Look Beyond the Marriage Certificate

As genealogists, we look for documentation of the milestones of our ancestors’ lives: birth, marriage, and death. We gather the documents, thrilled when we finally locate them, and give them a quick glance to grab the important dates along with any clues to relationships. The document is then filed, either in a notebook or file folder, or digitized. And that’s it. Mission accomplished.

Not so fast! Let’s look at that marriage certificate or that entry in the church marriage register again. We have the names of the bride and groom along with a marriage date and perhaps the parents’ names. Additional information could include addresses, occupations, and ages. All of this information provides clues for further research. And what better place to begin that research than in the local newspaper published at the time of their marriage. The marriage certificate or record gave us the facts. Now we need to look for the details that will bring life to the event.

  • When great-grandma married, what did she wear?
  • Who was the best man?
  • Did the wedding take place at home or in a church?
  • Who was invited?

The answers to these questions aren’t found in the official records. But historical newspapers may provide the answers. Weddings were social events that brought families and neighbors together. Engagement announcements before the event, news of showers given in honor of the future bride, and detailed articles about the wedding can be found within the pages of the newspaper. In the twentieth century, many of these articles were accompanied by photos. These notices can be treasure troves for the genealogist and can include any of the following: date of the wedding, maiden name of the bride, parents of both bride and groom, siblings of the couple who may be serving as best man or maid of honor, residence, occupation, names of relatives and the place they reside, and the location of the wedding.

Wedding announcements often have quite a bit of detail about the wedding including descriptions of dresses and decorations. Many weddings in the late 1800s and early 1900s took place at home, but those home weddings could be quite stylized. Brides wore their finest and the parlors were filled with greenery and flowers of the season. Many spring and summer weddings were held outdoors either on a porch or veranda, or in the yard. Wedding meals and wedding trips were noted and were sometimes quite detailed. The newlywed couple’s future residence may also be mentioned. All of these details are just waiting for you to discover them.

A recorded marriage record may provide the essential facts about a wedding, but a newspaper can add details about the day not available elsewhere.

The marriage announcement for my great-grandparents appeared in the 23 November 1898 issue of the Hopewell Herald, a newspaper published in Hopewell, New Jersey. Their marriage certificate provided the facts—names of the bride and groom, their ages, place of residence, parents’ names, and date and place of the wedding. The newspaper announcement expanded on those facts to describe the bride’s white cashmere dress and the evergreen parlor decorations. I turned to the front page of that issue and discovered that the area had experienced two blizzards during the week prior to the wedding and travel on the roads was reported as difficult. Still, about fifty guests witnessed the marriage. One can just imagine the romantic setting: the hush that falls over the snow-covered earth, the scent of pine filling the parlors, the light of day dimming with the sunset, and the bride aglow in white cashmere, satin, and lace. Combining the facts found in the marriage announcement (who, what, when, where) with the descriptive elements (parlor decorations and description of the wedding gown) against the backdrop of a wintry late-November evening creates a more complete picture of the day.

The marriage certificate provides the details, but the newspaper paints the day with color.


Learn more about how newspapers can help in your genealogy research and add that social history component to your family history by reading the Newspapers GenGuide.


Copyright 2017, Phyllis Matthews Ziller, All Rights Reserved.