More than a half million Greeks emigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1920— ninety percent of whom were men, creating a demographic nightmare for their future as a community, namely— 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.
There are numerous stories that were passed around from mouth to mouth, 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.
A popular song was recorded by Rita Abazis called “Mama don’t send me to America”— 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 United States to Greece to meet prospective prides. 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 I don’t want the Ahepa and pokes fun at the fez they wore signifying their membership in the Greek American fraternal organization.
I don’t want the Ahepa
how should I tell you?
No matter how many millions he has,
I’d rather be in love
I love a young lad
With a thin waist
I don’t want him, I 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 nations.
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.
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 drives a car.