From Matrimonial Lottery to Marriage Market in Early America

This paper explores evolving economic idioms about marriage in eighteenth and nineteenth century America, when marriage had profound financial and material as well as personal consequences. Selecting a spouse was a matter of strategy as well as attraction. As such, families functioned much like businesses as they weighed the potential risks and rewards of matches. Comparing marriage to lotteries or markets implicitly, and often explicitly, reinforced the centrality of wealth to marriage. While historians have focused on the rise of companionate marriage and romantic love among the middling and wealthy, control of property remained central to individuals’ and the state’s concerns about matrimony. The continued popularity of financial analogies reflected early Americans’ recognition that marriage remained fundamentally economic even as it was recast as primarily emotional. Over the course of a century, Americans’ financial analogies reflected the struggle to reconcile increasing emotional expectations with the financial foundations of marriage. These analogies reflected fears of unhappiness in marriage even as fulfilment was increasingly promoted as a central goal. The truism persisted that in “matrimonial lottery,” as in all lotteries, there were more “blanks” than “prizes.” Satirical proposals to lottery off unmarried women (and occasionally men) conveyed that chance – the spinning of the lottery wheel – was as likely to secure happiness as careful courtship, and that money was a potent incentive to marry. As the language of markets flowered, Americans described courtship in terms of choice and competition even as they centered romantic love in marriage. At the same time, Americans expressed fears of deception in terms of fraudulent goods and worried about consumption fostering luxury and dissipation. While nineteenth-century Americans thought their concerns over the “mercantile” nature of marriage new, they in fact expressed old fears in new terms.