1. Archive

These values have a checkered past

If you want to play a little inside joke . . . if you don't take your politics too seriously . . . if you've got a bit of spare time . . . here's an interesting way to spend the remaining weeks before the political conventions.

Read I Do! Courtship, Love and Marriage on the American Frontier by Cathy Luchetti (Crown, 1996).

This perusal through journal entries of "olden days" will put you in the know enough to chuckle when the convention talk turns to "traditional values."

The American pioneers living in 1715-1915 had values all right, but it's unlikely any candidate would win popular votes by advocating a return to some of the common practices: widespread polygamy in Utah in the 1850s, common-law marriages so popular on the frontier, or the Pennsylvania Dutch practice of bundling, a parentally approved way for courting couples to test fertility under the family roof.

"There's all this talk about family values and looking back to the past. If you do that, you find there really weren't any traditional ways of doing things," says Luchetti, chuckling over the phone from her home in Oakland, Calif.

"I think learning this increases our awareness and tolerance."

Not that Luchetti took up the project of chronicling the love affairs of pioneers to flaunt at politicians.

Her reason was much more self-centered.

"I was recently divorced and I thought if I could look back through diaries and journals and discover what made people happy, what made their marriages work, I could make it happen for me."

What did she discover?

Personal ads were common, particularly in urban centers. The semi-embarrassment of those who placed ads existed then, as today. Newspaper proprietors threatened to publish the full name of an advertiser if he were accused of ungentlemanly conduct.

Good grammar, good table manners, an amiable personality and large brain size were among the desirous traits. Special calipers were used to measure heads; apparently anything over 23 inches was considered attractive.

The gender imbalance on the frontier was staggering _ 16,584 bachelors to 1,426 single women. This led to girls being courted at such a young age that some clutched dolls at the altar.

Even heroes had a hard time snagging a mate. David Crockett wrote in his journal: "I soon found myself head over heels in love with this girl . . . but when I would think of saying anything to her, my heart would begin to flutter like a duck in a puddle, and if I tried to outdo it and speak, it would get right smack up in my throat, and choak me like a cold potatoe. . . . "

The girl spurned him, but Crockett soon found another.

"I still continued paying my respects to her . . . and I would have agreed to fight a whole regiment of wild cats if she would only have said she would have me . . ."

She did not.

Luchetti says she learned that for frontier couples, swooning romance was immaterial.

"The spark of love that just happened to be there at first between couples was fanned by a lifetime of working side by side," Luchetti says.

"People had to survive first and have fun second. They didn't worry about whether they were madly in love, they just worked for survival. By the time they stopped and looked at each other, they were in love."