Love and Marriage Canadian-Style

A trove of letters provides a glimpse into early 20th-century love and courtship

Historian Dan Azoulay’s Hearts and Minds: Canadian Romance at the Dawn of the Modern Era, 1900–1930 is a welcome piece of scholarship that offers a fascinating look into Canadians’ love lives. In the era he writes about, when arranged marriages had mostly been discarded as relics of the patriarchal past, romantic courtship between two individuals was the breeding ground for marriage, making romance a serious business.

Hearts and Minds explores “four key aspects of romance”: what average Canadians sought in a marriage partner, the specific rules they were expected to follow during courtship, the obstacles and hardships they encountered along the way and the impact of World War One on their personal relationships.

Azoulay’s sources are “two magnificent collections of letters,” the most valuable the “Prim Rose at Home” column in the Family Herald and Weekly Star, a Montreal-based national magazine, and a widely distributed column in Winnipeg’s Western Home Monthly. Combined, they contain more than 20,000 letters and represent a cross-section of Canadian society (although French-speaking Quebecers are underrepresented). Prim Rose’s editor, for example, strove diligently for regional balance and included as many letters from men as from women. Social class and ethnic origin were less clear, but letters frequently contained information hinting at them.

Chapter 1 mines these letters to establish a composite of “The Woman of His Dreams.” Heading the list of what Canadian bachelors wanted was a “‘home-loving’ girl” skilled in the domestic arts: cooking, cleaning, child rearing. Indeed, considerable venom was directed at young women whose “stock-in-trade consists of being able to get the latest pompadour effect in her hair, her waist compressed to the smallest possible circumference and to pound out on the piano the latest rag-time music.” Such women were “frivolous,” in thrall to “sentimental fiction,” and a shameful contrast to their nobler and tougher foremothers.

Western farmers were especially focused on practical qualities: “I believe I could live with almost any one who could cook a good meal, wash the dishes, and not grumble because it had to be done,” one Alberta farmer mused. Another noted that a farmer’s wife also had to pull stumps, milk cows and tend to the chickens.

Yet men also wanted a “feminine” woman, a cultured companion who was intelligent but not bookish: “the average man does not want one of those fluffy and very much dollified young women, but rather one who without the least trouble can engage in the ordinary run of conversation and also can speak with intelligence on most subjects.” In an era where most music lovers had to rely on a wife or daughter singing or playing an instrument, potential husbands also valued musical aptitude. Their ideal wife would also be refined and would not work outside the house—breadwinning females were “most obnoxious of all,” especially the despised “school ma’arms,” reputedly worse cooks than most bachelors.

This wifely paragon would also abstain from reading trashy novels, chewing gum, smoking, flirting and gossiping. She would share her husband’s religious affiliation, Protestant or Catholic, and she would not be foreign, Native or non-white. (Many men specified “a fair complexion.”) But beauty did not seem to matter because, Azoulay notes, men rarely mentioned physical preferences. One New Brunswicker, for example, merely hoped for a wife not “homely to a marked degree.”

If husband-seeking Canadian women were dismayed at these “dream” qualities, they thought the better of revealing this in their letters to magazines. “Most of them had to get married,” Azoulay writes. “Marriage was both their livelihood and the key to complete social acceptance.” Far from defending the progressive women Canadian men abhorred, female letter writers also denounced suffragettes and silly, frilly, novel readers who were not domestically inclined.

What Canadian women dreamed of in a husband was a good and hardworking provider, and so they took a keen interest in the size of a man’s farm and house. But they also wanted gentlemanly, moral husbands who would value them as companions as well as helpmeets. Just like their bachelor counterparts, these women seldom itemized a man’s physical appearance. They did, however, insist on cleanliness, neatness and good grooming.

Women also had a few caveats. In hard-drinking Canada, they rejected drinkers but tolerated smokers. They hesitated to marry without specific assurances of at least a modicum of leisure time. And they had no time for “remittance men,” British patricians sent to the colonies to carve out lives aided by parental remittances, and scorned by Canadians as lazy, arrogant, snobbish ignoramuses.

“The Dos and Don’ts of Romance” details the magazine editors’ rules of courtship, beginning with the stricture against romance for girls younger than 18. Proper introductions were essential and background checks of prospective husbands desirable. Parents played powerful roles in the process. They were on call as chaperones and had to ensure that their children followed the rules. These included monitoring their daughters who had to wait at home for gentleman callers and enforcing other rules in the hopes of attracting a suitable suitor. “If I were a man I would be so persistent in my wooing that the lassie would just have to love me,” one bachelorette complained, “but as I am the lassie, and not the laddie, I will have to calmly sit, and await the day when my Prince Charming will come riding by.”

The rules also permitted restricted dating, gift giving and corresponding by letter. But premarital sex was prohibited, and that included petting and even kissing, because withholding these delights was the best way to convince the lusting lover to propose marriage. When he did, the fiancé was rewarded with discreet hand holding, kissing and “a certain amount of silliness.”

These carefully prescribed guidelines are interesting as reflections of current social standards, but the realities of courtship were often quite different. Canada, too, had pregnant brides, and some of its young people entered courtships without proper introductions. The most galling frustration for women, Azoulay writes, was the rule of “maiden-as-passive-prey,” a forced passivity many women rejected by trying to find their own husbands. Some advertised through Prim Rose and other magazine columns. Ontario and Maritime women swarmed to the man-heavy Western provinces, where many found husbands although seldom marital bliss. All too often the longed-for marriage felt like “a great, desolate wreck that becomes a walled prison, a tomb from which there is no escape except through the door of the divorce court, from which all good women shrink as from some hideous monster.”

The hardest of “courtship hardships” was the failure of some Canadians to find a marriage partner. In Western Canada, where eager bachelors sought to establish themselves as farmers, more than 40 percent of homesteaders failed to develop 30 acres and build a $300 home, the requirements for acquiring title to their land. Even those who succeeded faced a “severe” shortage of women, and Azoulay documents a steady stream of letters from lonely bachelors decrying the alleged “one girl for every ten bachelors.” Hired men, one fifth of Western bachelors, without even the prospect of land ownership, were even less likely to marry.

When war broke out in 1914, one of its casualties was romance. The problems of inadequate communications, long distances, infidelity, changed circumstances, precipitous weddings, traumatizing experiences and injury, often severe, took a huge toll on Canadian men and women. Many distraught soldiers “turned their backs on romance,” Azoulay writes, some by refusing to marry their fiancées or by denouncing marriage.

Hearts and Minds is an engaging book that should promote further studies in the all-important subjects of romance and courtship. It is also delightfully illustrated with contemporary images. What better illustration of struggling young farmers’ desperation to marry than the photograph of two hopeful Alberta bachelors posed in front of their modest dwelling baking bread and scrubbing clothes as a trio of piglets roams at their feet?