Here come the brides

A twist on the traditional wedding song, played as brides walk down the aisle to their grooms, may have sounded something like this in the 1920s: 

“Here comes the bride
Dressed in her best
Engaged to a picture
of the husband in her future.”

However, instead of walking down the aisle, these brides would be walking off the ramp of a ship that had carried them from faraway lands into the arms of grooms anxiously waiting to meet their betrothed. The grooms, often dressed in their nicest clothing with white flowers in their buttonholes, eagerly anticipated the brides’ arrival. The brides wore their best dresses and shawls, often crafted by their own hands, and the best smiles they could muster. When her name was called, a bride would wave and hold up the photo of the man who paid for her passage in exchange for her hand in marriage. Next, the matched men were called to claim their brides. Some choosier husbands did not approve of the appearance of their matches and left before their names were called. Sadly, unclaimed brides would have to board the ship and return to their native lands. According to a New York Times article from  Aug. 3, 1922, “200 Picture Brides Come Here to Wed,” 12 women on the steamship Constantinople were unclaimed.   

The more beautiful women were selected by wealthier men, many of whom sent chaperones for the voyage to ensure their arrival. However, there was no guarantee that a beautiful woman would be matched with a handsome man of her own age. Some of the brides hardly recognized their grooms from the attractive photos received. Many were 20 years older, shorter and heavier in stature, and not as wealthy as they had led the women to believe. Some of these men arranged for the marriage to take place at the pier before bringing their brides to their impoverished homes. Others restricted the bride from going out in public until they were married, fearing she would find a more handsome or wealthy prospect.

These picture brides came from Armenia, Romania and Turkey. (Photo STLI 24333, Courtesy of National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument)

This phenomenon resulted from the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians in the 1915 Armenian Genocide, in which men were largely exterminated and up to 85% of the survivors were women and children. “American immigration law inadvertently encouraged women to become picture brides through an 1891 amendment to the Immigration Act of 1882,” according to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum’s article, “Go West, Young Woman!” The article states, “The Act identified any person ‘unable to take care of himself or herself’ as a reason for immigration officials to deny entry into the United States. Women had a very difficult time proving that they could be financially autonomous and were much more likely to gain entry if they had a male legal guardian. Such a guardian could be an uncle or a brother, but for those without male relatives in America, it was often a husband.”

For many women, it was a choiceless choice — and those were the lucky ones. Men preferred women who were healthy, beautiful, young and docile. The next consideration was family background and experiences in the Genocide, particularly abduction and rape, according to Isabel Kaprielian-Churchill in “Armenian Refugee Women: The Picture Brides, 1920-1930.” Women who were tattooed by their captors were considered “damaged” and would not be given an opportunity to be considered. Other women had to make heart-wrenching decisions to leave behind children born out of wedlock, often due to rape.

Many men had left their homeland Armenia before the Genocide, either to escape previous wars or to work and save money to bring their wives to a new life. They lived as bachelors or widowers, not knowing if their wives or children had survived and with no option to go back and search. Armenians were more determined than ever to sustain their ethnicity and culture for future generations. The need for survival outweighed the desire for love, and there was seemingly an endless supply of single Armenian women with few options and eligible Armenian bachelors who could promise a better life.

Regardless of their experiences in the Genocide, picture brides, including my great-aunts Victoria and Yeghsabet, showed a spirit of survival, resilience and determination to conquer adversity that helped them leave behind their shattered lives to begin new ones in America, with hope for safety and security. They could only wish for love.

Victoria Atamian Waterman

Victoria Atamian Waterman

Victoria Atamian Waterman is a writer born in Rhode Island. Growing up in an immigrant, bilingual, multi-generational home with survivors of the Armenian Genocide has shaped the storyteller she has become. She is a trustee of Soorp Asdvadzadzin Armenian Apostolic Church and chair of the Armenian Heritage Monument in Whitinsville, MA. She is the author of "Who She Left Behind."
Victoria Atamian Waterman

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  1. How fortunate were those women who had an opportunity to have a better life in America, AND to actually come to love their husbands!! Or at least to like them enough to begin a new life together that may have lasted 50 plus years!! I was so fortunate to have two wonderful sets of grandparents who each raised 3 children and lived together until death, despite the challenges they faced in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

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