Monday, June 8, 2009
Matrimonial. - An American gentleman of this city, with a good presence and a kind, loving heart, middle-aged but never married, of unexceptionable habits, Christian principles, culture, some property, and high social position, desires to correspond, sincerely, with an amiable and prepossessing lady of wealth, refinement and respectability, in view of matrimony. All communications sacredly confidential. Address in good faith and sincerity, with full particulars, HENRY B., Box No. 43 Station G., New-York
You start out reading this and you think, hey, that's sweet, here's this nice lonely man with "a kind, loving heart" who sincerely wants to meet a wife. But then you hit the part where he says he wants to meet a "lady of wealth."
Not so sweet anymore!
Ads like this were pretty commonplace; I posted one a week ago from a woman, but men advertised for women "of means" or "with wealth" all the time too. I never quite know whether or not to believe they're real. There are so many ads like this that it boggles the mind to think they're all from con men hoping to meet some gullible, rich lady and steal all her money (which did happen sometimes). But what kind of man - especially in an era that really celebrated the "self-made man," Horatio Alger style - straight up says he wants to marry a woman for money?
This is a complex issue which would take too long to discuss here, but the one thing that interests me enormously is the fact that whether "Henry B" and the many, many men like him were swindlers or whether they were totally legit, they didn't see it as problematic to admit they wanted to meet a rich woman. I mean, put this in a modern-day perspective. I don't think anyone would mind terribly if they happened to meet and fall in love with someone who had a lot of money, but if you posted a profile Match.com you certainly wouldn't put that as one of your criteria. Why? Because everyone would think you were a money-hungry gold-digger and no one would reply.
So why did Henry B, be he honest or not, think a wealthy woman would be okay with this?
Ads like this say a lot about the time in which they were published. It's a reminder that however much we like to think about marriage being romantic, the reality is that for most of history, marriage was about money. Think about Jane Austen novels. Those books are centered around the financial status of their heroes and heroines. So, if he was in earnest, perhaps Henry B. was just expressing openly what everyone was doing anyway: rich people married other rich people.
Having trouble reading the ads? Click one to enlarge!
©2009 Pam Epstein