Polygamy: How Much Instead of How Many

In a 19th-century Utah newspaper, a wise and thoughtful satirist argued that the polygamy “problem” had wrongly been characterized as a numbers issue—how many wives a man had—rather than a quantity issue—how much wife a man had. The satirist offered this ingenious answer under the heading,

“A New Solution of the Mormon Problem”

“There is something so unfair about all anti-polygamous bills heretofore introduced into Congress, that they have failed to become laws. They have all taken cognizance of number instead of quantity. For instance, if a man had two wives whose collective weight was 150 pounds, he was to be punished for it, while another man might have 200 pounds of wife and remain unpunished. The absurdity of this is apparent. The following, which we have drawn up at great pains, we would respectfully submit to our National Legislators for their consideration, with the firm belief that if it becomes a law, it will restrain the practice of Brighamy and solve the heretofore troublesome Mormon Problem:

“An Act to produce an equal and fair distribution of wife material throughout the United States.

“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That every male citizen of the United States who shall have attained the age of puberty shall be allowed one hundred and fifty pounds of wife.

“Sec. 2. That every person who has more than the above named quantity of wife, shall pay a tax of one dollar per annum for every pound in excess of the prescribed quantity.

“Sec. 3. That every person who possesses less than the aforementioned quantity of wife shall receive fifty cents per pound per annum for every pound he is deficient. This amount to be paid from the proceeds of the surplus wife tax as provided for in the previous section.

“Sec. 4. That the weight to be used for wife weighing shall be Troy weight as provided for other jewels, gold, etc.

“Sec. 5. That all acts and parts of acts conflicting herewith are hereby repealed.

“Now, if the above should become law, the greedy fellow who had, say, two wives, each one weighing five hundred pounds, would have to pay a tax of $850.00 per year, whilst the unfortunate bachelor who was unable to procure a wife at all, would be somewhat recompensed for his loss by receiving $75.00 a year from the man who had his share of wife, thus to a great extent equalizing the wife matter. It would also serve as a great check on polygamy as there are but few men who are able to pay so heavy a tax on wives, and those who are willing to, surely ought to be allowed to keep them.”

The satirist’s concern for the “unfortunate bachelor” in Utah was not entirely unfounded. Kathryn M. Daynes argues that “plural marriage dramatically altered the nature of the marriage market in nineteenth-century Utah. It turned what would have been a slight marriage squeeze against women into a significant marriage squeeze against men. Nevertheless, a high proportion of men married relatively young and nearly all married eventually.” (“Single Men in a Polygamous Society: Male Marriage Patterns in Manti, Utah,” Journal of Mormon History 24 (Spring 1998): 89-111).

Besides the bill’s potential for solving the polygamy “problem,” it might also promote exercise and good health among women, a sort of Word of Wisdom tax. Even still it is inherently biased in favor of small women irrespective of polygamy or monogamy. A monogamist with a plus size wife would still have to pay the tax. It is also inherently sexist in that it does not provide equal incentive for men to be physically fit. Should the bill have passed, it may have turned Mormon men into a bunch of overweight monogamist-patriarchs exercising unrighteous-personal-trainer-type-dominion over their wives in an effort to claim a wife tax rebate.

Other potential strengths and weaknesses? How would you vote?

27 comments for “Polygamy: How Much Instead of How Many

  1. December 4, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    Methinks that under this proposal, an eight cow wife comes with the dowry necessary to pay her tax …

  2. Kevin Barney
    December 4, 2007 at 6:13 pm

    I think we would have to index both the tax and the weight for inflation.

  3. December 4, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    Hilarious. As per Kevin’s comment, $1 in 1885 is worth $21.64 today. That could add up.

  4. manaen
    December 4, 2007 at 7:38 pm

    4. The Deseret Sunday School Union floated a similar proposal in 1969, but with agricultural weight instead of the Troy weight proposed above. They didn’t, however, reveal their proposed tax rates so I’m still wondering what Johnny Lingo would have been assessed for his 8-cow wife.

  5. Mark D.
    December 4, 2007 at 7:56 pm

    1969? or 1869?

  6. smb
    December 4, 2007 at 8:00 pm

    So easy to be a woman, then and now.

  7. Bob
    December 4, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    I’m sorry…but I missed the satire.

  8. Edje
    December 5, 2007 at 12:14 am

    Kevin (2): indexing weight.

    1. Convert troy to avoirdupois (0.823 lbs/lbt; 150 lbt = 123 lbs, 200 lbt = 165 lbs; )
    2. Assume a 30% change in mean weight from then till now (10-15% change from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century (
    ref, p. 411-412 and an additional 15% from the 1960s to the present (ref; note that I’m equating % change in BMI and % change in raw mass among other sinful sloppinesses, but think I’m close enough for a first-order estimate.)

    So, the adjusted limit is about 160 lbs with a penalty of about 26 $/lb.

  9. manaen
    December 5, 2007 at 12:37 am


    1969. Johnny Lingo was released in 1969.

  10. Frank McIntyre
    December 5, 2007 at 11:05 am

    Well that would clearly lead to a more efficient allocation of wives (or wife mass anyway). I’m glad we had somebody looking for a market solution to the polygamy problem, as it would have saved the U.S., Utah, and the Church a phenomenal amount of resources.

    Alternatively, instead of weight we could just evaluate each prospective husband or wife’s value and then assess their mate on that basis– like a property tax.

    Assessments would be easy– each person contractually lists the price at which they would be willing to give up their mate. Then if anybody offered that much you had to surrender your husband or wife. Otherwise you paid some percentage of the value as a tax, which could then be disbursed to help the needy and mateless.

    I think that would make for a very pleasant community environment.

  11. Nick Literski
    December 5, 2007 at 11:34 am

    Yes, but some might end up having to pay someone to take a particular spouse off their hands. ;-)

  12. mondo cool
    December 5, 2007 at 1:19 pm

    Under this proposal (revised to remove gender discrimanation), would it mean a 300 lb. wife could have two husbands?
    She might, don’t ya know..

  13. Paul Reeve
    December 5, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    I’m pleased to see that most of you saw the same humor in this that I did.

    Thanks to Edje for adjusting for inflation. With Frank’s idea, combined with Edje’s numbers, I might be looking to sell my wife sometime soon and collect the bachelor rebate to help support the six kids. Makes cents.

  14. December 5, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    Which newspaper published this article?

  15. Paul Reeve
    December 5, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    Justin, it is in Enoch’s Advocate, an 1874 satirical periodical that only ran six issues. It was basically an anti-United Order paper. I hope to work up another post from it.

  16. December 5, 2007 at 5:16 pm

    Long live the United Order of Wooden Shoes.

  17. Kaimi Wenger
    December 5, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    Wow. Paul pulled this from a source that _Justin_ didn’t know. Wow.

    We’re not worthy.

  18. December 5, 2007 at 6:27 pm

    Perhaps Paul is also one of the Three Nephites?

  19. December 5, 2007 at 7:18 pm

    In Justin’s defense, he did know the United Order of Wooden Shoes once Enoch’s Advocate was mentioned!

  20. December 5, 2007 at 9:25 pm

    Thank you, Ardis. It’s been more than 130 years since I picked up a copy of that short-lived rag (“Overflowing of the gall supposed to be the primary cause of death”). I do remember some lines from a “ballad” called “The King of the Mormons” published therein:

    My people shall wear wooden shoes,
    Wooden shoes, wooden shoes,
    My people shall wear wooden shoes
    While I’m the King of the Mormons.

  21. East Coast
    December 5, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    Forgive me for asking but I don’t know all the sources as well as some of you Utah history types. What is the reference to wooden shoes about? One of my ancestors was Danish. He lived in Ephraim for a while. Although he and many of the other Danes were pacifists (they had just left a war in Europe), they had to serve as soldiers in the Black Hawk Indian War down in Sanpete County. Without actually going to look at the Oveson diary, I remember that their preference for appeasing the Indians rather than fighting them offended the “American” Mormons in Sanpete and the Americans at one point were taunting them and calling them “wooden shoes.” So, please tell me, what does “wooden shoes” mean? Did the Danes wear wooden shoes like the Dutch? (I wouldn’t have thought so since Denmark is a dryer place than the Netherlands.)

  22. Paul Reeve
    December 6, 2007 at 2:59 am

    #20, I’m the one who is not worthy. Truly amazing, Justin, especially after 130 years. There are probably three people who have heard of the Enoch Advocate and I think they are all in the bloggernacle. You anticipated the thought I had for a post about wooden shoes.

    #21 East Coast, if you can hang on for a couple of days I might have time to put together a post that should answer your question. Short answer is, wooden shoes were United Order product that never really caught on, for obvious reasons. The taunt may have been similar to that contained in the Enoch Advocate, that Mormons are blind sheep following Brigham Young’s every whim, so much so that they’ll even wear wooden shoes if he tells them to. In your case, it may be that the Danes were following Young’s advice to feed rather than fight the Indians. More to come . . . .

  23. East Coast
    December 6, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    Here’s the Ove Christian Overson diary reference to “Wooden Shoes.” I standardized the English for the quote. The Danish pacifism seemed to irk the Americans. George A. Smith referred to the reluctance of the people to arm and organize themselves as “stupidity” (Barron, Orson Hyde: Missionary, Apostle, Colonizer, 1977) and Orson Hyde “sadly wrote to Smith” that the men “were good farmers but inept fighters.” The Americans derisively called the Danish “Wooden Shoes.” Even Brigham Young called the immigrants “Wooden Shoes.” (JA Peterson, Mormons, Indians, and Gentiles and Utah’s Black Hawk War. University of Arizona Thesis, 1993.)

    Is this consistent with the United Order idea? I forget if they were living the United Order in Sanpete County. The Danes also didn’t seem to care for polygamy although Overson argued for it doctrinally while on his mission.

    June 1866
    On the third, Elders Orson Hyde, C Larson, John Van Cott [former president of the Scandinavian mission] and Canute Peterson [future president of the Scandinavian mission] were to meeting. Van Cott and Peterson spoke Danish. Very interesting for us Danes.
    On the tenth, the Indians raided Round Valley and took 300 head of stock and _____ had a fight with the Indians and two of the men were killed (James Ivie and Henry Wright). There were 80 Indians and only 30 of our boys.
    On the 24th the Indians raided Thistle Valley and killed Charles Brown, wounded Thomas Snarr and took 26 horses.
    This week the Indians raided Thistle Valley on a company of Salt Lake boys and killed one, wounded one. Took 30 horses. The boys had a long fight with them for two nights but then the Mount Pleasant boys came otherwise the Indians would have taken the camp for their boys’ ammunition was gone. They had made a boast that the Wooden Shoes could not do anything but we ______ and have to guard them.

  24. Paul Reeve
    December 6, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    East Coast, Scratch my earlier theory; it doesn’t fit chronologically.
    This reference is not in fact to the United Order shoes, which come later. This sounds like the Mount Pleasant boys are simply dissing the Danes.

  25. Ardis Parshall
    December 6, 2007 at 7:25 pm

    European peasants (maybe peasants elsewhere) made wooden shoes, or at least wooden-soled shoes, because they were cheap and held up better than leather in damp fields and mucky barnyards. Googling brings up evidence of the common use of wooden shoes in Denmark as well as Holland, northern France, and the Ukraine. I’m guessing that “Wooden Shoes” was used by some Anglo to diss a Danish brother who brought the practical habit to Sanpete with him, and was later broadened by Gentiles to apply to all Mormons who were so behind the times that they would actually take Brigham Young’s United Order seriously.

  26. East Coast
    December 6, 2007 at 7:26 pm

    I guess I threw all those characters out there without introducing them. Mount Pleasant is one of the towns in Sanpete County (Manti, Ephraim, Fairview, Moroni, etc.) and would have had a lot of Scandinavians.

    I don’t remember all the details off hand, but the Salt Lake militia evidently had to be sent down to help defend the settlements against the Indians and they would have been the ones making the statements about the “wooden shoes” not being able to defend themselves. Then the Salt Lake militia got in a stand off with the Indians and the Mount Pleasant boys rode to the rescue. “Ha,” says the Dane. “They made a boast that the Wooden Shoes could not do anything but we…have to guard them.”

    I guess this use of the term “wooden shoes” is independent from the United Order usage in that little poem?

  27. Paul Reeve
    December 6, 2007 at 8:26 pm

    “I guess this use of the term “wooden shoes” is independent from the United Order usage in that little poem? ”

    Yes, that is the way it seems to me. The United Order shoes were a byproduct of Young’s last ditch effort to stem the tide of outside economic influence begining territory wide in 1874. Your quotes come out of the Black Hawk War context (1865-1872). As Ardis suggests, it doesn’t seem that we are talking about the same thing.

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