Courtship and Marriage

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Courtship and Marriage

In general, courtship and marriage in the United States in the nineteenth century were conducted along well-developed lines. Among the monied classes especially there existed prescribed methods for men to meet eligible women, become engaged to them, and marry them. To have a socially sanctioned marriage meant following these norms, which were reinforced and disseminated by the popular press. The media instructed readers on proper behavior and the best method for catching a prospective spouse, and also on how to conduct oneself once married. Many publications written for male and female audiences weighed in on the question of courtship and marriage rituals.

The October 1864 edition of Godey's Lady's Book discussed some of the methods that young nineteenth-century girls used to divine the identity of their future spouse. In a dispatch titled "From a Correspondent," an anonymous author asserts that "All Hallow E'en…[is] supposed particularly efficacious for the practice of charms of all kinds relating to love and marriage" (p. 358). One of the more interesting methods of discovering the identity of one's future husband involved the sowing of hempseed in one's garden or a nearby field. "I have heard many of my mother's juvenile friends trying the experiment," the author claims, "and have performed my own part, years ago, in such a ceremony, as the clock tolled the midnight hour, pale with fear and trembling….[N]o spectre [sic] came mowing after me, and the only result was an extraordinary crop of thistles in our garden" (p. 358). Such activities were largely pursued by young girls, as older ones ready for marriage were too busy refining their manners and trying to find a husband.

Courtship and Character

The American Phrenological Journal, a publication devoted to the notion that a person's character traits can be determined by an analysis of the shape of the head, seemed especially interested in courtship procedures. John Henry Hopkins (1792-1868), who was the Episcopal Bishop of Vermont for many years and became the eighth Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States in 1865, contributed an article titled "Choosing a Wife" to the September 1863 issue of the journal. The bishop instructed men on the methods of finding the right spouse. Courtship should begin when a young man finds a woman of his acquaintance interesting. The bishop suggests that the suitor "should commence at once the work of judgment, before his feelings are too far engaged" (Hopkins 1863, p. 73). He should prudently consider whether the woman has the qualities and attributes that would make him happy. Additionally, the prospective bridegroom should question whether "she be blessed with true religious principals," those being sweetness, good sense, discretion, and modesty, and being free from "envy, vanity, censoriousness, and affectation" (p. 73).

Bishop Hopkins also suggests that the best way to judge a woman is to observe her at home. Is she disobedient, unfeeling, and imperious to her siblings, and unwilling to help with the domestic work in her own home? Is she "lazy and indolent, fond of reading novels, and full of affected sentimentality, while she is without relish for useful information"? Does she "look down with proud disdain upon honest labor"? If the answer to any of these questions is affirmative, then she is most likely not the right choice for marriage (p. 73). The bishop does admit, however, that people can change. If a man offers criticism to his intended and she "receive[s] it in good part, and display docility and energy enough to conquer her evil habits, and attain a higher and a better character, he may safely calculate on the happiest result" (p. 73).

Engagement and Marriage

Hopkins claimed that an early marriage, despite the misgivings of some doctors and economists, is "the true and normal condition of our race," and added that the shorter the engagement the better (p. 73). Hopkins's preference for brief engagements was shared by other commentators as well. In "Engagements," published in March 1863 by The Knickerbocker Monthly, an anonymous male author complains that it is as hard for a man to announce his marriage as it is for his friends to hear about it. Upon the inevitable proclamation, "the only obvious and unexceptionable question is to ask whether it is to be soon, and to hear whether there is to be an engagement, or an immediate marriage" (p. 202). If no lengthy engagement is expected, then the man is looked on as a hero for "any thing like an engagement is a diminution of the glory of matrimony" (p. 202). Marital bliss depends "but merely on that power of adaptation which enables any two human beings who are forced to live together to get on pretty well, and fall in with each other's ways"; therefore, "there is no object in forming an engagement" (p. 202). Experts agree, the author asserts, that "however marriages are commenced, they all end in about the same average of happiness—great trials arise from worldly incontinences being avoided, as many married people will get on as well if they meet for the first time at the altar, as if they have spent a couple years in eager flirtation" (p. 202). A lengthy engagement would be appropriate only for those couples whose preference was for the man to establish himself financially and socially before getting married.

Some aspects of nineteenth-century courtship and engagement came under attack. In her June 1865 article "Courtship As It Should Be," printed in the American Phrenological Journal, Mrs. George Washington Wyllys objected to the practice of secret engagements. "If you have won the heart of a strong, steadfast man, you should rather glory in your prize….[W]e have no patience with the sickly sentimentalism of modern days that consider courtship as something to be prosecuted in a stealthy, underhand sort of way, and an engagement of marriage as a secret that should be wrapped in impenetrable mystery" (Wyllys 1865, p. 178). In "A Bad Way to Get Married," written for the October 1862 issue of the New York Monthly Magazine, an anonymous author criticized "the method of seeking a husband or a wife by advertisement." He suggested that "no girl of well-regulated mind, and with a proper feeling of delicacy and self-respect, would think of responding to the public overtures of a man whom she had never met, and of whom she knew positively nothing; and, therefore, the women who usually answer such advertisements may be considered as likely to make undesirable wives" (p. 351).

Once married, a woman was expected to maintain order in her family and household. Gone was the need for flirting, dancing, and singing; instead, a young wife should become economical and industrious. She was to endeavor to be "pleasant and cheerful, kind and sweet-tempered; not morose and reserved on the one hand, or giggling and trifling on the other," suggested J. Atwood in "Advice to Young Women," written for the Christian Advocate and Journal (February 26, 1863, p. 67). Men, for their part, were expected to be the sole breadwinners for their families.

Effects of the Civil War

The Civil War caused some changes in the role of women and in the formation of relationships. Women showed their patriotism by acting like recruitment officers for the military. They encouraged their husbands, sons, and beaus to enlist, and shunned suitors who were unwilling to join the war effort. Later in the war, when the suffering was at its worst, especially in the South, women were expected to send loved ones who deserted back to the front. According to Southern Field and Fireside, it was women who made "the Confederate soldier a gentleman of honor, courage, virtue and truth, instead of a cutthroat and a vagabond" (April 11, 1863; quoted in Faust 1990, p. 1204). In the Confederacy, women who willingly encouraged men to join the military were seen as performing a self-sacrificial act, in support of a higher cause. Alice Fahs suggests that women in the North were also encouraged by popular media outlets to renounce and chastise any man who refused to enlist in the military (Fahs 1999, p. 1468). Women's attempts to persuade beaus or husbands to enlist allowed them to share in the patriotic fervor of the war and changed the dynamics of courtship, engagement, and marriage.

The nineteenth-century United States produced many prolific letter writers, and the war had little effect on their productivity. Susan Albertine suggests that many women used letter writing to test the strength of their romantic bonds with absent soldiers. Hence love letters became a larger part of the courtship, engagement, and marriage process than they would have been without a war (Albertine 1992, pp. 143–147). Besides writing love letters to brave soldiers, women—and men as well—collected keepsakes of their beloveds or betroth-eds. One of the most popular keepsakes in the nineteenth century was hair, especially when made into jewelry. Throughout the war, Godey's Lady's Book, for example, offered to convert hair sent by readers into such items of jewelry as bracelets or fob chains. Hair jewelry was used not only as a token of affection but also to commemorate wartime triumphs (Navarro 2001, pp. 1–2).


"A Bad Way to Get Married." New York Monthly Magazine, October 1862.

Albertine, Susan. "Heart's Expression: The Middle-Class Language of Love in Late Nineteenth-Century Correspondence." American Literary History 4, no. 1 (1992): 141-164.

Atwood, J. "Advice to Young Women." Christian Advocate and Journal, February 26, 1863.

"Engagements." Knickerbocker Monthly, March 1863.

Fahs, Alice. "The Feminized Civil War: Gender, Northern Popular Literature, and the Memory of the War, 1861-1900." Journal of American History 85, no. 4 (1999): 1461-1494.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. "Altars of Sacrifice: Confederate Women and the Narratives of War." Journal of American History 76, no. 4 (1990): 1200-1228.

"From a Correspondent." Godey's Lady's Book, October 1864, p. 358.

Hopkins, John Henry. "Choosing a Wife." American Phrenology Journal 38, no. 3 (1863): 73.

Navarro, Irene G. "Hairwork of the Nineteenth-Century—Hair Jewelry: Nineteenth-Century United States and Europe." Magazine Antiques 159, no. 3 (2001): 484-493.

Wyllys, Mrs. George Washington. "Our Social Relations." American Phrenology Journal 41, no. 6 (1865): 178.

Micki Waldrop

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Courtship and Marriage

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