The bride’s sister officiated for the marriage of Katherine Irene Miller to ….
So began a short two column story in the Farmington Observer on August 13, 1981. The marriage was very short-lived, so I won’t reproduce all the details regarding participants in the ceremony. Suffice to say that other paragraphs were typical of wedding announcements that have appeared in newspapers for decades. There was information regarding parents of the bride and groom, the names of attendants, details on the reception, background on education of bride and groom and our plans for the immediate future. Wardrobe (for the young women, anyways) was described in detail:
The bride wore a white cotton lace dress with high neckline and long, full sleeves. She wore baby’s breath in her hair and carried white and yellow roses with baby’s breath and ivy. Her attendants’ pastel green dresses were street length with two-tier skirts and capelets.
Not often you see the word “capelet” these days.
But descriptions like these took up a great deal of the space in Women’s sections for many decades of the 20th century. The announcement of my marriage in 1981, for instance, appeared on a page with three other wedding notices and three engagement announcements – plus a column my mother wrote about the wedding and six clothing ads.
It is not surprising, then, that the processing of these announcements took an inordinate amount of time for editors and writers in Women’s sections of the 1960s and 1970s. For the editors, the shorthand for the work of processing these announcements came down to one word: Brides. According to Vivian Castleberry (Dallas Times Herald), “we did brides – endlessly we did brides. I mean, morning, noon and night, we did brides.”
Doing brides was a well-oiled process at most newspapers. As Marie Anderson (Miami Herald) described:
Well, they all came in, the girl and her mother, with the envelope and the glossy print and the write-up of who was getting married to whom and you had to go over this with them and be sure – is this the way you want to spell this and that kind of thing. And get their telephone number in case you need to get back to them. Usually the young girl who sat at the first desk inside was the one who got most of the brides, they didn’t get any further than that. She had to type them all up. And then, at some point, we can gauge the length of this, and go over the pictures and, if this turns out to be an important wedding in the community we will make this picture a column and a half or a two column picture instead of a one column.
It was a tedious process and it was content that many women’s editors worked to minimize on their pages in order to cover more important community news. Edee Greene (Ft. Lauderdale News) provided some advice for decreasing the length of the announcements: “You might begin by undressing the mother of the bride. One way to do this is to remove the request for such information from the bridal form.” In a larger frame, Marj Paxson described her struggle at the Houston Chronicle to get brides off the first page of the Sunday section to make room for extended feature stories. All went well with the change until, well, until the second week:
A big wedding came up and the bride’s mother brought it in and of course she wanted the picture on the front page and we told her that we weren’t running brides on the front page anymore. And the bride’s father called me and I told him the same thing. And then he called Governor Hobby … I don’t know where I got all the courage from, but I was devastated that we were going to break this policy. I told him that we had just started this. It was a new step and we just couldn’t stop. Well, he would speak to Mrs. Hobby about it … She backed me up.
Brides also played a role in larger social issues of the time. Vivian Castleberry explains how this happened in Dallas in the early 1960s:
I was at SMU covering a conference and there was one of the black women …came up to me and said, “I want you to explain something to me. How do you explain that you published one white debutante’s picture in the paper 12 different times in her debut season, a period of three months, and would not publish my daughter’s picture when she got married.” And I said to her, “I cannot explain that to you. If I could, I would. I am not going to stand here and try to tell you that, that it is justified in any way.”
And, after a bit of a battle with her managing editor, Vivian got it changed. Black brides made it into the paper. And Vivian believes that the brides led the way for more coverage of the African-American community in subsequent years.
Brides, brides, brides.
Many women’s editors believed that those brides would eventually disappear from the pages of newspapers as more substantive coverage took over. That wedding and engagement announcements – along with coverage of club news and society balls – would become obsolete and hold little interest for readers of the future.
Fifty years later, though, this journalistic practice shows little sign of abating. This morning, I pulled up the forms for submitting a wedding announcement to the Farmington Observer where mine appeared so many years ago and to the most venerable of American newspapers, the New York Times.
Some things have changed. The Times publishes announcements for same sex couples and for commitment ceremonies and civil unions in addition to weddings. Both papers have apparently “undressed” everyone in the wedding party, as there are no questions about clothing. And though detail is still requested regarding parents of the celebrants, the Times includes a check off box where the submitter can indicate “I am not in communication with this parent.”
But most of the basics remain – information on bride and groom (in the Observer where marriage equality isn’t [yet] legal) or the celebrants (in the Times) including education, career, and future plans. Wardrobe detail isn’t requested, but the Times suggests that a full-length photo of the bride might be submitted to show off the gown. And, sadly, the influence of social class is still apparent. Though announcements in both papers are free, it’s a tough selection process at the Times. Judging from the announcements that make it into the paper, an Ivy League degree and prominent parents will give you a serious leg up.
During the 1960s, radical feminists often advocated abolishing the patriarchal institution of marriage. When considering trends regarding marriage and divorce, there are apparently many Americans who agree that marriage isn’t working.
But as marriage equality has become the law in state after state, we see couples rushing to the courthouse and to churches to be a part of the sometime reviled institution. And whatever the combination of brides and grooms in the happy couple, many also want to make their love public with a column inch or two in the paper.
After fighting the battle for getting black brides in the paper, Vivian Castleberry soon concluded that “we shouldn’t be publishing brides at all.” But in later years, she changed her mind:
I’ve rethought this a little bit. That is one time in life that a woman remembers how the paper treated her. She will clip it and keep it for the rest of her life. And I think there should be a place in our world for that.
And whether it’s “Brides, brides, brides” or “Grooms, grooms, grooms” or brides and grooms together, I think Vivian is right.
Thanks to the Women in Journalism Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri and to the Washington Press Club Oral History Project – these archives of primary source material are invaluable.