The institution of marriage in Canada has undergone significant change over the last couple of hundred of years, and continues to change today. Leading up to the turn of the 20th century, marriage was for the most part a rigid institution, controlled by traditions passed down from previous generations. Until then, classic patriarchal ideas dominated marriage ideals, empowering husbands and suppressing wives. Upon joining their ‘partners’ in matrimony, women would lose any property rights, almost becoming the property themselves of their new spouse. For the most part, men and women in Canada have always been able to choose their own spouse, however the choice was commonly subject to parental approval.
It wasn’t until the 1880s when women started gaining more rights and started to break away from restrictions. As arranged marriages and other relics of traditional institutions began to fade, romantic courtship became the new precursor to marriage. Finding a spouse involved lengthy and private courtships between two individuals, full of formalities and subtle interactions. But ultimately, it offered the promise of happiness and personal fulfillment through companionship. Although these unions were built on personal choice instead of family ties, Canadians still tended to marry within their social groups, which was undoubtably impacted by factors like race, religion and class.
In Nanaimo, the coal industry had a significant impact on the demographics of the city. A massive influx of predominantly male workers looking to capitalize on opportunity meant Nanaimo actually had a less traditional family makeup when compared to other industrial cities. In 1881, the ratio of men to women in the area was almost 2 to 1. Despite these impacts, marriage was still very common. It was also a joyous occasion for families and the community to come together to celebrate, like Mr. and Mrs. Caleb Woodward on the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary, pictured above in 1905.