November 04, 2019
Divorces were no less unpleasant in the early 20th century than they are today.
Sophomore history major Veronica Polyniak’s recently presented her research project, Hitched and Ditched, before the Pennsylvania Historical Society. Her research examines 100-year-old divorce court records from 1918-1935. The documents, most of them dug out of the basement of Northumberland County Courthouse, reveal the nature of divorces at a time when divorce rates were increasing around the country.
Like today, many marriages unraveled under the strain of finances.
“Women were often the ones keeping their households running,” Polyniak said. “When these roles started to break down, issues began to arise, and couples separated.”
Polyniak found that though industrialization created jobs that were appealing to working class women, their husbands usually disapproved of their wives working outside of the home. Married women who felt relegated to domesticity fulfilled themselves by controlling the household finances and purchasing material goods to make their house feel like a home, Polyniak said.
But controlling the purse strings also carried responsibility and husbands were ready to blame their wives when finances went awry, she said.
In the case of Cora and Emmanuel, court records reveal the tension that arose when wives managed money that was usually solely earned by their husbands. Cora is recorded as taking the seemingly rational step of moving $400 her husband stashed in a backyard shed into a presumably more secure bank. Emmanuel objected, viewing the money as his own.
As divorce rates climbed in the early 20th century, media loudly decried the country’s “divorce crisis.” But it was cases like Cora and Emmanuel’s that likely softened public opinion on divorce, as court records indicate that the marriage officially ended after Cora claimed her husband assaulted her.
“The U.S. government attempted to curve divorce rates by creating new laws that extended the amount of time the couple had to live together before filing for separation, but this ultimately failed,” Polyniak said. “By the 1920s, more saw divorce as the necessary termination to a bad match.”