The Baffled Americans by Iva Polansky

Posted by on Dec 3, 2012 in 19th Century France, Historical Research, Historical Tidbits | 4 comments

Without a Dowry, by James Tissot

When you research a foreign subject, in my case France in the second half of the 19th century, you usually tend to consult texts written by the natives. Unfortunately for the researcher, the natives rarely stop to ponder facts they consider normal.  This is not the case with travelers. They immediately notice  attitudes and customs that differ from their own norm. As the 19th century progressed and sea travel became faster and more comfortable, France saw a wave of American tourists, a great number of them very literate and eager to record their impression of the country. Not all of them were impressed favorably. Their Puritan spirit was offended by the sight of nude statues in public places, others were critical of the way the food was served, or that their womenfolk were subjected to unwanted male attention when they ventured out alone. Some things simply baffled them, such as the mercenary approach to marriage in a country that was supposed to be obsessed with love.

In 1873, Charles Fulton, a Baltimore journalist, left this account of marriage agencies, a type of business unknown in the United States:

“The matrimonial agencies of Paris do a thriving business. They are located in all sections of the city, and are of different classes, according to the wealth and standing of the families of the parties they deal with – young men who are looking for a wife with a good dowry, the money consideration being the main incentive, and parents who have marriageable daughters, being the principal customers. The agents, when they effect the marriage, stipulate that they shall receive five per cent of the dowry, and generally manage also to get a good retaining fee from both parties. The larger establishments are in correspondence with similar agencies on all parts of the Continent, and have become a necessity to parents who are looking out for eligible wives for their sons and responsible husbands for their daughters. The successful tradesman who has accumulated a fortune desires his daughters to marry in a higher circle than that in which he associates: hence the necessity of an agent to make the necessary advances. Then elaborate papers must be prepared and signed before the marriage is consummated, and unless the dowry is paid down at the stipulated time the engagement is off. To manage all these preliminaries requires practical knowledge and experience in which few parties in private life could be expected to possess.


“The agency of Madame St. Just only does openly what hundreds of others have for ages been doing secretly, and she has at once risen to the head of the profession. She is one of those business geniuses who believe in advertising, and she is, of course, pushing aside all the old fogies who have transacted their business as if secrecy was necessary to all their movements. Madame St. Just says the French law of marriage, and the national custom, render matrimonial agencies a necessity, and in a recent trial the courts have sustained the position she has taken. No one under twenty-five years of age, either son or daughter, can marry without the consent of his or her parents, or, if the parents are dead, without the consent of the grandparents, if any are living. If none of them are living, the applicants must substantiate the fact by bringing certificates of their death and burial. Thus it will be seen that parents make all the arrangements for marriage, and, as they do not know who are eligible parties in the matrimonial market, they must apply to those who make it a business to keep a record, with the pedigree and pecuniary standing or prospects, of all the young men and girls who are similarly eligible. If John Smith should have settled on his daughter a dowry of twenty thousand francs, he has a money interest in securing for her a husband similarly endowed, and he wants the guarantee of a responsible agent that there is no false pretense being practiced upon him. How would he be able to ascertain that Tom Brown, who applied for the hand of Miss Smith, was all that he represented himself to be, and whether his father was responsible for the twenty thousand francs which he had promised to give his son on the morning of his marriage, or how would he know that there were twenty or thirty young men of good family and good money-standing who are anxious to secure a wife with the twenty-thousand-francs charm possessed by Miss Smith, if there were not an agent to apply to who kept a record of all such young aspirants for matrimony? Or how would the parents of these young men know that there was such an eligible party as Miss Smith in existence, if they had not applied to Madame St. Just for the information?”

When reading similar travellers notes, the researcher reaps a double advantage. Not only does one gather information about the 19th century French, but one also learns about the moral values and attitudes of their American contemporaries. Both were very useful in writing my novel Fame and Infamy: Adventures of an American Maid in Paris.

Iva Polansky, December 3, 2012

Iva Polansky’s blog Victorian Paris is dedicated to the life in 19th century Paris.

Without a Dowry is one of James Tissot’s fifteen paintings in a series called La Femme à Paris.



  1. I agree that he viewpoint of the outsider is like gold for the novelist–I used Mark Twain’s recollections of Venice. Even though he visited after my period, it was still largely a pre-industrial age, and many things remained the same.

    Thanks for the informative post and the painting. I looked at more of Tissot’s work. His paintings are also nice for giving a sense of the everyday Paris.

  2. Great stuff, Iva!
    Part of the job of the historical novelist, I think, is to help the reader step outside the memes of today and understand that every generation has what it considers good reasons for the things they do. When you gasp and say, “They used to —!” you should stop to think that someday people will gasp as they tell about the things WE did.

  3. Interesting how many American travelers do the same thing now. I lived in Europe for almost 18 years and there were many times where I did not let other Americans know I was an American as well.

    • That’s rather normal, Ella. I’m Czech and I no longer rush to meet fellow Czechs when I hear the language as I did when I was fresh out of the country. 🙂