Frontiers

The Many Faces of Marriage

Department of History doctoral candidate William Kuby reveals centuries-old marriage practices that shed light on contemporary debate.
November 2010

Personal ads, whether stuck in the back of a newspaper or posted on an online dating website, range from endearing to banal. Abbreviations like SWF have become ubiquitous in pop culture, even spawning movie titles. How much value could a Department of History doctoral candidate like William Kuby possibly assign to these oft-maligned ads? A lot, as it turns out.

"I was doing research for a gender and sexuality course, a field I hadn't originally intended to specialize in, when I came upon these personal ads. They dated back centuries—I've found examples from as early as the late 1700s and there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest they existed well before that."

Kuby, who came to Penn in 2005 from Wesleyan University, was so intrigued by the personal ads he decided to shift his research focus. He found that public opinion of the ads, most of which ranged from 1830 to 1900, was almost universally negative. The authors were predominantly male, though female placements did exist. Men were often cast as scam artists attempting to swindle money out of desperate women—a label that was earned in many cases, Kuby says. Women, on the other hand, received gender-based ridicule, having to weather comments about lasciviousness and inappropriate feminine aggression.

"This wasn't limited to whispers around town. Newspapers would print opinion pieces shouting down these types of practices, which led to the creation of matrimonial agencies that sought to capitalize on the popularity of the ads and make money off of lonely singles. There were even cases where agencies baited gullible singles using stock photos of actors. In response to this, public outcry heightened, to the point that the post office inspector—the conduit for the controversial ads—would actually lead raids on many of these agencies."

"I was doing research for a gender and sexuality course, a field I hadn't originally intended to specialize in, when I came upon these personal ads. They dated back centuries—I've found examples from as early as the late 1700s and there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest they existed well before that."
– William Kuby

Kuby began questioning the meat of the issue: Why were the ads so controversial and what kind of repercussions did they, and other "taboo" practices, have on the convention of marriage? He decided to look to the early 20th century; it was a period in which the definition of marriage, and more importantly divorce, was still a moral grey area. This led to his eventual dissertation topic: "Conjugal Misconduct: Dubious Vows, Unlawful Wedlock, and the Margins of Marital Propriety in the United States, 1900-1940." In his studies, he landed upon a phenomenon that was making waves among supporters of conventional wedlock, a practice called trial marriage.

"It was people's way of saying, 'You can't define marriage for me.' Trial marriages were just that, a kind of mutual agreement between two individuals that the marriage was not set in stone, a philosophical stance that questioned the absolutism of the union and attempted to reclaim ownership of romantic arrangements."

One of the most famous examples of a trial marriage was the partnership of author Fannie Hurst, who wrote Imitation of Life, a novel later adapted into two movies, and Jacques Danielson, a noted pianist. After five years of a privately agreed-upon trial marriage—during which time they lived separately, not wanting to conform to the practice of cohabitation—Hurst and Danielson went public about their arrangement, causing an uproar, especially among the middle and lower classes.

"In order to slow the spread of trial marriage, many of the moral authorities—ministers, judges, newspaper columnists—labeled the practice Bohemian in hopes it would incite disapproval from the lower class. Even less obvious behaviors, for instance, not marrying at all, were seen as veering from socially acceptable norms. Teachers and nurses, anyone who had frequent interactions with children, were expected to marry within a reasonable amount of time, or be deemed a bad influence."

In addition to the historical perspective Kuby's dissertation provides, it has an abundance of applications to marriage in contemporary society, applications he hopes those in the public sphere will take into account.

"It's frustrating to me that the current debate surrounding the definition of marriage ignores the historical context. It seems there always has to be a gatekeeper, an us-versus-them mentality that maintains a hierarchy. But slowly and incrementally, we do see changes, whether it be the legalization of interracial marriage, or same-sex marriage passing in certain states. I hope that in time, we can re-assess the centrality of marriage to American life and society, and move away altogether from using marital and relationship status to determine who deserves access to basic civil rights. When we realize the drastic changes the institution has undergone through time, anything becomes possible."