A Texas woman recently put her husband up for sale on Ebay, in the hopes of finding him a job. She was not the first to do so. Even in relatively modern times, there are recorded cases of actual sales of spouses, mainly of wives, not for work, but as a form of divorce.
One such transaction, according to Chambers’ “Book of Days”, occurred on April 7th, 1832, involving the auctioning of one Mary Anne Thomson, with “ownership” transferring from husband Joseph to acquirer Henry Mears. Affection apparently transferred elsewhere at an earlier date for both of the marital parties. The knock-down price on the Thomson lot was twenty shillings with a Newfoundland dog thrown into the deal.
Chambers provides several other examples along the same line for our delectation. In many cases, all of which seem to occur in the most rural, backward areas, the auction is said to have taken place in a cattle auction, or an auction in a similar vein, with the auction lot being led to market in a halter. The sale was not necessarily an unhappy event for either party, with bells ringing, in some cases, to help celebrate the event.
In addition to the "Book of Days", several instances, along with citations, are to be found here: http://ontalink.com/history/18th_century/regions/British/wife_selling.html
At least one famous writer has included wife-selling in his work, and that is Thomas Hardy, in his “The Mayor of Casterbridge”. We have Philip Allingham to thank for publishing on the Victorian Web website research on Hardy’s use of wife-selling as a plot device (http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/pva283.html).
Here is a passage from Hardy’s "Mayor of Casterbridge":
‘Henchard's wife acted for the best, but she had involved herself in
difficulties. A hundred times she had been upon the point of telling her
daughter Elizabeth-Jane the true story of her life, the tragical crisis
of which had been the transaction at Weydon Fair, when she was not much
older than the girl now beside her. But she had refrained. An innocent
maiden had thus grown up in the belief that the relations between the
genial sailor and her mother were the ordinary ones that they had always
appeared to be. The risk of endangering a child's strong affection by
disturbing ideas which had grown with her growth was to Mrs. Henchard
too fearful a thing to contemplate. It had seemed, indeed folly to think
of making Elizabeth-Jane wise.
But Susan Henchard's fear of losing her dearly loved daughter's heart by
a revelation had little to do with any sense of wrong-doing on her own
part. Her simplicity--the original ground of Henchard's contempt for
her--had allowed her to live on in the conviction that Newson
had acquired a morally real and justifiable right to her by his
purchase--though the exact bearings and legal limits of that right were
vague. It may seem strange to sophisticated minds that a sane young
matron could believe in the seriousness of such a transfer; and were
there not numerous other instances of the same belief the thing might
scarcely be credited. But she was by no means the first or last peasant
woman who had religiously adhered to her purchaser, as too many rural
Fear not, Scott fans. Dr. Allingham mentions Walter Scott alongside “The Mayor of Casterbridge”. But it is not in the wife-selling discussion, per se. It is more in Scott’s development of character. Allingham provides a series of questions for the student of Hardy (http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/pva121.html), including the following: ‘Donald Farfrae is a romantic figure right out of the novels of Sir Walter Scott: how does Hardy make him a sympathetic character in this episode?’ Not to answer, but here’s one section of Hardy’s novel:
‘While thus furtively making her survey the opening words of a song
greeted her ears from the front of the settle, in a melody and accent
of peculiar charm. There had been some singing before she came down; and
now the Scotchman had made himself so soon at home that, at the request
of some of the master-tradesmen, he, too, was favouring the room with a
Elizabeth-Jane was fond of music; she could not help pausing to listen;
and the longer she listened the more she was enraptured. She had never
heard any singing like this and it was evident that the majority of the
audience had not heard such frequently, for they were attentive to a
much greater degree than usual. They neither whispered, nor drank, nor
dipped their pipe-stems in their ale to moisten them, nor pushed the mug
to their neighbours. The singer himself grew emotional, till she could
imagine a tear in his eye as the words went on:--
"It's hame, and it's hame, hame fain would I be,
O hame, hame, hame to my ain countree!
There's an eye that ever weeps, and a fair face will be fain,
As I pass through Annan Water with my bonnie bands again;
When the flower is in the bud, and the leaf upon the tree,
The lark shall sing me hame to my ain countree!"
There was a burst of applause, and a deep silence which was even more
eloquent than the applause. It was of such a kind that the snapping of a
pipe-stem too long for him by old Solomon Longways, who was one of those
gathered at the shady end of the room, seemed a harsh and irreverent
act. Then the ventilator in the window-pane spasmodically started off
for a new spin, and the pathos of Donald's song was temporarily effaced.
"'Twas not amiss--not at all amiss!" muttered Christopher Coney, who was
also present. And removing his pipe a finger's breadth from his lips, he
said aloud, "Draw on with the next verse, young gentleman, please."
"Yes. Let's have it again, stranger," said the glazier, a stout,
bucket-headed man, with a white apron rolled up round his waist. "Folks
don't lift up their hearts like that in this part of the world." And
turning aside, he said in undertones, "Who is the young man?--Scotch,
"Yes, straight from the mountains of Scotland, I believe," replied
Young Farfrae repeated the last verse. It was plain that nothing so
pathetic had been heard at the Three Mariners for a considerable time.
The difference of accent, the excitability of the singer, the intense
local feeling, and the seriousness with which he worked himself up to a
climax, surprised this set of worthies, who were only too prone to shut
up their emotions with caustic words.’