Guest Post: Nicholas L. Syrett on the History of Minors and Marriage in the United States

Nicholas L. Syrett is associate professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado and the author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities. He is writing a book on the history of minors and marriage in the United States and, with Corinne T. Field, coediting a volume on the significance of chronological age in American history to be published by NYU Press.

Writing the history of young people marrying in the United States, especially from a legal perspective, has largely meant focusing on the beginnings of marriages, and occasionally on their first year, during which time parents, married children, and various government officials and judges wrangled over their validity.  Indeed the article that I published in the JHCY focuses on the moment that legal minors married and how those marriages contested their status as children.  None of this, however, tells us all that much about how these youthful marriages actually turned out.  The fate of their marriages was, however, the focus of marriage and divorce reformers of the late nineteenth century, social workers of the early twentieth, and many social scientists of the mid-twentieth century.  And while the statistics became more reliable the further we get into the twentieth century, about one thing almost all of these groups agreed: youthful marriages were much more likely to end in divorce.

In the project I’m working on—a book about minors and marriage during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—I have been less concerned with the fate of young marriages than reformers have been (though I have certainly been interested in reformers’ arguments about divorce as a reason to ban youthful marriage).  In part this is because once children have been married for some time, they are no longer children and many of their marriages come to resemble the millions of other couples who marry a little later in life.   But occasionally one particular story sticks with me, as did that of Grover and Imogene Hollopeter, with whom I began my article in the JHCY, and whose case I talk about on BackStory (click on the “Web Extra” for a discussion of some of my findings in the JHCY article and a little on Grover and Imogene).

In 1908 Grover, 19, and Imogene, 14, broke the law (forging their parents’ consent) in order to marry in Olympia, Washington.  The Washington Supreme Court upheld their marriage, as did most courts with most minor marriages. But what happened to this fantastically named couple in the years after 1908?  I regret to inform that the Hollopeters fulfilled all the worst speculations of those who sought to ban the marriages of minors. Grover and Imogene had a daughter, Lois, in 1910.  Two years after that, however, Grover sued Imogene for divorce on the grounds of abandonment and desertion, alleging that she spent nights out late, came home under the influence of drink, and was verbally abusive towards him and Lois.  He won his divorce and custody of their two-year-old daughter in November of 1912.  This was itself rather unusual, but Imogene appears not to have contested Grover’s application for custody, asking only for visitation rights.  At the time of the divorce, Imogene expressed regrets for having “listened to his tales of wedded bliss that never materialized.”  Grover remarried a year later and this marriage lasted until his death in 1947.  Imogene seems also to have remarried (in 1915) and thereafter disappears from the historical record. While the same story could certainly be told about any number of other couples with greater access to divorce in the early twentieth century—and while many youthful marriages lasted until the death of a spouse—it seems fair to say that Grover and Imogene’s youthfulness at the moment of matrimony may also have contributed to the brevity of their union.  Certainly Imogene thought so.