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The woman's father was expected to provide a dowry.The well-heeled were aware that there were scurrilous and ruthless fortune hunters looking to ensnare wealthy heiresses. For some couples there was heartbreak; for others, resignation.
At left, a coach waits for a pair leaving by the back fence in John Collet's The Elopement, from ca. Starting a family at times leapfrogged a wedding—baby-to-be making a party of three. The anxiety is quickened by the feeling that society has been on the road to ruin since maybe Miles Standish's day and that the prospects of their offspring walking the path to the altar with a nice young man or sweet young woman have greatly diminished since John Alden and Priscilla Mullins made the trip.But any red-blooded young male who independently set his cap at a particular young lady and approached the parents with a view to instigating a formal courtship was in for a hard slog.Influential relatives had almost complete control of the course of events.Leon Kass of the University of Chicago says that nowadays "for the great majority, the way to the altar is uncharted territory: It's every couple on its own bottom, without a compass, often without a goal.Those who reach the altar seem to have stumbled on it by accident." It may be that the traditional route to conjugal correctness—chaste courtship, formal engagement, church wedding, consummation, and parenthood, in that order—is less traveled.
In such situations, couples had to wait into their late twenties before formally entering the connubial state—which some historians say created fertile ground for extracurricular shenanigans, broken promises, and court battles.