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More than 500,000 Greeks — 90 percent men — emigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1920, creating a demographic nightmare for their future as a community due to the lack of women.
As a result, the era of the picture bride was born and thousands of young Greek women were sent to America, many only after having seen their prospective husbands in a photograph that was sent to the village from faraway America by a friend or relative attempting to make the connection, or from a marriage agency set up in the immigrant communities abroad.
It was a dangerous journey for unwed girls, and although some were enthusiastic to leave Greece for the mythical New World, many were forced against their will to leave and begin new lives with stage — often much older — men.
Numerous stories were passed from mouth to mouth and village to village about young girls left at the docks or train stations because they were not as beautiful as their photographs, or because the prospective husband never showed up to claim his bride.
Picture brides soon entered the consciousness of Greeks on both sides of the Atlantic.
Popular Greek singer Rita Abazis recorded a song called “Min Me Stelneis Mana Stin Ameriki” or in English, “Mama Don’t Send Me to America” about a daughter begging to her mother not to send her to America.
Mama, don’t send me to America, I’ll wither and die there.
I don’t want dollars — how can I say it?
Only bread, onions, and the one I love.
I love someone in the village, Mama, A handsome youth, an only son.
He’s kissed me in the ravines, And embraced me under the olive trees.
Yiorgo, my love, I’m leaving you, And I’m going far away.
They’re marrying me off in exile (xenitia).
They take me like a lamb to be slaughtered,
And there, in my grief, they will bury me.
In the 1920s and 30s, the American Hellenic Educational and Progressive Association (AHEPA) organized trips from its chapters across the U.S. to Greece for its male-only members to meet prospective brides.
Often arriving wearing their AHEPA fez and strange western clothing, these men were often mocked– and feared– simultaneously by bands of village girls who were lined up to match with a potential husband.
Another song entered Greek popular culture — “Den Ton Thelo ton Ahepa,” or in English, “I don’t want the Ahepa” — which pokes fun at the men of Ahepa and fez they wore signifying their membership in the Greek-American fraternal organization.
I don’t want the Ahepa
how can I tell you?
No matter how many millions he has,
I love someone else
I love a young lad
With a thin waist
I don’t want him, I don’t want him
The Ahepa with the fez
The American public was fascinated by the picture bride phenomenon, practiced extensively by Greeks, Armenians and other people from Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
A similar phenomenon was happening on the West Coast with Japanese and other oriental ethnic groups.
The New York Times and other American newspapers ran stories regularly about ship arrivals with picture brides, even including scandalizing details like “three young men who were doomed to disappointment” when their brides to be “exercised a woman’s privilege of changing her mind and announced that they had fallen in love with fellow passengers” on the trip across the Atlantic.
Many of the stories were sad, including this one about the spurned picture bride whose prospective husband claimed wasn’t as pretty in person as she appeared in her photographs or this one about the 16 picture brides who weren’t claimed at Ellis Island and were forced to return to Greece.
Some were funny, like this one about the picture bride who was sued by the man she was supposed to marry. “Oh, I thought I was going to marry a young man,” she said. “I don’t want to marry an old man.”
Still other stories involved picture brides bringing gifts for their husbands, including one who brought a saddle, only to learn that he doesn’t ride horses but instead drives a car.
Featured photo: January 21, 1921, New York, NY — Five picture brides arrive from Greece on the S.S. Megalli Hellas to marry Greek-Americans. The majority had never seen their prospective husbands, their courtships having been carried on by mail and the exchange of photographs. Each of the brides-to-be carried photos of her future husband and each of the loving swains crowded about the ship with pictures of his prospective bride. In many cases these photographs were the sole means of identification. (Photo credit: Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island, National Park Service)
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