Information on 19th-century marriage is patchy, but what is known suggests that most couples married when the man was in his mid-20s and the woman was about two years younger, although age at marriage rose somewhat as the century progressed. Marriage was almost universal; fewer than 10 percent of women never married, although that figure also increased over the century, as women's economic opportunities grew slightly larger (Ward, 51).
Geography was crucial. Two out of three men and women married within their own communities (Ward, 61), usually to people they had grown up with. Typically, groups of young people "chummed around" at informal parties, sleigh rides, picnics, skating parties, concerts and other social events. The fact that these were group events in public meant that young men and women were not alone without supervision-something absolutely against society's rules, although in pioneer societies, the rules could be bent somewhat to fit the circumstances (Ward 65-66).
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Gradually, as young people matured, and especially as young men established themselves economically, individuals would look around the group and pick out potential mates. Young men usually made the first move, singling out a young woman for particular attention (Ward, 66). The young people would explore their tastes and similarities, moving slowly toward greater emotional intimacy (Noël, 23).
This pattern meant that families knew who their children's friends (and potential mates) were and what they were up to, allowing watchful parents to relax their vigilance, at least a little (Noël, 22). Since marriage connected families as well as individuals, a partner's background was no minor matter (Noël, 20).
Unfortunately, this sort of courtship does not tend to leave much in the way of written records. Mostly we have diaries, Frances Tweedie's diary, for example, records teas and fairs, cherry-picking parties, barn raisings and the St. Andrew's Day festival that took place in Scarborough, Ontario. Through these events we glimpse her future husband, William Milne, although Frances rarely writes about him directly (Noël, 26-28).
Noël, Françoise. Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 1780-1870: A View from Diaries and Family Correspondence. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003.
Ward, W. Peter. Courtship, Love and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century English Canada. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990.