Picture brides Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The availability of picture brides made it possible for single Asian male immigrant workers to form families and to make permanent residence in their adopted country, most often Hawaii, but also on the West Coast of North America. After an abbreviated matchmaking process, the bride would be added to her future husband’s family register, then sail to meet him, thus complying with the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 that allowed only Asians joining family members to immigrate to the United States and its territory of Hawaii.

Between 1848 and 1875, the sugar industry in Hawaii enjoyed meteoric success as a result of four developments: The gold rush created new markets for food products in California, the Great Mahele made private ownership of land possible, the U.S. Civil War boosted the price of sugar, and the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 guaranteed Hawaii duty-free access to the American markets. The burgeoning sugar market required a vast supply of labor. Between 1875 and 1910, the plantation workforce in the Hawaiian Islands increased from 3,260 to 43,917. Most of these workers were single, male, illiterate Asian immigrants recruited by the sugar agencies and treated as commodities by the white American plantation owners. During the 1880’s, “Hawaii Netsu” (emigration fever) swept the economically strained prefectures of southwestern Japan. By 1902, Japanese constituted 73.4 percent of the plantation workforce. Between 1903 and 1905, more than 7,000 Koreans–spurred by Japanese expansion and domination, poverty, and a desire for religious freedom–immigrated to Hawaii;Asian immigrantsHawaii. By 1924, almost 200,000 Japanese had migrated to Hawaii (although many eventually returned to Japan and approximately 40,000 remigrated to the West Coast of theUnited States).Photography;and “picture brides”[picture brides]"Picture brides"[picture brides]Japanese immigrants;"picture brides"[picture brides]Hawaii;Asian immigrants[a]Gentlemen’s Agreement[Gentlemens Agreement]Photography;and “picture brides”[picture brides]"Picture brides"[picture brides]Japanese immigrants;"picture brides"[picture brides][cat]EAST ASIAN IMMIGRANTS;Picture brides[04170][cat]FAMILY ISSUES;Picture brides[04170][cat]WOMEN;Picture brides[04170]Hawaii;Asian immigrants[a]Gentlemen’s Agreement[Gentlemens Agreement]

From 1885 to 1889, Asian immigrants were typically bound to three-year work contracts and lived in rudimentary bachelor housing on the plantation grounds, in a paternalistic, highly controlled environment. In 1900, the Contract labor systemcontract labor system was abolished. Plantation owners found married workers more dependable than bachelors and encouraged the picture bride system as an enticement for male workers to stay. After saving for a bride’s trip from his meager wages–a process often taking decades–the laborer would elicit a matchmaker’s aid in his home country to arrange a marriage through the exchange of photographs. Commonly, because the man had not been photographed since his original travel papers were issued, the image submitted often pictured a much younger man, a cause of dismay when young brides, many of whom were in their teens, first met their husbands. Segregated by ethnicity, a practice that the plantation management instituted to lessen the likelihood of unification among workers, but a system appealing to the laborers for the comfort of linguistic and cultural sameness, the couples spent ten hours a day in hard labor, working six days a week. Some women did field- or millwork, while others provided domestic needs for singlemen: washing laundry, housecleaning, sewing, cooking, and operating bathhouses. The families resulting from these unions would become the dominant community of working-class residents of Hawaii in later decades.

The peak period for picture brides in British Columbia, 1910-1920, was approximately twenty years after the surge of brides to Hawaii;Asian immigrantsHawaii.Photography;and “picture brides”[picture brides]"Picture brides"[picture brides]Japanese immigrants;"picture brides"[picture brides]

Further Reading
  • Makabe, Tomoko. Picture Brides: Japanese Women in Canada. North York, Ont.: Multicultural History Society of Canada, 1995.
  • Takaki, Ronald. Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835-1920. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.

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