Artifact Corner: Marriage Licenses

Hi everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at two small paper documents from 1856. The first is a document stating that Frank Hall and Fannie Delord Webb were intending to marry, and the second is the marriage license itself. Frank and Fannie were married on May 14, 1856. The couple was married in Hartford, CT, which is where Fannie Delord Webb was residing at the time. Marriage licenses were relatively new in the mid-19th Century. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of marriage licenses.

The first documented marriage happened in Ancient Mesopotamia in 2350 BCE. The initial reason for marriages was mostly legal, and was used to help navigate the complicated intermingling of families wealth and properties. So, the concept of the union of two people was more of a business transaction, than it was a love match. This ultimately meant that most of the marriages were amongst people of means. If you had no land or money, you didn’t have much to protect when entering into a union, therefore, you didn’t need to be legally married. The actual word marriage, comes from Middle English, and is first seen in literature somewhere between 1250-1300. So, we see marriage licenses being issued in England around the 1300’s. Again, marriages were entered into by both rich and poor, but a marriage license was issued for people with means, and it was a financial transaction. Most marriages in the Middle Ages for wealthy people were arranged. It was about creating alliances and consolidating wealth, not a romantic union.

With Europeans moving to North America, they brought their customs with them, and that included marriages. Marriage licenses have been required since 1639 in Massachusetts, with their use gradually expanding to other jurisdictions. Throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries in America, it was not required for couples to obtain a marriage license before forming a union. It was until the mid 19th Century that the US formally made it a law for couples to have a license to marry. Actually, prior to Frank and Fannie getting married in 1856, we have the record of Fannie’s parents marriage. They did not have a marriage license, they instead had a marriage indenture. This literally meant that Fannie’s mom became the property of Fannie’s dad. Not cool. By the mid 1800’s, the licensure made each partner equal participants in the union, as long as you were a man and a woman of the same ethnicity. For mixed race couples, they had to wait until 1967 to have their marriage legally recognized. For same sex couples, they had to wait until 2015 to have their unions recognized legally in the United States.

These two small pieces of paper are a look at marriage in the Victorian period in the United States, and a reminder of how far we have come. Thankfully, most people entering into marriages today are for a love match, and not strictly a legal union. These pieces of paper are in quite good condition, and we are so lucky to have them in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
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