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The Picture Bride Era
by Steve Frangos

Reprint from The National Herald


The immigration of some half million Greeks to North America between 1880 and 1920 happened in distinct stages. Among the last to arrive were the Picture Brides of the 1920's and 1930's. With an unexpected degree of renewed romance and considerable misunderstanding, the plight of these women, as unwilling or largely unhappy brides, has overshadowed a more complex and disturbing reality of Greek migration.

The hard statistics are as follows: of all the Greeks who immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1920, fully half repatriated to Greece. Of those Greeks who remained in this country, demographically, only half got married. No reliable figures exist for how many of those who married actually had children. Whatever the actual number, the descendants of the massive wave of Greeks ultimately consisted of only one quarter of those who arrived.

Curiously, many accounts of why Greek men sought immigration maintain that it was to pay for dowries. As we will see, this goal proved so successful for so many Greek immigrants of that era it caused considerable problems back in Greece.

Other folkloric images concerning marriage were to follow these young Greeks to North America.

Wedded to Death

The initial sojourn to America by this massive wave of Greek men was supposed to be a temporary voyage for many of them. At times, this did not prove to be the case. Working in mines, as smelters, on railroad gangs and in factories, many of them were killed in industrial accidents. In accordance with centuries-old folk customs of rural Greece, many of these men were buried by their compatriots as if they were bridegrooms. The deceased was dressed in the best suit available, a wedding crown on his head, a ring on his right hand, and a sprig of basil in his lapel. Not infrequently, even a small amulet of Greek soil was hung around the bridegroom's neck. Since having failed (however unwittingly) to fulfill their societal roles as men, those who died unmarried were said to be wedded to death.

In George Drosinis' (1859-1951) poem, The Soil of Greece, we hear something of the symbolism of these amulets of earth:

I will hang you as an amulet on my breast,
And when my heart wears you as an amulet she will take courage,
Be helped by you,
And will not be bewitched by other foreign beauties.
Your grace will give me strength.
Wherever I turn, wherever I stand,
You will kindle in me only one desire:
to return to Greece.

As the young Greeks decided, one by one, that they must marry, the era of the Picture Brides came into being.

Corresponding Images

With nearly half a million Greeks arriving in North America in just a 40-year period, the exchange of letters, telegrams, packages, money orders and other objects was considerable. The exchange of letters between various family members soon proved a forum in which prospective brides and grooms could "meet." In this correspondence, photographs would often "just happen" to be included of, say, a young Greek standing in front of his candy store, or the portrait of a Greek maiden from a rural mountain village.

Any number of complex events could, and did, take place once a couple (or the extended families of both individuals) agreed to the marriage. At times, legal dowry contracts, called ta prikia, were drawn up. This is quite distinct from a bride's trousseau. The formalities involved in such traditional arrangements often created a very complicated international series of events. Very often, brothers of the young woman, working as immigrants in places like Spokane, Washington, would send a sizable amount of money to relatives in their home village to help fulfill their part of the marriage contract. This money would then be sent to the groom's relatives in, say, Alton, Illinois, who were acting on his behalf in these exchanges. Once all parties were satisfied the money was sent to the groom in, say, Saginaw, Michigan, then the bride would be sent by her family on a boat headed towards her awaiting husband to-be.

Lest anyone think that this exchange was simply a matter of "buying a wife," the prospective groom was very often required to produce an array of documents for the bride's family. Elaborate legal documents drawn up by officials at Greek Consular offices in San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago or New York City were more frequently required than is discussed today. The bride's family commonly requested testimonies from local parish priests concerning an individual's character, and bank documents showing total net worth and/or clear title on property.

Yet even after all these careful negotiations, the village women were especially fearful of the long voyage to an unknown land and marrying a man many of these young women had often never even met.

Dangerous Passage

Sometime during the late 1920's and early 1930's, a folksong was composed describing the sense of dread experienced by these young maidens. Many stories were whispered by the village fountain, where the young women gathered every day; grim accounts of women left at the pier or train station because they were not as beautiful as their photographs made them out to be.

Commonly referred to as the Picture Bride Song, this tune became so popular, it was eventually recorded in Athens as a 78rpm record with the title, Mana, Mi Me Stelneis Stin Ameriki (Mother, Please Don't Send Me to America). The lyrics to this famous song are as follows:

Mama, don't send me to America,
I'll wither and die there.
I don't want dollars — how can I say it?
Only bread, onions, and the one I love.

I love someone in the village, Mama,
A handsome youth, an only son.
He's kissed me in the ravines,
And embraced me under the olive trees.

Yiorgo, my love, I'm leaving you,
And I'm going far away.
They're marrying me off into the xenitia (unknown place).
They take me like a lamb to be slaughtered,
And there, in my grief, they will bury me.

And this was not the only such song. Sometime after World War II, the Liberty Record Company of New York City released Den to Thelo ton AHEPA. A best-selling nostalgic song, this record featured a young woman begging her mother not to arrange a marriage for her with a visiting Ahepan. Here, the reference is to the various trips during which the unmarried members of AHEPA went as a charter group aboard ships to Greece in the 1930's looking for brides.

The Forgotten Others

It is with the presence of brides in the Greek colonies of North America that many scholars mark the real beginning and establishment of Greek America. While this claim is true up to a point, it obscures other individuals who quite literally included a larger demographic group than those who married. In Greek American slang, the bekares (said to be the Turkish word for bachelors) or Greek immigrants who never married still constituted demographically half of all Greek males from the 1880 to 1920 era. The sociological importance of these men can not be stressed enough. They not only physically embodied Greek America, they also actively helped finance the very establishment of a Greek community in North America, for the most senior generation of all Greek Americans living today easily recall the presence of these bachelors.

Alternately, there was an entire generation of women in Greece, especially in the Peloponnese, who never married because of the massive Greek immigration to North America. Aside from the missing men, another totally unintended difficulty arose. With brothers in North America willing to provide a handsome dowry, finding a suitable groom in the village became increasingly problematic.

Arranged marriages have not always been successful. Aphrodite Clamar has written of Greek widows here in the United States, known as kakomires, in the community from a perspective not usually examined. Many of the immigrant widows Clamar came to know were, in a sense, relieved or released from what we might call a failed marriage today. The women Clamar spoke to had oftentimes taken over their husband's businesses, which they subsequently ran to great financial success, and enjoyed a way of life they might never have experienced in Greece.

Changing Images

The photographic images of Greek American brides have significantly altered since the 1920's and 1930's. The image of the bride as a lone figure, while still a part of the overall photographic collection of wedding images is no longer the sole focal point of the event. Photographs come very often to embody visually long standing and deeply felt social relationships. With Greek American photographs of the 1920's and 1930's, the family was fragmented, with some in Greece and some in North America. The role of the Koumbaros came to special prominence in this early period, and the number of available photographs from this era attests to that new standing.

Composite photographs, in which a studio photographer joins different negatives to create a gathering of persons, were also a favored image from the early era of immigration. In these photographs, the family scattered between Greece and North America could be found visually in one place.

But as families changed in Greek America, so too have the photographs. The children of the 1880-1920 era demographically came of age predominately after World War II. The wedding photographs of that generation show not just military uniforms, but also large gatherings of friends.

It is also an indisputable demographic fact that mixed, or interfaith, marriages outnumber all others which take place in the Greek Orthodox Church today. Unexpectedly, many of the non-Greek spouses are entranced by the marriage ritual and physical interior of the church. This has prompted a renewed priority given to photographs taken not simply inside the church, but also specifically those in front of the iconostasis. Aside from the beauty this setting inherently commands, the couple's announcement of a new common faith is also recorded in this formal image.

The Greeks of North America have traveled far, not only in terms of distance from their home villages in Greece, but also across different cultures and the vastly changing values of one time period from another, all begun, many times, by a lone young woman with a ticket pinned to her coat. Carrying all she owned in her hands; headed for an uncertain future, it is to these women, and the men they came to marry, that we all collectively owe a debt that can never be repaid.

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