Not What It Used to Be

A few days ago I blogged about my great-grandmother Juliana's marital complications.  Generally I don't like to go back and edit prior postings, unless I've made a glaring typo or left out an important detail, but I did make a few changes to that one.  After reading it, I seemed to be accusing the lady of polyandry, of having multiple husbands at the same time, which is not how her story goes.  It could use some expansion.

When her little town of Carbondale hit the skids during a nationwide recession, Juliana's husband apparently left for greener pastures in St. Louis.  Finding herself the head of a household with three children, Juliana knew her family desperately needed a breadwinner.  Who should happen by but a miner named John Robinson, who must have been looking for a mother for the two little girls in his care.  Perhaps in the beginning he had only been looking for a room, at a moment when Juliana’s mother and stepfather, the Turnbulls, were hoping to rent one out.  The evidence of the 1885 census is subject to interpretation.  Both he and Julia McCaul are listed as married and part of a family that included the Turnbulls.  Did they consider themselves married to each other - or did Robinson also have a spouse at large?  Even if the two were living together openly in 1885, a year later, after Julia McCaul became pregnant with John Robinson's child, they discreetly moved to Portland where their daughter Lillie would be born.  

As I researched the story of Thomas Lovewell and White Rock I found several couples living on the frontier whose marriages were informal arrangements.  In every case, these were second marriages, perhaps entered into warily, even experimentally.  "Let's see how this goes," they may have thought.  In each instance, a first marriage had also ended informally, usually with the husband's announcement that he was leaving for Pikes Peak.  Even at the time, a journey west was often called a "frontier divorce."  While some later generations may have been embarrassed by their ancestors' attitude toward matrimony, from our vantage point in the 21st century, those ancestors seem to have been ahead of their time.

In 1972 I got my first inkling of a sea change regarding marriage.  I was strolling across the campus of Kansas State University alongside two coeds.  One asked the other about her accommodations.  "Do you have your own apartment?"  "No.  I live with my boyfriend," was the reply.  Her new acquaintance was unsure how to respond.  "Oh.  Well.  That's … nice," she finally said.  "Yeah," the girl replied, "for him."

That conversation has been buzzing around in my head ever since.  It was the first time I had ever heard a girl admit that she was living with a young man who was not yet her husband.  Boys and girls had been doing that sort of thing for quite a while, I'm told, but doing it openly invited whispers.  Besides being sinful, it was considered trashy, something that the wrong sort might indulge in, not young people on their way to promising careers.  To a new generation, however, getting married before living together can seem quaint and even a bit daring, like buying a car without taking a test drive.  

I’m told that the word “dating” did not exist before the 1920’s except in the sense of affixing a particular year to an historical artifact.  “Boyfriend” and “girlfriend” are also recent terms, though they often imply more now than they did in the 1950’s.  We still talk about “marriage,” “divorce,” and “childhood,” words the pioneers also used, but words that acquired different shades of meaning over time.  When the average life expectancy was forty-five, even the phrase “till death do us part” must have had a different ring to it.    

© Dale Switzer 2023