My niece is getting married early next month, and my gift to the happy couple is preparing the food for the afternoon reception. I love cooking and have hosted many big parties, but there’s still a lot of prep work involved in an event like this. So this week—while on spring break from teaching—I’m rolling puff pastry dough, making meatballs to freeze, and spending a lot of quality time with my Cuisinart. My trash TV accompaniment for this kitchen marathon has been Netflix streaming of Say Yes to the Dress. And tomorrow I’m excited to go mother-of-the-bride dress shopping with my sister.
So I’ve been thinking about weddings a lot in the last few days.
Mom and her fellow women’s pages editors of the 1960s and 1970s thought about—or at least wrote about—weddings all the time. Tulle gowns. Bouquet flowers. Honeymoon locations. The betrothed couple and all who surround them. As I wrote in a previous blog post, it all got a bit tiring for the editors, but they also saw the value of memorializing these special days.
There were many such special days in those times and they were experienced by the very young in America. Over the early decades of the 20th century, the average age for first marriage steadily dropped. In 1890, the average age for first marriage was 26.5 years for men and 23.6 years for women. By 1950, those numbers had dropped to 24.0 years for men and 20.5 years—yes, 20.5 years on average—for women. After this, the average age of first marriage gradually started increasing again and by 2010 was 28.4 years for men and 26.8 years for women.
Looking at these statistics, it’s clear that many of the women writing about all these weddings were anomalies of the time. Vivian Castleberry was in the ballpark – she married in 1946 at the age of 24 though she didn’t have her first child for several years. Dorothy Jurney didn’t marry until she was 30 and she was permanently separated from her husband less than a decade later. Marie Anderson never married. Marj Paxson never married. Maggie Savoy married at 22, divorced, married again, was widowed, and married again (with another marriage ending in the process).
None of these are exactly typical trajectories, but if I’ve learned anything about these women so far, it’s that they didn’t do much of anything in typical ways. Marriage was no exception. But what is, perhaps, more revealing is what these women said about marriage. Dorothy Jurney took a sociological view of things and bemoaned the early marriages of the 1950s, especially women who went to college to collect their “MRS” degree:
I was very upset after, or just before World War II, to learn that the women who were in school then were very much oriented toward marriage and family and that the war had something to do with it … I guess because it seemed to me backtracking. My mother had worked for suffrage, and I’ve been very interested in it after I grew up, and I thought women—I guess I was always a feminist.
On a more personal and sadder note, Marie Anderson clearly wished she hadn’t gone through life unmarried. Near the end of her life, she wistfully recalled:
Oh, I’m sure I thought about marriage frequently, but nobody ever dated me and I didn’t go out and throw myself on somebody … I didn’t go after any man. I didn’t know how to go after any man. I was too timid to go after a man, and none of them went after me. And, as I consequence I never got married. I had a couple of people who … One, oh dear, Harper. Harper couldn’t have been nicer …
And what about Mom?
Mom was born in 1922, grew up during the depression, and started as World War II rumbled on the horizon. She worked for the Associated Press throughout WWII and into the early 1950s. But in the midst of this productive—and unusual—career, she knew that she wanted a family.
I liked the work very much. I had what everybody had considered a man’s job. I proved to myself that I could do it, but I also realized in that time what I really wanted was a home and family. I didn’t want to be a newspaperwoman all my life.
As she worked during WWII and in the post-war years, she didn’t have a lot of romantic prospects: “There was a shortage of husband material, and I was not among the most glamorous so I was still there nine years later.” When opportunity (in the form of Dad) presented itself, she was pragmatic: “So we got married and decided there was no reason to wait for children.” When they married in 1953, Mom was 30 years old, and she gave birth to 4 daughters during the next 8 years. Mom and Dad would have celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary later this month.
Changes in the structure of family life in recent years have been well-documented. Married couples now represent less than half of American households. Both women and men are marrying later in life. Women with college degrees are now more likely to marry than those with just a high school degree. As Brookings Institution demographer, William Frey, commented, “The days of Ozzie and Harriet have faded into the past.”
But even in the days of Ozzie and Harriet, there were a lot of ways to do (or not do) marriage. Many embraced traditional unions, but some eschewed them, and others delayed. Regret (and divorce) happened, as did long-lived marriages. Sometimes opportunity never presented itself, and that was its own special form of regret.
Today, as I form the dough for Samantha’s favorite Cheddar Walnut Wafers (yes, Sam, I’ll be sure you have your own private stash for the reception), I’m happy that many brides are saying yes to the dress. But I’m even happier that there are increasing options available for women and men in terms of the form and timing of these life choices.
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.