The best books on the history of love and marriage

Who am I?

As a family law professor, I spend a lot of time thinking about marriage. Although it is an extremely personal decision, the legal, social, and even political ramifications can be tremendous. Marriage is not just an individual choice. Each year, I teach my family law students that there are three parties to every marriage, the two spouses, and the state. The books on this list reveal how the state has influenced marital decision-making and also, how individual marital decisions have influenced the state. These books show that marriage can protect and benefit spouses, but that it can also harm them through the promotion and acceptance of society’s biases and prejudices. As the actress Mae West once stated, “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.” The following books highlight the wisdom of West’s words.

I wrote...

Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches

By Marcia A. Zug,

Book cover of Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches

What is my book about?

There have always been mail-order brides in America—but we haven’t always thought about them in the same ways. In Buying a Bride, Marcia A. Zug starts with the so-called “Tobacco Wives” of the Jamestown colony and moves all the way forward to today’s modern same-sex mail-order grooms to explore the advantages and disadvantages of mail-order marriage. It’s a history of deception, physical abuse, and failed unions. It’s also the story of how mail-order marriage can offer women surprising and empowering opportunities.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage

Why did I love this book?

Today, most people marry for love, or at least hope to marry for love. However, the idea of the love match as the preferred form of marriage is a relatively recent development. In Marriage a History, Stephanie Coontz tells the story of marriage’s transformation from an economic arrangement into an emotional one and covers everything from caveman unions to the modern fight for same-sex marriage. The book is filled with colorful examples and amusing anecdotes, such as the story of one aristocratic mother’s dismay when her son actually falls in love with his intended bride (she worries this will hurt her economic bargaining power) yet ultimately, it leaves the reader contemplating the very serious question of what it means to fall in love and whether love has, or should have, anything to do with marriage.

By Stephanie Coontz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Marriage, a History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Just when the clamor over "traditional" marriage couldn’t get any louder, along comes this groundbreaking book to ask, "What tradition?" In Marriage, a History, historian and marriage expert Stephanie Coontz takes readers from the marital intrigues of ancient Babylon to the torments of Victorian lovers to demonstrate how recent the idea of marrying for love is—and how absurd it would have seemed to most of our ancestors. It was when marriage moved into the emotional sphere in the nineteenth century, she argues, that it suffered as an institution just as it began to thrive as a personal relationship. This enlightening…

Book cover of Shapely Ankle Preferr'd: A History of the Lonely Hearts Ad [1695-2010]

Why did I love this book?

Tinder and other dating sites may seem like a very modern way to meet a spouse but, as Francesca Beauman’s book Shapley Ankle Preferred demonstrates, people have been advertising for love almost since the first newspaper advertisement was invented. Shapley Ankle shows how matrimonial advertising dramatically changed marriage and courtship. With the invention of these ads, single men and women were no longer dependent on friends and family for their marital futures. Suddenly, they could advertise for the kind of spouse they wanted and thousands did so -- many with amusing specificity.

Some examples include the man looking for a wife with “but one leg” and the woman who requested her future husband not drink “above two bottles of claret in a sitting.” Nevertheless, other advertisements were less humorous and revealed authors hoping marriage could save them from penury, cruel families, or simply loneliness. These motivations remain highly relevant today. Consequently, Shapely Ankle will leave modern readers contemplating how much has changed in men and women’s quest for love and also, how much hasn’t changed at all.

By Francesca Beauman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shapely Ankle Preferr'd as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What do women look for in a man? And what do men look for in a woman? And how and why has this changed over the centuries?

Every week thousands of people advertise for love either in newspapers, magazines or online. But if you think this is a modern phenomenon, think again - the ads have been running for over three hundred years. In 1695, a popular London pamphlet published the brave plea of a young gentleman who 'would willingly Match himself to some Good Young Gentlewoman, that has a Fortune of GBP3000 or thereabouts'.

This was just the beginning.…

Book cover of American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States

Why did I love this book?

When American’s think of marriage, they tend to view it approvingly, as a good, wholesome institution that forms the foundation of American society. However, marriage has also been a back door to otherwise forbidden and harmful behavior. In American Child Bride, Nicolas Syrett explores the history of minor marriage in America as well as the shockingly high rates of underage marriages that continue today. The book highlights the complexity of these relationships, demonstrating that they could be dangerously exploitative but also, that the legal and social importance attached to marriage could make it an attractive option, even for children, and particularly, for minor wives. Today, child marriage continues to receive a level of legal and social approval absent from all other forms of sexual activity with minors. American Child Bride provides a compelling explanation for this exception, as well as a sobering discussion of why the practice is likely to persist.

By Nicholas L. Syrett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Child Bride as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Most in the United States likely associate the concept of the child bride with the mores and practices of the distant past. But Nicholas L. Syrett challenges this assumption in his sweeping and sometimes shocking history of youthful marriage in America. Focusing on young women and girls-the most common underage spouses-Syrett tracks the marital history of American minors from the colonial period to the present, chronicling the debates and moral panics related to these unions.

Although the frequency of child marriages has declined since the early twentieth century, Syrett reveals that the practice was historically far more widespread in the…

Book cover of Entangling Alliances: Foreign War Brides and American Soldiers in the Twentieth Century

Why did I love this book?

Most war books focus on soldiers, Entangling Alliances does not. Instead, it provides a fascinating look at the women who married soldiers. Despite the romanticism often associated with wartime marriages, many readers may be surprised to discover that war brides were rarely welcomed. In fact, these marriages were primarily treated as undesirable and problematic. Nevertheless, despite this opposition, tens of thousands of war brides immigrated to the United States throughout the 20th century and their entry forced America to confront its xenophobia and reevaluate its beliefs about the purpose and benefits of marriage. Through an exploration of wartime marriages, Entangling Alliances documents America’s changing views on love and marriage and shows how individual marital choices can have national and international repercussions.

By Susan Zeiger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Entangling Alliances as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Throughout the twentieth century, American male soldiers returned home from wars with foreign-born wives in tow, often from allied but at times from enemy nations, resulting in a new, official category of immigrant: the "allied" war bride. These brides began to appear en masse after World War I, peaked after World War II, and persisted through the Korean and Vietnam Wars. GIs also met and married former "enemy" women under conditions of postwar occupation, although at times the US government banned such unions.
In this comprehensive, complex history of war brides in 20th-century American history, Susan Zeiger uses relationships between…

Book cover of Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir

Why did I love this book?

Primates of Park Avenue provides a gripping and somewhat horrifying look at love and marriage within the elite social circles of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The book reveals that among the uber-wealthy, marriage has more in common with the Victorian marital bargain than with modern-day ideas about partnership and equality. Readers will likely be both repulsed and enthralled by the world Martin describes; a world in which women trade professional success for wealthy husbands and receive year-end “wife bonuses” when they have performed their wifely roles well. Primates of Park Avenue proves the old adage, “when you marry for money, you’ll earn every penny.” At the same time, it also shows why, for many, the allure of marrying for money remains irresistible.

By Wednesday Martin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Primates of Park Avenue as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An instant #1 New York Times bestseller, Primates of Park Avenue is an "amusing, perceptive and...deliciously evil" (The New York Times Book Review) memoir of the most secretive and elite tribe-Manhattan's Upper East Side mothers.
When Wednesday Martin first arrives on New York City's Upper East Side, she's clueless about the right addresses, the right wardrobe, and the right schools, and she's taken aback by the glamorous, sharp-elbowed mommies around her. She feels hazed and unwelcome until she begins to look at her new niche through the lens of her academic background in anthropology. As she analyzes the tribe's mating…

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