesse moveable.” So why not reach out to women directly and attempt to attract them to Jamestown with an appealing offer?
Once his fellow board members agreed to Sandys’ proposition, they put out an advertisement targeting potential wives for the unattached male residents of Jamestown. The women who responded became the first-ever mail-order brides in America. The only problem was that the advertising campaign did not attract the volume of success that was needed to completely eliminate the gender imbalance in the settlement.
How was Sandys going to convince women to leave their homes for a life of hardship in North America? By offering a solution to an existing problem. Back in England, marriage required an enormous financial commitment. Women who didn’t come from wealthy families would often have to do years of domestic work in order to amass enough money to wed. Emigration provided a healthy alternative.
In addition to foregoing the financial requirements for marriage in England, the Virginia Company offered a wide range of incentives to unattached women. These included a dowry of clothing, furniture, and transportation to the colony, as well as a plot of land. They would also receive their pick of a range of wealthy bachelors. A pretty good deal, right?
In order to finance the Virginia Company’s end of the deal, the bachelors who were due to receive wives had to reimburse the Virginia Company with 120 pounds of “good leaf” tobacco — an amount later upped to 150 pounds. Being the equivalent of $5,000 in today’s currency, only the relatively wealthy were able to afford a spouse. But this wasn’t the only flaw in this new system.
Soon after the first of the mail-order brides arrived in the colony, they soon began to be known as “tobacco wives.” This led to a stigma behind the system, where people criticized that they women were being traded like property. What outsiders didn’t realize, however, was that these ladies had full control over the marital decisions. But this misconception still had a major impact.
Many Englishmen accused the Virginia Company of selling women, which wasn’t the case. The merchants only put those financial rules in place in order to recover the costs of transporting the female settlers, and they often weren’t that concerned with being paid back. In fact, the company even made peace with the possibility that some women would choose men who lacked the funds to reimburse the company. The only true unethical practices arose later on.
While the Virginia Company may have had the means to kidnap people and send them to the colonies, they never forced brides to cross the Atlantic. Instead, another incentive instituted by the company motivated many private individuals to kidnap people a little later on. Then, the Virginia Company had a true scandal on its hands.
According to the Virginia Company’s new policy, any settler who financed their own journey to Jamestown would receive a 50-acre plot of land. The same deal was offered to those who sponsored another settler. Eager to take advantage of these offers, wealthy citizens would kidnap others and bring them to the colony as servants to snatch up as much land as possible. And this was only the start.
While kidnappings were illegal, they were very rarely — if ever — punished. One woman named Ann Servant was fined only 13 shillings and sixpence for kidnapping a 16-year-old girl named Alice Flax. Even young children were forcibly relocated during this time period, and one man was believed to have kidnapped an astounding 6,000 people. Surely, this would have detrimental effects on the mail-order bride service?
Even with kidnapping on a rampant rise, the Virginia Company still maintained the integrity of the mail-order bride system, ensuring that only willing women entered the program. Because both male and female participants were invested in the success of the program and the settlement itself, this system contributed to the flourishing of Jamestown.
Contrary to its social stigma, the mail-order bride program actually contributed to female empowerment in the colonies. The women of Jamestown received far more freedoms than was afforded to those in England. For example, women in Jamestown were allowed to own land as well as dispose of property, make wills, and appoint executors without first obtaining spousal consent. But what made this lifestyle possible?
In order to attract female settlers, colonial leaders simply overlooked many of the laws that governed women back in England. In addition, members of the Virginia House of Burgesses pressured the Virginia Company to set aside parcels of land for new arrivals as a token for their bravery. As such, mail-order brides were eligible as well. But there was also a grim issue that spurred on women’s equality.
Throughout the 17th century, malaria, dysentery, and influenza ran rampant throughout Virginia, killing many. These diseases also cut short countless marriages. To keep the colony afloat, the Virginia Company handsomely provided for young widows. While widows in England commonly received one-third of their late husbands’ estate, those in Virginia would inherit far greater portions. But such good treatment came with an unexpected twist.
While we look down upon the system today, the chance to become a mail-order bride allowed women in Jamestown to aim for a better life. Being a woman in Colonial America was incredibly difficult, and we’re not just talking about the whole ‘marriage’ thing. Despite how it’s portrayed in movies, living conditions in this era were filthy, to say the least. And it didn’t help that some of the hygiene practices people had back in the day were as puzzling as they were questionable…
Bathing regularly was a luxury reserved only for the most wealthy residents in the colonies, while recent arrivals had to cope with practices that sound unbearable today. Though bathing is now common practice, hygiene was a controversial topic in early America. In fact, some doctors advocated against bathing, as they believed it stripped the body of oils that were essential for good health.
In some cases, women actually preferred not to bathe and used their uncleanliness as a means of self defense. Using their body odor, they hoped to repel the unwanted advances of overly persistent men.
Religion and cleanliness also went hand in hand, as filth and dirt were often equated with sin and the devil. Morality came into play as well, as those who were clean were looked at as less likely to commit wrongdoings.
While most rinsed their hands and faces each morning, full-body baths were uncommon among most men, women, and children. Infants, however, were bathed regularly, though this was more so in an effort to “harden” them than to clean them.
Another deterrent to bathing was the size of most wash basins, as only the extraordinarily wealthy could afford bathtubs large enough to hold an adult. Freshwater bodies like lakes served as basins of a sort for lower-class men, yet soap was rarely brought along.
This was because lye soap — made from a mixture of animal fat, lye, and ash — was difficult to make and incredibly harsh on skin. Instead, this soap was used to wash clothing and dishes.
Yet not all clothes were washed equally, as the process of drawing water, heating it, cleaning the clothes, and wringing them out to dry was a strenuous one. Therefore, only the dirtiest clothes — aprons, underwear, diapers, and the like — were cleaned.
Unfortunately, this meant that most blankets and bedsheets went unwashed, leading to frequent bug infestations. Fleas, cockroaches, and mosquitos were prevalent, and some even resorted to sleeping beside campfires to keep the bugs at bay.
Lice were also a frequent nuisance, especially when it came to the powdered wigs that most upper-class colonists wore. Despite most men and women shaving their heads to prevent the bugs from nesting, their wigs served as the perfect place for lice to settle in.
Washing the wigs did little to rid them of infestation, leading colonists to coat them in bergamot, bay leaves, and other repellents to keep the bugs away. Unfortunately, the rich pomades used to style the wigs only served as a magnet for hungry lice.
George Washington wrote often about his experiences with such “vermin” and mandated that soldiers wash their shirts weekly and their hands and face daily during wartime. Close-quarter camps served as breeding grounds for parasites and disease, especially the deadly smallpox.
To keep camps in order, “camp followers” traveled alongside the military and tended to their sanitary needs. These individuals — who were mostly women and slaves — ensured that the soldiers’ meals were properly prepared and washed their uniforms as needed.
When a man needed a shave he visited a barber, who was typically a highly skilled man of color. Women, on the other hand, didn’t shave at all, as common conventions dictated that they show very little skin.
For those women that did seek to remove hair, plucking was a standard option (eyebrows won’t tweeze themselves!). Eighteenth-century medical journals suggest that depilatory creams — some of which utilized limestone and arsenic — were also used.
Dental care was also somewhat of a mismanaged science, as most people had little concern for the health of their mouth. When toothaches did arise, remedies like chamomile, alcohol, and opium were used to dull the pain.
In most cases an extraction was required, though taking a trip to the dentist wasn’t an option back then. Instead, sufferers visited their local surgeon, apothecary, barber, or even blacksmith to have a tooth pulled.
For those that were conscious of their oral health, metal tooth pickers were available for purchase. Unfortunately, these instruments were also used for a variety of other unsavory tasks, including picking the nails and scooping wax from the ears.
On another level of unsavory, outhouses — or, more specifically, covered holes in the ground — served as bathrooms for most colonists. Chamberpots were also used, their contents simply dumped out the window once full.
Not only were these practices unsanitary, but they also posed serious health risks. Feces and other contaminants would typically seep into the groundwater or runoff into streams and lakes, leading to high levels of contamination.
This, perhaps, is why disease was so widespread within the colonies. Cholera, typhoid fever, and influenza were extremely prevalent, and dysentery — commonly known as the “bloody flux” — ravaged the population.