Wedding Ceremony, 1908.  Library of Congress.

Committed

Marriage in America
06.16.16

The month of June gets its name from Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage. This could be part of the reason why June continues to be the most popular month to get married.

In this hour of BackStory, we look at how generations of Americans have defined and redefined marriage. We explore the surprising 20th century origins of marriage counseling, as well as a panic over child brides that swept the nation in the late 1930s. The hosts take a look at how the experience of marriage changed for enslaved people after Emancipation. And we visit a modern-day wedding in Elkton, MD — the former get-hitched-quick capital of America.

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ED: This is BackStory, I’m Ed Ayers. This month, the Supreme Court will take up the controversial Defense of Marriage Act. That law dates to 1996, but the idea that marriage is in need of defending goes back much further. In the 1930s, the threat du jour was child marriage.

MALE SPEAKER: The question, in essence, was, if children could get married, then does this make a mockery of marriage itself, which is supposed to be an adult, Christian institution that people are supposed to take seriously.

ED: Most of us today would agree that a nine year old bride is legitimate cause for concern. But some other threats identified by previous generations might seem well, a little silly.

WENDY KLEIN: And you’ll get other people that write in and will say things like, I want to marry this man but he’s got very large ears and I’m concerned that our children would have very large ears. Would that be a sign of any kind of eugenic defect.

ED: The history of marriage, today on BackStory.

MALE SPEAKER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Peter, Ed, I’ve got a little quiz for you. It’s something called the masculinity-femininity test.

ED: Bring it on.

PETER: Bring it on.

BRIAN: All right. Question number one.

PETER: Yeah.

BRIAN: Marigold is a kind of A, fabric; B, flower; C, grain; D, stone.

PETER: B, B, B.

BRIAN: It’s a flower. A flower. OK.

ED: It’s also a color.

BRIAN: All right, question two, are you extremely careful about your manner of dress? Boy I wish I could answer these.

PETER: No.

ED: No.

BRIAN: All right. Question number three, children should be taught never to fight. True or false?

PETER: False.

ED: True.

BRIAN: All right I’m going to tell you how you scored. Ready?

PETER: Yeah.

ED: I’ll see.

BRIAN: All right. Well you stuck together for the most part. And sticking together on the first question, what’s s marigold, you both are feminine, you said flower. Sticking together on the way you dress, you both are masculine, right? You don’t really care about how you dress. Number three you finally split, this is what separates the men from, well, the women. Peter, you said false, children should never be taught to fight. You chose the masculine.

PETER: Yes.

BRIAN: Ed, I don’t know how to break this to you, you said it was true, that children should be taught never to fight. You score very high on the femininity scale.

ED: And proudly so. Proudly so.

BRIAN: OK. Let me give you a little background on these questions and where they came from. They were created in 1936 by Lewis Terman, the same guy who came up with the Stanford-Binet intelligence test.

ED: I don’t do very well in that either.

BRIAN: No neither do I. In the 1980s this masculinity-femininity test was administered to prospective newlyweds at a place out in L.A. Called the American Institute of Family Relations. That was the nation’s first marriage counseling center, and it was started by a guy named Paul Popenoe. Popenoe would go on to counsel more than 1,000 couples per year, and lots more got his advice through his syndicated column, through his radio show, he was even on television. A lot of people called him Mr. Marriage.

WENDY KLEIN: His interest was in trying to do something about, what he saw as, an ever-increasing divorce rate in the 1920s into the 1930s.

BRIAN: This is Wendy Klein, professor of History at the University of Cincinnati.

WENDY KLEIN: One in 12 marriages is ending in divorce, which now, of course, we look at it and laugh.

BRIAN: We should be so lucky. Right.

WENDY KLEIN: Right. So he begins by creating this Institute of Family Relations in 1930. His concern is that the problem with marriage, and the reason that divorce is increasing, is that men and women are increasingly moving out of their normative gender roles. And that a truly happy and stable marriage consisted of a couple in which the wife scored very high on the feminine side, and the husband scored very high on masculine side.

BRIAN: What about those folks who didn’t score so well on the test? What did he do for them to whip them into shape, so to speak?

WENDY KLEIN: They would take classes and counseling with him, and essentially– the scenarios that he presents in his syndicated column, newspaper column that he ran, and then a series that he had in the Ladies Home Journal called “Can This Marriage be Saved”, takes a couple, which is having some trouble, presents each side of the story and then explains to them how he convinces them to make the marriage work. And nine times out of 10 the problem is the wife who wants too much out of her marriage, her expectations are too high, or she wants to lead a more independent lifestyle. And he essentially encourages the wife to lower her expectations in the marriage, and not try to be so independent. So this is the kind of thing that readers are reading and internalizing this idea that a successful marriage comes out of sticking to one’s traditional gender roles.

ED: Now if you ask around today, some people will no doubt tell you that almost 100 years later traditional gender roles in marriage are still under siege. Still others will tell you that the institution of marriage itself is threatened, not just by divorce, but by the steady expansion of marriage rights to same sex couples. This month, the Supreme Court will hear some of those arguments as it considers the Constitutionality of two major laws. First, California’s Proposition 8, and second, the federal Defense of Marriage Act both define marriage as between a man and a woman. And supporters argue that these laws codify the traditional understanding of marriage, the way things have always been.

PETER: And that’s where we Backstory hosts come in. Whenever people start invoking the past to justify their presence we just can’t help jumping into the fray. And so today we’re devoting the show to a look at some of the ways the definition of marriage has evolved, and at how these changes have left many generations of Americans worrying about the future of marriage. As always, I’ll be covering the 18th century.

ED: Well I, Ed, will be covering the 19th century.

BRIAN: Then I, Brian, will be in charge of the 20th century, which is where we left off our story about Paul Popenoe the granddaddy of marriage counseling. I asked historian Wendy Klein how it was that Popenoe became Mr. Marriage. What she told me, and this where the story takes a rather strange turn, was that it grew out of his experience studying plant breeding, and it also grew out of his connection to the marriage clinics eventual backer, a guy who himself had founded something called the Human Betterment Foundation.

WENDY KLEIN: It does sound lovely, doesn’t it? Why wouldn’t we want to improve society.

ED: I’m ready to join right now.

WENDY KLEIN: So he was hired by this wealthy lawyer, Ezra Gosney, to conduct research on the fact that California had had the most successful eugenics sterilization program in the country. Most people don’t know this, but between 1909, when the first eugenics sterilization law is passed in the United States, and 1960 there were approximately 60,000 people sterilized in the United States. 20,000 of those were sterilized in the state of California. And Popenoe along with Gosney, who created the Human Betterment Foundation, set out to determine why California had been so successful in implementing a eugenic sterilization policy. They published a book called “Sterlization for Human Betterment” in which they documented how successful this program had been and encouraged other states to follow suit.

BRIAN: You know I have to tell you Wendy, I just ripped up my check for the Human Betterment Society, even though it sounds like such a nice organization.

WENDY KLEIN: Yeah, probably not such a good thing. It did fold a while ago, so I think your check would have been returned.

BRIAN: OK.

WENDY KLEIN: But his reputation was established through, what was considered at the time, a legitimate science of eugenics. And he published a textbook called “Applied Eugenics” which went through several editions and was used in colleges up until the 1960s.

BRIAN: Wendy explain to me why somebody who’s pretty interested in eugenics, pretty involved in eugenics, would get into marriage counseling.

WENDY KLEIN: Well the association is actually clearer than one would think. The idea behind it was that humans had the ability to both curb the reproduction of those that the state or whatever person in charge determined shouldn’t reproduce, what advocates of this movement came to call negative eugenics, but also encourage those that they believed had hereditary value that should be passed on to have more children. This is what becomes known as positive eugenics

BRIAN: What kinds of people did Popenoe imagine encouraging through his marriage counseling.

WENDY KLEIN: Educated white middle class. They’re basing this on the fact that the white middle class birthrate is declining and the lower classes and people of color are having more children. And they’re kind of jumping on these statistics that are coming out of the progressive era when everybody is number crunching, right? So they’re embracing this idea that a progressive society should do something, along with what we do about crime and poverty, we can also improve society by preventing those people who are responsible for crime and poverty from having more of their kind.

BRIAN: So if he can direct his message at the right group of people.

WENDY KLEIN: Absolutely

BRIAN: They will increase their progeny and drown out in the population those who are going to have kids with defective characteristics, if you will.

WENDY KLEIN: Exactly. And you literally get letters from people that write into the Human Betterment Foundation and say how distressed they are they haven’t had more children. Because they realized how they are contributing to society by having these highly intelligent children. And you’ll get other people that write and will say things like, I want to marry this man but he’s got very large ears, and I’m not concerned that our children would have very large ears, would that be a sign of any kind of eugenic defect? So they’re actually seeking out the advice, as if they’ve internalized this notion of how they are supposed to contribute to the future of the human race.

BRIAN: So Wendy, as a tall Jewish guy with big ears, I’m dying to know what the answers were.

WENDY KLEIN: You’re not in good shape.

BRIAN: I know, I know. So how did the Nazis use of eugenics and World War II change Popenoe’s approach?

WENDY KLEIN: I think once he became well established in places like the “Ladie’s Home Journal” it wasn’t something that he advertised. You don’t see him throw out the term eugenics, certainly not into the 1950s, 1960s. But prior to that, absolutely. He was president of the Southern California chapter of the American Eugenics Society at the same time as he’s running the American Institute for Family Relations and he’s working with the Human Betterment Foundation. And these things were all overlapping at the same time. So he would run a conference on family relations in which many of the panelists and many of the topics we’re specifically about eugenics, and including about negative eugenics. So there’s clearly a proud connection, I would say, between all of these different aspects of his career.

BRIAN: That’s Wendy Klein she’s an historian at the University of Cincinnati, and she’s the author of “Building a Better Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom”.

ED: It’s time for a short break. When we get back, the government’s priorities for free people after emancipation. Food, water, medicine, and, you guessed it, marriage.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

Hello podcasters, Tony Field here, BackStory Senior Producer. Have you ever been the victim of a nasty swindle? Got any stories about people in your family having been conned in the years past? We’d love to hear those stories. That’s ‘cus we’re hard at work on a new show that will explore the history of deception in America, from P.T. Barnum to used car salesmen, we’ll look at when and why deception has flourished, and at what Americans have done to counter it. Please drop on over to our website and share your questions, stories, and ideas on the topic. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org. You can also send an e-mail to backstory@virginia.edu. Or just pick up the phone and call. Our voicemail line is 434-260-1053. Thanks, and don’t be a stranger.

BRIAN: Welcome back to BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century guy, and I’m here with Ed Ayres.

ED: Your 19th century guy.

BRIAN: And Pater Onuf.

PETER: The 18th century guy.

BRIAN: Today on the show we’re talking about the history of marriage in America. In the first part of our show, we heard about how one man’s anxieties about the rising divorce rate in the early 20th century led to the birth of marriage counseling, and about what that had to do with, of all things, eugenics.

PETER: We’re going to turn now to another widespread anxiety that bubbled up at just around the same time, and it sparked a national debate about the future of marriage. Our story begins with a winter wedding in the middle of the Great Depression.

NICHOLAS SYRETT: On January 19th, 1937, Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns were married by a Baptist minister on a road in Treadway, Tennessee.

PETER: This is Nicholas Syrett, an historian at the University of Northern Colorado.

NICHOLAS SYRETT: And this is about 60 miles Northeast of Knoxville, in Hancock County, which is a sparsely populated county just below the Virginia State line in the Appalachian Mountains. And Eunice was 9 and Charlie was 22, so that’s obviously the interesting part of the story.

ED: At the time Tennessee didn’t have a minimum age for marriage, though it did require parental consent for minors. Charlie and Eunice had found a way around the issue with the magistrate, and when her parents found out they were upset. But they figured it was bound to happen sooner or later and so they decided not to contest the marriage.

PETER: Reaction outside Hancock county was a different story. The marriage made headlines in the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, pretty much every major paper in the country. It even showed up in Singapore.

NICHOLAS SYRETT: Almost all of the reaction was really negative, so shock, horror, disgust, that kind of thing. Eleanor Roosevelt, was the first lady, weighed in saying that such marriages should be prohibited. And the governor, in fact, got hundreds of letters from across the country, many of which said similar things. So one for instance, quoting here, “we should send missionaries to the rural districts of Tennessee instead of Africa” end quote.

ED: The story spiraled into a national issue. Journalists across the country uncovered child brides and they wrote of an epidemic of child marriage. The next year in 1938 a film called “Child Bride” came out. Its plot’s way too twisted to explain here. Suffice it to say that it features an innocent girl forced into marriage with an evil older man.

ON T.V.: Do you Jake Bolby take this, this girl-child that you hold by the hand, to be your lawful wedded wife to love, honor, and cherish the rest of your life?

ED: There’s also a plucky school teacher.

ON T.V.: Charles that I’m going to fight for these people until the state realizes that child marriage must be stopped. And they also throw in a narrowly averted tar and feathering, and for good measure, a gun-toting dwarf named Angelo. “Child Brides” Wikipedia page links to a list of films considered the worst ever, but at the time Child Bride got a lot of press.

PETER: Now, just to be clear, child marriage was a real thing. Incidences had been increasing from about 1890 up through 1930. By the time Eunice married child marriage was actually on the wane. So what was it about 1937 that suddenly gave the story such traction? Nicholas Syrett says that the reaction reflects broader anxieties swirling in the 1930s.

NICHOLAS SYRETT: This is happening in the midst of the Great Depression when the birth rate and the marriage rate both went down. Many people could not afford to marry or have children, and the rate of abandonment also seems to have gone up because many men were unable to support their families. So people were worried about the future of families, about the future of marriage.

ED: Now of course the outrage at Eunice and Charlie’s wedding centered on the fact that the bride was nine years old, but many reformers framed their criticism in terms that might sound familiar to us today.

NICHOLAS SYRETT: The question in essence was, if children could get married, then does this make a mockery of marriage itself, which is supposed to be an adult, Christian institution that people are supposed to take seriously.

ED: A women’s group in Cleveland said yes.

NICHOLAS SYRETT: Quote, “to permit marriage to be entered into casually by immature young people who have no sense of its social responsibilities, its obligations, and but little training in the ideals of family life, is to weaken and cheapen the institution of marriage itself.”

PETER: Well you might wonder about what happened to Eunice and Charlie. Well they had nine children and stayed together until Charlie’s death in 1996.

ED: The person helping us tell that story is Nicholas Syrett, an historian at the University of Northern Colorado. He’s currently working on a book about child marriage in the United States.

BRIAN: hosts, we’ve reached my favorite part of the show, because it’s time now to take some calls. As we do with each of our shows, we’ve been inviting your comments and questions for the past couple of weeks on backstoryradio.org and on Facebook. Today we’re calling up a few of the folks who left us a note there.

PETER: Gather around guys, We have a call from Baltimore, Maryland, it’s Julia. Julia welcome to the show.

JULIA: Hi there thanks for taking my question.

PETER: Hey. Well what is your question?

JULIA: Well, it’s more like could you comment on this. The idea of arranged marriage in some form is more the norm then what we think of today, and like go out and find the love of your life kind of thing. So I’m just kind of curious what you can say about that.

PETER: You’re right. The romantic idea of love and marriage is very much a modern idea in the West, beginning in the upper classes, upper middle classes, in Britain and America in the 18th century. And it’s still spreading across the world but it hasn’t gotten everywhere yet, but in world-historical terms, marriage by romantic choice is the exception, not the rule.

ED: But it seems to me– I would have thought in the 17th century, which is part of your long 18th century, that there was something much more like arranged marriages, even in the United States, is that not the case?

PETER: Oh yes, absolutely true Ed. That’s what– I meant to say that this romantic idea, which is really not broadly popular or democratized until your century. And really with all the mobility associated with the rapid movement of population across the continent it’s just impossible to have the kinds of knowledge needed to form family alliances, and the kind of control, intergenerational control, needed to arrange marriages. It just doesn’t exist anymore. But Ed you’re right, back in the 17th and well into the 18th century, and even into your century, there’s a lot of pressure to marry well according to family assessment of the interests of the individuals but also of the families themselves. And those kinds of things fall by the side for wealthy Westerners in the modern period. They don’t worry about the family.

ED: So Peter, that’s such a good answer that I have another question then, did the falling away of that, as you put, it happen just sort of passively? Was there a movement against arranged marriage, did it come to be seen as a travesty? Or did it just slowly become–

PETER: Ed if you want to know what gave point to all these long-term developments and family formation it’s the American Revolution. And that one word that’s so central to the ideology of the revolution, which is consent, that word just permeates the culture. Now choice may be the word today, but consent is the word then, it has political implications but it also has implications for marriage.

BRIAN: And in fact, Peter you might make the case that more people consented to marriage at the time of the Revolution than were actually able to vote after the Revolution.

PETER: Yeah that’s a good point.

JULIA: Could you explain that answer, I don’t understand that.

BRIAN: Well what Peter was getting at is that notions of being able to consent to a marriage in a republic like the United States were crucial to the formation of citizens who could consent to the government that they were governed by. The problem is that all women, and all African-American, and many men even though they often were consenting to their marriage, were not eligible to vote in the early republic.

PETER: Right.

ED: It’s interesting. I do think the consensual model of marriage actually does give weight then, later, to women’s claim for suffrage.

PETER: Absolutely, no question, no question.

ED: That the same degree of autonomy and agency that women had in choosing marriage partners, equipped them to also choose the people who would run their country. So it’s interesting how these– one kind of freedom, as we imagine it, one kind of consent, seems to imply another kind.

JULIA: One thing that one of you said was really new information to me that seems worth emphasizing, which is that the mobility, you know, and especially the U.S being the sort of frontier, that being a whole new way of people living and being the attraction, that the loss of a ability to have the kind of information that you might need to have the traditional arranged marriage kind of led to, like you said, the default version. And that that’s kind of a new idea and I think that’s true that’s what spreading around world as well.

PETER: Yes, I think you’re right.

ED: And because it was such a good idea, it’s important to credit that to its rightful owner, that was Peter Onuf ladies and gentleman, who had that insight.

PETER: Aw Ed.

ED: Yeah well it’s true.

PETER: Thanks so much for calling.

BRIAN: Thank you Julia.

JULIA: Bye bye.

PETER: Hey guys we got a call from the Lumberton, North Carolina, it’s Margaret. Margaret welcome to BackStory.

MARGARET: Hello, thank you

PETER: You got a story or a question, or what’s on your mind?

MARGARET: Yes, actually my grandparents who are still living have been married for 72 years, and they eloped three days after my grandmother turned 18 years old. They met when they were in high school. And Granny said that she was initially attracted to my grandfather because he had clean fingernails. They were in a farming community and this made him stand out amongst the other young men [INAUDIBLE].

PETER: That is wonderful, that’s a word to the wise out there, OK? Clean your fingernails.

MARGARET: Hygiene counts.

BRIAN: Just the fact that he had all his fingers I would imagine made him stand out.

MARGARET: But she says that when they married she was attending an all women’s college at the time, and because she was now married she was considered not appropriate for attending this women’s college anymore.

PETER: Right bad example.

MARGARET: She was forced to leave. And then my grandfather enrolled her at the local state college. And, because she was a married woman, it was my grandfather or her husband who had to enroll her and register her for classes.

PETER: Wow.

MARGARET: He ended up registering her for all science and home ec classes, rather than arts and literature like she was interested in, and she ended up dropping out of college. And this is all pre-World War II. We started thinking, we were talking about this in the office today, how common was it for married woman to attend college?

PETER: Well, what was the point? Because, of course, college was all about mating. And if you’ve already made your mating choice what’s the point?

BRIAN: Yeah. In fact there were a higher percentage of women in colleges in the 1920s than there were really up through the 1960s. But the odds of those women getting married, Margaret, were much lower than they are today. In fact, a lot of the women who were in college and stayed in college did not get married. Today there’s– really the big milestone, the big shift is that a much higher percentage of married women have college degrees. In fact it’s changed pretty dramatically just in the last 30 or 40 years.

MARGARET: Well, and then, that leads me to wonder about women who have their education, actually completed degrees, socially were they seen as un-marriagable?

ED: Yes. The concern was that they would never have babies, and frankly the concern was that there was something that was de-sexing about a woman going to college. People would not have been surprised that women in college were not married, because it’s only if you didn’t have a prospect of a marriage that you would have gone in the first place. The irony is that after World War II, and I’m traipsing on the 20th century now so I invite correction from Brian, that women talked about going to college to get the M-R-S degree. That knowledge became a great place of coeds meeting young man, and it became a way of accelerating and rationalizing, in some ways, the marriage market. And that would have been, I think, dominant throughout the 50s and 60s and into the 70s before it began to shift back more to the pattern we realize today, in which a majority of people in college are women. So it’s been quite the wrenching change.

BRIAN: So Margaret? What’s the scoop on marriage and education in your life?

MARGARET: I am college educated, I actually have some post undergraduate work, and my husband has a Ph.D. And is a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and we’ve been married for 20 years.

BRIAN: That’s terrific.

MARGARET: And I like to joke that despite my feminist leanings I came out of college with a M-R-S too.

PETER: Margaret thanks for the call.

MARGARET: Thank you very much.

ED: Thank you Margaret.

MARGARET: OK bye bye.

ED: You know that conversation certainly made it clear that marriage has been a lot of different things. We have one name for something that’s actually been a lot of different kinds of relationships. I’m just curious, what did women back in the 18th century think they were getting out of marriage, Peter?

PETER: Well, they don’t expect anything but to get married, and what they get is the promise of protection and security. Think of the basic idea of sovereignty, of a King’s authority, is based on the allegiance of his subjects, and the household is modeled as a small kingdom, and his subjects, dependents, include his wife. Now the wife has no independent civic identity, and therefore women under the common law of coverture own very little property, it’s only under special conditions that they do, widows for instance, or under equity where they have an estate that’s guaranteed them by their own family, but the general rule is that 99% of the property is owned by men. And that seems terribly unequal, but you have understood and that the household is an entity and its gendered male in terms of its public face. And so what women get is a place in their world, a secure place, they get protection, they get security.

ED: Peter that’s really interesting. It sounds discouraging for women, but security is something real.

PETER: Yeah and I think it’s also important to point out it that, in addition to security, that women get a world, a domain, a domestic sphere within which their care and nurturance of others can be expressed. And we have now a normative gendered male model of individuality, and that is you’re supposed to be able to go out there and do your own thing. But it’s in tension with another deep imperative in the human psyche and that is to care for others.

ED: So Peter, somehow something changed, you know? How was it that evolved? Was it slowly? Or abruptly?

PETER: So Ed, these changes take place sometimes for very surprising reasons. And women do get more control over property, at least under the law. In the 1830s we have the first of the married women’s property acts, this one in Mississippi of all places, in which the property of the wife will be secure against her husband’s failures, that he goes bankrupt and he loses everything. This is the boom to bust century. This is Horatio Alger and the dark side of Horatio Alger is when he loses it all. Rags to riches? Well, back to rags. So how do you maintain continuity across generations and provide for the children If the family fortune is constantly at risk? And this is why women begin to enjoy a more substantive rights. It’s not women’s liberation. This is not Seneca Falls, Seneca Falls is not located in Mississippi.

BRIAN: So, for people in the 18th century and the 19th century it’s all about family. And marriage is about protecting that family. And you’ve really put your finger on why marriage looks so different in each of our centuries, because those institutions surrounding marriage, the economy, social relations, always changing in flux. But Peter, I think you’re right. It’s all about family.

PETER: We’re going to take a quick break now. But don’t go away, when we come back we’ll take a road trip to the 1930s equivalent of a Las Vegas chapel.

ED: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

Hello again, this is Tony Field, BackStory Senior Producer. We wanted to take a quick moment thank all of you who have left reviews on our page in the iTunes store in recent weeks. The more reviews we get there, the more visible we become in the store, and that means that people who don’t already know about BackStory are much more likely to find out about it. If they haven’t already done so, please consider taking a moment to help us out in this effort. Just search for BackStory in the iTunes store and when you find us click the “ratings and reviews” tab and look for the button that says “write a review”. A few words there will go a long way.

As always, you can also show your support with a financial contribution. There’s a link to give at the top of our website backstoryradio.org. Thanks for listening, talk to you next week.

BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh your 20th century guy, and I’m here with Ed Ayres.

ED: Your 19th century guy.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf.

PETER: Representing the 18th country. Today on the show, how the institution of marriage has been defined and redefined throughout American history.

ED: And we’re going to turn now to a moment when hundreds of thousands of people’s marriages were redefined all at once. I’m talking about emancipation. A turning point where slaves, who had not been allowed to marry legally, became freed people, who could. So put yourself back in 1865. The Civil War has just ended. Formally enslaved people all over the South are beginning the long search for those loved ones whom slavery had snatched from them, their husbands, and wives, and children. And for some couples it’s a joyful reunion, but others find that their former partners have moved on with their lives. That they’ve remarried and begun new families.

A woman named Laura Spicer was in that last group. She’d been sold away from her family in Gordonsville, Virginia before the war began, and she had always hoped to reunite with her husband someday. But when she managed to track his address down and she wrote to him here’s a letter she received in response.

MALE SPEAKER: The reason why I have written you before in a long time is because your letters disturb me so very much. I want to see you and I don’t want to see you. I love you just as well as the last day I saw you.

ED: But he also wrote that he couldn’t see her again.

MALE SPEAKER: I am married and my wife have two children. And if you and I would meet it would make a very dissatisfied family.

ED: Situations like Laura Spicer’s weren’t uncommon. And we can imagine how heartbreaking they must have been. But the confusion of sorting out who is married to whom, and which marriages were legitimate, wasn’t just a personal matter, it ended up going through the federal bureaucracy. The government, for instance, had to figure out who was entitled to the pensions owed to the widows of black soldiers killed in the war. And in cases where soldiers had had multiple marriages under slavery, it wasn’t at all clear who should get the money. Liz Regosin is a historian who wrote about all this in a book called “Freedom’s Promise.”

LIZ REGOSIN: There’s a story I use in my book about two women, one is named Sarah and one is named Sally, always gets a little confusing, but both claim to be the widow of a man named Riley Pitts. And I think on the part of the Pension Bureau the first inclination is to assume that one of the widows is lying. But, you know, when you start to look at the stories you have the sense that it could definitely be the case that two women would have a legitimate claim as a man’s widow. Sally has the support of her former owner and Riley’s former owner, saying that these two were married.

But Sarah makes a really good case for why the two of them should be married. And she points out that, yes, Riley had been with Sally, but that they had had problems in their marriage, and that he left her. And that the two of them, she uses the language we took up together, and that he considered me his wife. And because under slavery there were no marriage certificates, there were no marriage ceremonies that had legal sanction, there were certainly ceremonies among slaves, but nothing with legal sanction.

There were no divorces, no legal divorces, among slaves. If slaves decided to end their marriages they would quit them. Sometimes they were forcibly separated because of their masters. And so it’s possible that Sarah could have been Riley’s wife, he could have considered her his wife. But she wouldn’t have any of the markers of that relationship that she’d had if she were a free white person.

ED: The federal government’s interest in free people’s marriages wasn’t limited to the Pension Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau, established at the war’s end to help the newly freed slaves, also spent a lot of time trying to sort all this out. Who was married to whom, how many children they had, where they’d lived. And this came at a moment when tens of thousands of freed people were living as refugees, in need of the basic necessities like food, and water, and shelter. I asked Liz why it was, that the face of such a humanitarian crisis, the federal government would spend time and energy documenting marriages?

LIZ REGOSIN: Marriage is so central to their understanding of how society will function. Good strong families are the cornerstone of society. The place where morality was instilled, where a sense of duty and citizenship was instilled in all the members of the family. And so this idea that we needed to help former slaves make the transition from slavery to freedom, they really focused on marriages as a way of facilitating that transition, of making it happen. And making it work so that people wouldn’t turn around and say, wow this whole emancipation idea was a mistake. And see? We were wrong to free the slaves.

ED: Now did the freed people eagerly embrace this? Was there resistance to it? Did problems ensue?

LIZ REGOSIN: I think that many freed people did embrace the idea of having their marriages legalized. Because it was something that hadn’t been recognized under slavery, and that meant that they were subject separation in their marriages, they were subject to separation from their children, and other family members. There was nothing there that protected those relationships. Also I think it was a sign of being free, and it was a sign of being a citizen. And so for all those reasons getting your marriage legalized, then having a legal relationship to the rest of your family members, was a very attractive prospect.

But at the same time, it also meant that there was regulation of your family relationships, just as they had been regulated under slavery. Not in the same way, but that some, sort of, outside entity was paying attention to you how you responded to other people in your family, how you interacted. It’s complicated. All a sudden you have the government sort of up in your business and asking you private things about your life, wanting to know about your sexuality, wanting to know about your children.

You had a lot of women who had children with men they did not consider their husbands, perfectly fine under slavery, becomes highly problematic to government agents after slavery. And so I think that people are both excited about the idea of having legal marriages, but also confounded by it. You know, I think that not everyone was going to run into it you know all ready to go.

ED: That’s Liz Regosin. She’s a professor of history at St. Lawrence University.

You know it strikes me that this episode of African-American families, the Freedmen’s Bureau at the very end of the Civil War, is marked change in American history. There’s been a gradual movement of the 200 years before from local to state, you have the sort of patchwork of state laws of different ages of consent and of marriage and divorce, which really continues deep into the 20th century. But now, suddenly in 1865, the federal government is coming in for black families and laying down the federal law, because local law, state law has been in place upholding slavery in its position. So now what we see suddenly in the middle of the 19th century is in some ways a kind of rehearsal for the 20th century, in which the federal government is going to come in and start trying to define what the appropriate bounds and content of marriage are.

BRIAN: You know Ed, I think that the example of federal intervention into the intimate affairs of formerly enslaved people is a good look into the future, in some ways, but as you know, that national state backs off really quite quickly at the end of Reconstruction. And so what you get–

ED: Or actually, even faster than that, Brian. This only last couple years and then they sort of hand this back over to the state.

BRIAN: I love when you make my points even stronger, Ed. And what you get instead is state, local, and at the margins federal government, trying in different ways to bolster the family. Because the government, especially a government that supposedly is weak and stays out of the picture, really needs strong families in order to perform a lot of the central functions that states, at least in Europe, are beginning to perform pretty directly.

So the family can educate people, rather than having a national education system. Families work on passing along their properties, rather than having some kind of redistributed state doing that. On the other hand, by the late 20th century the state is now doing so many things, some aimed a little bit at the family, some really not aimed at the family at all, that it can’t help but intervene in family relations, in marriage relations in many ways.

I mean take the example of the income tax. You know, folks actually calculate how much more they’re going to pay in taxes before they get married how much less they’re going to pay in taxes before they get married. So inadvertently, the state has come around to intervening in the family, and actually in whether people get married or not, almost the way that Ed’s Freedmen’s Bureau intervened directly in the lives of Americans.

PETER: I think there’s a real tension in American history that keeps resurfacing, and that is between the notion of the family as an institution that serves certain functions that are vital for the larger society, we need these as basic units on which to build the society and polity, on the other hand we like to think romantically about the family as a domain of domesticity and privacy, immunity to state interference, my home is my castle, don’t mess with me. Those values are always complicated, interpenetrated, and hard to separate, now more than ever.

BRIAN: Keep your government hands off my marriage certificate.

PETER: You got it.

BRIAN: Hey guys, I got a question for you. If you want to get married quick where do you go to these days?

PETER: Well, my daughter went to Las Vegas.

BRIAN: There you go. And I’ll bet when she drove in she was bombarded by these neon signs all advertising wedding chapels. Graceland Wedding Chapel, Chapel of Flowers, Wee Kirk o’the Heather Wedding Chapel. And a lot of them are open 24/7.

ED: You know, Peter but before Vegas was Vegas, the tiny town of Elkton, Maryland was the nation’s quickie wedding capital. And one of our producers, Nell Boeschenstein recently took a trip to Elkton, along with reporter Kelly Libby. And they visited one of the chapels where tens of thousands of couples got hitched all the way back in the 1920s and 30s. And they brought back this report.

FEMALE SPEAKER: And we have two young ladies from– what radio station again?

FEMALE SPEAKER: We’re from a history show, it’s a radio show. On the second floor of a small stone building along the main street in Elkton, Maryland, a bride stands in front of a full length mirror making sure her veil has not messed up her hair. How are you feeling?

FEMALE SPEAKER: I’m a little nervous, butterflies.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Ever since she was little, Amanda Herkner has known the little wedding chapel is where she’d eventually tie the knot. A church or courthouse in her home state of Pennsylvania was never in the cards.

FEMALE SPEAKER: My mom and my step dad got married here. And my– their grandparents got married here and my aunt and my uncle got married here as well.

FEMALE SPEAKER: While family tradition may have been what brought her here, if you go back to the 1930s, the opposite would have been true. That was when couples flocked to Elkton to buck tradition, not honor it.

MIKE DIXON: The street is full of parked cars, and abuzz with people as the lights illuminate the night.

FEMALE SPEAKER: That’s Mike Dixon. He works for the Cecil County Historical society, and he’s showing us a photo of Elkton’s main drag in the 1930s. You can see the street glowing with signage, advertising chapels and ministers.

FEMALE SPEAKER: The story of Elkton’ boom days begins in the early years of the 20th century. As a generation of young people tested the limits of parental authority, quickie weddings were on the rise. In an effort to curtail the unsavory trend, state legislators had begun making couples wait at least 48 hours between applying for a marriage license and getting one. In 1913 Delaware became the latest in a string of Northeastern states to implement such a rule.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Those couples who couldn’t wait two days to get hitched saw a road around the new laws. That road led to Elkton, just five miles south of the Delaware state line. In Maryland there wasn’t a residency requirement or a waiting period.

MIKE DIXON: Of course Delaware is not that big so it wouldn’t generate the volume.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Again Mike Dixon.

MIKE DIXON: But it’s New York, New Jersey, Camden, Trenton, Philadelphia. So it was really geography that’s doing it to us. You know we’re the first place in Maryland that you could easily get to for the urban areas north of us, and then you can get married and you can get out of town.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Within a few years 15 chapels had set up shop along the town’s main strip. The number of wedding skyrocketed from 300, in 1913, to 36,000 in 1936. That’s more than 10 times the population of Elkton itself.

MIKE DIXON: So it’s enormous. And what it was doing was it was bringing– like some days there were 100 couples getting off that train. So the cab companies see a business opportunity, and I’m always amazed at how entrepreneurial they were.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Those cabs would bring couples to get a marriage license, then deliver them to a chapel, wait outside while the couple said their vows, and then return the Mr. And Mrs. In time to catch the afternoon train home. While the rest of the country struggled through the depression, business in Elkton was gangbusters. Of course not everybody was happy about the industry behind the town’s economic boom.

MIKE DIXON: If you were a [? state ?] old Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal minister, and you’re looking at these fast marriages it’s not what you approve of. Certainly the Roman Catholic Church is not going to approve of these things. And they would do everything they could to kill it off, or regulate it, let me say regulate it.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Ordinance after ordinance was proposed to constrain the wedding trade. Some were targeted at the cab companies, other at the explosion of street signs pointing the way to the chapels. Local business leaders were able to defeat these laws. Unfortunately for them, there were larger factors at play.

ON T.V.: Good morning I– stop that music.

FEMALE SPEAKER: This is a scene from the “Philadelphia Story” which came out 1940.

ON T.V.: Dexter Dexter what next?

ON T.V.: Two years ago I did you out of a wedding in this house by eloping to Maryland.

ON T.V.: Two years ago?

FEMALE SPEAKER: Thanks to Elkton, “eloping to Maryland” had entered the cultural lexicon. The entire state was being tarred by the town’s tawdry reputation.

ON T.V.: Which was very bad manors.

ON T.V.: Which was very bad manors.

FEMALE SPEAKER: And so state lawmakers took matters into their own hands. In 1938 they passed a 48 hour waiting period.

MIKE DIXON: To quote the Evening Sun, I think they said a melancholy gloom descended over Elkton’s matrimonial [? magnets. ?]

FEMALE SPEAKER: The town never really recovered. Marrying couples continued to come, but more out of nostalgia than need. Which brings us back to Amanda, the current day bride in Elkton.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Downstairs the wedding party and minister have taken their places. Within minutes the bride has made her entrance.

MALE SPEAKER: Will you, Charles, have this woman to be your lawful wedded wife, to live together in the covenant of marriage.

FEMALE SPEAKER: With that, Amanda’s family tradition continues. But there’s a decent chance it will end with her. The little wedding chapel is the last remaining chapel from Elkton’ heyday, and it’s for sale. So far its owners haven’t found a buyer willing to perform weddings there, which means that Elton’s matrimonial history may soon be reduced to just another historical marker on just another street in just another town off I-95.

PETER: That story comes to us from Nell Boeschenstein Kelly Libby.

BRIAN: We’re out of time for today’s show. But we’re eager to hear your thoughts on the history of marriage. Write them down and share them with us at backstoryradio.org. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter, BackStory radio is the handle.

ED: Know on our website you’ll also find some other resources about the history of marriage, as well as our photos of Elkton’s chapels then and now. All of our past shows are there as well.

PETER: That’s at backstoryradio.org. Don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Nell Boeschenstein, [? Jesinga ?] [? Bretson ?], Eric Mennel, and Allison Quantz.

BRIAN: Jamal Milner is our technical director, Alan Chen is our intern, we had help from Chioke I’Anson, our senior producer is Tony Field, and BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel, history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History, Ed Ayres is president and professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

ED: This is BackStory, I’m Ed Ayers. This month, the Supreme Court will take up the controversial Defense of Marriage Act. That law dates to 1996, but the idea that marriage is in need of defending goes back much further. In the 1930s, the threat du jour was child marriage.

MALE SPEAKER: The question, in essence, was, if children could get married, then does this make a mockery of marriage itself, which is supposed to be an adult, Christian institution that people are supposed to take seriously.

ED: Most of us today would agree that a nine year old bride is legitimate cause for concern. But some other threats identified by previous generations might seem well, a little silly.

WENDY KLEIN: And you’ll get other people that write in and will say things like, I want to marry this man but he’s got very large ears and I’m concerned that our children would have very large ears. Would that be a sign of any kind of eugenic defect.

ED: The history of marriage, today on BackStory.

MALE SPEAKER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Peter, Ed, I’ve got a little quiz for you. It’s something called the masculinity-femininity test.

ED: Bring it on.

PETER: Bring it on.

BRIAN: All right. Question number one.

PETER: Yeah.

BRIAN: Marigold is a kind of A, fabric; B, flower; C, grain; D, stone.

PETER: B, B, B.

BRIAN: It’s a flower. A flower. OK.

ED: It’s also a color.

BRIAN: All right, question two, are you extremely careful about your manner of dress? Boy I wish I could answer these.

PETER: No.

ED: No.

BRIAN: All right. Question number three, children should be taught never to fight. True or false?

PETER: False.

ED: True.

BRIAN: All right I’m going to tell you how you scored. Ready?

PETER: Yeah.

ED: I’ll see.

BRIAN: All right. Well you stuck together for the most part. And sticking together on the first question, what’s s marigold, you both are feminine, you said flower. Sticking together on the way you dress, you both are masculine, right? You don’t really care about how you dress. Number three you finally split, this is what separates the men from, well, the women. Peter, you said false, children should never be taught to fight. You chose the masculine.

PETER: Yes.

BRIAN: Ed, I don’t know how to break this to you, you said it was true, that children should be taught never to fight. You score very high on the femininity scale.

ED: And proudly so. Proudly so.

BRIAN: OK. Let me give you a little background on these questions and where they came from. They were created in 1936 by Lewis Terman, the same guy who came up with the Stanford-Binet intelligence test.

ED: I don’t do very well in that either.

BRIAN: No neither do I. In the 1980s this masculinity-femininity test was administered to prospective newlyweds at a place out in L.A. Called the American Institute of Family Relations. That was the nation’s first marriage counseling center, and it was started by a guy named Paul Popenoe. Popenoe would go on to counsel more than 1,000 couples per year, and lots more got his advice through his syndicated column, through his radio show, he was even on television. A lot of people called him Mr. Marriage.

WENDY KLEIN: His interest was in trying to do something about, what he saw as, an ever-increasing divorce rate in the 1920s into the 1930s.

BRIAN: This is Wendy Klein, professor of History at the University of Cincinnati.

WENDY KLEIN: One in 12 marriages is ending in divorce, which now, of course, we look at it and laugh.

BRIAN: We should be so lucky. Right.

WENDY KLEIN: Right. So he begins by creating this Institute of Family Relations in 1930. His concern is that the problem with marriage, and the reason that divorce is increasing, is that men and women are increasingly moving out of their normative gender roles. And that a truly happy and stable marriage consisted of a couple in which the wife scored very high on the feminine side, and the husband scored very high on masculine side.

BRIAN: What about those folks who didn’t score so well on the test? What did he do for them to whip them into shape, so to speak?

WENDY KLEIN: They would take classes and counseling with him, and essentially– the scenarios that he presents in his syndicated column, newspaper column that he ran, and then a series that he had in the Ladies Home Journal called “Can This Marriage be Saved”, takes a couple, which is having some trouble, presents each side of the story and then explains to them how he convinces them to make the marriage work. And nine times out of 10 the problem is the wife who wants too much out of her marriage, her expectations are too high, or she wants to lead a more independent lifestyle. And he essentially encourages the wife to lower her expectations in the marriage, and not try to be so independent. So this is the kind of thing that readers are reading and internalizing this idea that a successful marriage comes out of sticking to one’s traditional gender roles.

ED: Now if you ask around today, some people will no doubt tell you that almost 100 years later traditional gender roles in marriage are still under siege. Still others will tell you that the institution of marriage itself is threatened, not just by divorce, but by the steady expansion of marriage rights to same sex couples. This month, the Supreme Court will hear some of those arguments as it considers the Constitutionality of two major laws. First, California’s Proposition 8, and second, the federal Defense of Marriage Act both define marriage as between a man and a woman. And supporters argue that these laws codify the traditional understanding of marriage, the way things have always been.

PETER: And that’s where we Backstory hosts come in. Whenever people start invoking the past to justify their presence we just can’t help jumping into the fray. And so today we’re devoting the show to a look at some of the ways the definition of marriage has evolved, and at how these changes have left many generations of Americans worrying about the future of marriage. As always, I’ll be covering the 18th century.

ED: Well I, Ed, will be covering the 19th century.

BRIAN: Then I, Brian, will be in charge of the 20th century, which is where we left off our story about Paul Popenoe the granddaddy of marriage counseling. I asked historian Wendy Klein how it was that Popenoe became Mr. Marriage. What she told me, and this where the story takes a rather strange turn, was that it grew out of his experience studying plant breeding, and it also grew out of his connection to the marriage clinics eventual backer, a guy who himself had founded something called the Human Betterment Foundation.

WENDY KLEIN: It does sound lovely, doesn’t it? Why wouldn’t we want to improve society.

ED: I’m ready to join right now.

WENDY KLEIN: So he was hired by this wealthy lawyer, Ezra Gosney, to conduct research on the fact that California had had the most successful eugenics sterilization program in the country. Most people don’t know this, but between 1909, when the first eugenics sterilization law is passed in the United States, and 1960 there were approximately 60,000 people sterilized in the United States. 20,000 of those were sterilized in the state of California. And Popenoe along with Gosney, who created the Human Betterment Foundation, set out to determine why California had been so successful in implementing a eugenic sterilization policy. They published a book called “Sterlization for Human Betterment” in which they documented how successful this program had been and encouraged other states to follow suit.

BRIAN: You know I have to tell you Wendy, I just ripped up my check for the Human Betterment Society, even though it sounds like such a nice organization.

WENDY KLEIN: Yeah, probably not such a good thing. It did fold a while ago, so I think your check would have been returned.

BRIAN: OK.

WENDY KLEIN: But his reputation was established through, what was considered at the time, a legitimate science of eugenics. And he published a textbook called “Applied Eugenics” which went through several editions and was used in colleges up until the 1960s.

BRIAN: Wendy explain to me why somebody who’s pretty interested in eugenics, pretty involved in eugenics, would get into marriage counseling.

WENDY KLEIN: Well the association is actually clearer than one would think. The idea behind it was that humans had the ability to both curb the reproduction of those that the state or whatever person in charge determined shouldn’t reproduce, what advocates of this movement came to call negative eugenics, but also encourage those that they believed had hereditary value that should be passed on to have more children. This is what becomes known as positive eugenics

BRIAN: What kinds of people did Popenoe imagine encouraging through his marriage counseling.

WENDY KLEIN: Educated white middle class. They’re basing this on the fact that the white middle class birthrate is declining and the lower classes and people of color are having more children. And they’re kind of jumping on these statistics that are coming out of the progressive era when everybody is number crunching, right? So they’re embracing this idea that a progressive society should do something, along with what we do about crime and poverty, we can also improve society by preventing those people who are responsible for crime and poverty from having more of their kind.

BRIAN: So if he can direct his message at the right group of people.

WENDY KLEIN: Absolutely

BRIAN: They will increase their progeny and drown out in the population those who are going to have kids with defective characteristics, if you will.

WENDY KLEIN: Exactly. And you literally get letters from people that write into the Human Betterment Foundation and say how distressed they are they haven’t had more children. Because they realized how they are contributing to society by having these highly intelligent children. And you’ll get other people that write and will say things like, I want to marry this man but he’s got very large ears, and I’m not concerned that our children would have very large ears, would that be a sign of any kind of eugenic defect? So they’re actually seeking out the advice, as if they’ve internalized this notion of how they are supposed to contribute to the future of the human race.

BRIAN: So Wendy, as a tall Jewish guy with big ears, I’m dying to know what the answers were.

WENDY KLEIN: You’re not in good shape.

BRIAN: I know, I know. So how did the Nazis use of eugenics and World War II change Popenoe’s approach?

WENDY KLEIN: I think once he became well established in places like the “Ladie’s Home Journal” it wasn’t something that he advertised. You don’t see him throw out the term eugenics, certainly not into the 1950s, 1960s. But prior to that, absolutely. He was president of the Southern California chapter of the American Eugenics Society at the same time as he’s running the American Institute for Family Relations and he’s working with the Human Betterment Foundation. And these things were all overlapping at the same time. So he would run a conference on family relations in which many of the panelists and many of the topics we’re specifically about eugenics, and including about negative eugenics. So there’s clearly a proud connection, I would say, between all of these different aspects of his career.

BRIAN: That’s Wendy Klein she’s an historian at the University of Cincinnati, and she’s the author of “Building a Better Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom”.

ED: It’s time for a short break. When we get back, the government’s priorities for free people after emancipation. Food, water, medicine, and, you guessed it, marriage.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

TONY FIELD: Hello podcasters, Tony Field here, BackStory Senior Producer. Have you ever been the victim of a nasty swindle? Got any stories about people in your family having been conned in the years past? We’d love to hear those stories. That’s ‘cus we’re hard at work on a new show that will explore the history of deception in America, from P.T. Barnum to used car salesmen, we’ll look at when and why deception has flourished, and at what Americans have done to counter it. Please drop on over to our website and share your questions, stories, and ideas on the topic. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org. You can also send an e-mail to backstory@virginia.edu. Or just pick up the phone and call. Our voicemail line is 434-260-1053. Thanks, and don’t be a stranger.

BRIAN: Welcome back to BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century guy, and I’m here with Ed Ayres.

ED: Your 19th century guy.

BRIAN: And Pater Onuf.

PETER: The 18th century guy.

BRIAN: Today on the show we’re talking about the history of marriage in America. In the first part of our show, we heard about how one man’s anxieties about the rising divorce rate in the early 20th century led to the birth of marriage counseling, and about what that had to do with, of all things, eugenics.

PETER: We’re going to turn now to another widespread anxiety that bubbled up at just around the same time, and it sparked a national debate about the future of marriage. Our story begins with a winter wedding in the middle of the Great Depression.

NICHOLAS SYRETT: On January 19th, 1937, Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns were married by a Baptist minister on a road in Treadway, Tennessee.

PETER: This is Nicholas Syrett, an historian at the University of Northern Colorado.

NICHOLAS SYRETT: And this is about 60 miles Northeast of Knoxville, in Hancock County, which is a sparsely populated county just below the Virginia State line in the Appalachian Mountains. And Eunice was 9 and Charlie was 22, so that’s obviously the interesting part of the story.

ED: At the time Tennessee didn’t have a minimum age for marriage, though it did require parental consent for minors. Charlie and Eunice had found a way around the issue with the magistrate, and when her parents found out they were upset. But they figured it was bound to happen sooner or later and so they decided not to contest the marriage.

PETER: Reaction outside Hancock county was a different story. The marriage made headlines in the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, pretty much every major paper in the country. It even showed up in Singapore.

NICHOLAS SYRETT: Almost all of the reaction was really negative, so shock, horror, disgust, that kind of thing. Eleanor Roosevelt, was the first lady, weighed in saying that such marriages should be prohibited. And the governor, in fact, got hundreds of letters from across the country, many of which said similar things. So one for instance, quoting here, “we should send missionaries to the rural districts of Tennessee instead of Africa” end quote.

ED: The story spiraled into a national issue. Journalists across the country uncovered child brides and they wrote of an epidemic of child marriage. The next year in 1938 a film called “Child Bride” came out. Its plot’s way too twisted to explain here. Suffice it to say that it features an innocent girl forced into marriage with an evil older man.

ON T.V.: Do you Jake Bolby take this, this girl-child that you hold by the hand, to be your lawful wedded wife to love, honor, and cherish the rest of your life?

ED: There’s also a plucky school teacher.

ON T.V.: Charles that I’m going to fight for these people until the state realizes that child marriage must be stopped. And they also throw in a narrowly averted tar and feathering, and for good measure, a gun-toting dwarf named Angelo. “Child Brides” Wikipedia page links to a list of films considered the worst ever, but at the time Child Bride got a lot of press.

PETER: Now, just to be clear, child marriage was a real thing. Incidences had been increasing from about 1890 up through 1930. By the time Eunice married child marriage was actually on the wane. So what was it about 1937 that suddenly gave the story such traction? Nicholas Syrett says that the reaction reflects broader anxieties swirling in the 1930s.

NICHOLAS SYRETT: This is happening in the midst of the Great Depression when the birth rate and the marriage rate both went down. Many people could not afford to marry or have children, and the rate of abandonment also seems to have gone up because many men were unable to support their families. So people were worried about the future of families, about the future of marriage.

ED: Now of course the outrage at Eunice and Charlie’s wedding centered on the fact that the bride was nine years old, but many reformers framed their criticism in terms that might sound familiar to us today.

NICHOLAS SYRETT: The question in essence was, if children could get married, then does this make a mockery of marriage itself, which is supposed to be an adult, Christian institution that people are supposed to take seriously.

ED: A women’s group in Cleveland said yes.

NICHOLAS SYRETT: Quote, “to permit marriage to be entered into casually by immature young people who have no sense of its social responsibilities, its obligations, and but little training in the ideals of family life, is to weaken and cheapen the institution of marriage itself.”

PETER: Well you might wonder about what happened to Eunice and Charlie. Well they had nine children and stayed together until Charlie’s death in 1996.

ED: The person helping us tell that story is Nicholas Syrett, an historian at the University of Northern Colorado. He’s currently working on a book about child marriage in the United States.

BRIAN: hosts, we’ve reached my favorite part of the show, because it’s time now to take some calls. As we do with each of our shows, we’ve been inviting your comments and questions for the past couple of weeks on backstoryradio.org and on Facebook. Today we’re calling up a few of the folks who left us a note there.

PETER: Gather around guys, We have a call from Baltimore, Maryland, it’s Julia. Julia welcome to the show.

JULIA: Hi there thanks for taking my question.

PETER: Hey. Well what is your question?

JULIA: Well, it’s more like could you comment on this. The idea of arranged marriage in some form is more the norm then what we think of today, and like go out and find the love of your life kind of thing. So I’m just kind of curious what you can say about that.

PETER: You’re right. The romantic idea of love and marriage is very much a modern idea in the West, beginning in the upper classes, upper middle classes, in Britain and America in the 18th century. And it’s still spreading across the world but it hasn’t gotten everywhere yet, but in world-historical terms, marriage by romantic choice is the exception, not the rule.

ED: But it seems to me– I would have thought in the 17th century, which is part of your long 18th century, that there was something much more like arranged marriages, even in the United States, is that not the case?

PETER: Oh yes, absolutely true Ed. That’s what– I meant to say that this romantic idea, which is really not broadly popular or democratized until your century. And really with all the mobility associated with the rapid movement of population across the continent it’s just impossible to have the kinds of knowledge needed to form family alliances, and the kind of control, intergenerational control, needed to arrange marriages. It just doesn’t exist anymore. But Ed you’re right, back in the 17th and well into the 18th century, and even into your century, there’s a lot of pressure to marry well according to family assessment of the interests of the individuals but also of the families themselves. And those kinds of things fall by the side for wealthy Westerners in the modern period. They don’t worry about the family.

ED: So Peter, that’s such a good answer that I have another question then, did the falling away of that, as you put, it happen just sort of passively? Was there a movement against arranged marriage, did it come to be seen as a travesty? Or did it just slowly become–

PETER: Ed if you want to know what gave point to all these long-term developments and family formation it’s the American Revolution. And that one word that’s so central to the ideology of the revolution, which is consent, that word just permeates the culture. Now choice may be the word today, but consent is the word then, it has political implications but it also has implications for marriage.

BRIAN: And in fact, Peter you might make the case that more people consented to marriage at the time of the Revolution than were actually able to vote after the Revolution.

PETER: Yeah that’s a good point.

JULIA: Could you explain that answer, I don’t understand that.

BRIAN: Well what Peter was getting at is that notions of being able to consent to a marriage in a republic like the United States were crucial to the formation of citizens who could consent to the government that they were governed by. The problem is that all women, and all African-American, and many men even though they often were consenting to their marriage, were not eligible to vote in the early republic.

PETER: Right.

ED: It’s interesting. I do think the consensual model of marriage actually does give weight then, later, to women’s claim for suffrage.

PETER: Absolutely, no question, no question.

ED: That the same degree of autonomy and agency that women had in choosing marriage partners, equipped them to also choose the people who would run their country. So it’s interesting how these– one kind of freedom, as we imagine it, one kind of consent, seems to imply another kind.

JULIA: One thing that one of you said was really new information to me that seems worth emphasizing, which is that the mobility, you know, and especially the U.S being the sort of frontier, that being a whole new way of people living and being the attraction, that the loss of a ability to have the kind of information that you might need to have the traditional arranged marriage kind of led to, like you said, the default version. And that that’s kind of a new idea and I think that’s true that’s what spreading around world as well.

PETER: Yes, I think you’re right.

ED: And because it was such a good idea, it’s important to credit that to its rightful owner, that was Peter Onuf ladies and gentleman, who had that insight.

PETER: Aw Ed.

ED: Yeah well it’s true.

PETER: Thanks so much for calling.

BRIAN: Thank you Julia.

JULIA: Bye bye.

PETER: Hey guys we got a call from the Lumberton, North Carolina, it’s Margaret. Margaret welcome to BackStory.

MARGARET: Hello, thank you

PETER: You got a story or a question, or what’s on your mind?

MARGARET: Yes, actually my grandparents who are still living have been married for 72 years, and they eloped three days after my grandmother turned 18 years old. They met when they were in high school. And Granny said that she was initially attracted to my grandfather because he had clean fingernails. They were in a farming community and this made him stand out amongst the other young men [INAUDIBLE].

PETER: That is wonderful, that’s a word to the wise out there, OK? Clean your fingernails.

MARGARET: Hygiene counts.

BRIAN: Just the fact that he had all his fingers I would imagine made him stand out.

MARGARET: But she says that when they married she was attending an all women’s college at the time, and because she was now married she was considered not appropriate for attending this women’s college anymore.

PETER: Right bad example.

MARGARET: She was forced to leave. And then my grandfather enrolled her at the local state college. And, because she was a married woman, it was my grandfather or her husband who had to enroll her and register her for classes.

PETER: Wow.

MARGARET: He ended up registering her for all science and home ec classes, rather than arts and literature like she was interested in, and she ended up dropping out of college. And this is all pre-World War II. We started thinking, we were talking about this in the office today, how common was it for married woman to attend college?

PETER: Well, what was the point? Because, of course, college was all about mating. And if you’ve already made your mating choice what’s the point?

BRIAN: Yeah. In fact there were a higher percentage of women in colleges in the 1920s than there were really up through the 1960s. But the odds of those women getting married, Margaret, were much lower than they are today. In fact, a lot of the women who were in college and stayed in college did not get married. Today there’s– really the big milestone, the big shift is that a much higher percentage of married women have college degrees. In fact it’s changed pretty dramatically just in the last 30 or 40 years.

MARGARET: Well, and then, that leads me to wonder about women who have their education, actually completed degrees, socially were they seen as un-marriagable?

ED: Yes. The concern was that they would never have babies, and frankly the concern was that there was something that was de-sexing about a woman going to college. People would not have been surprised that women in college were not married, because it’s only if you didn’t have a prospect of a marriage that you would have gone in the first place. The irony is that after World War II, and I’m traipsing on the 20th century now so I invite correction from Brian, that women talked about going to college to get the M-R-S degree. That knowledge became a great place of coeds meeting young man, and it became a way of accelerating and rationalizing, in some ways, the marriage market. And that would have been, I think, dominant throughout the 50s and 60s and into the 70s before it began to shift back more to the pattern we realize today, in which a majority of people in college are women. So it’s been quite the wrenching change.

BRIAN: So Margaret? What’s the scoop on marriage and education in your life?

MARGARET: I am college educated, I actually have some post undergraduate work, and my husband has a Ph.D. And is a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and we’ve been married for 20 years.

BRIAN: That’s terrific.

MARGARET: And I like to joke that despite my feminist leanings I came out of college with a M-R-S too.

PETER: Margaret thanks for the call.

MARGARET: Thank you very much.

ED: Thank you Margaret.

MARGARET: OK bye bye.

ED: You know that conversation certainly made it clear that marriage has been a lot of different things. We have one name for something that’s actually been a lot of different kinds of relationships. I’m just curious, what did women back in the 18th century think they were getting out of marriage, Peter?

PETER: Well, they don’t expect anything but to get married, and what they get is the promise of protection and security. Think of the basic idea of sovereignty, of a King’s authority, is based on the allegiance of his subjects, and the household is modeled as a small kingdom, and his subjects, dependents, include his wife. Now the wife has no independent civic identity, and therefore women under the common law of coverture own very little property, it’s only under special conditions that they do, widows for instance, or under equity where they have an estate that’s guaranteed them by their own family, but the general rule is that 99% of the property is owned by men. And that seems terribly unequal, but you have understood and that the household is an entity and its gendered male in terms of its public face. And so what women get is a place in their world, a secure place, they get protection, they get security.

ED: Peter that’s really interesting. It sounds discouraging for women, but security is something real.

PETER: Yeah and I think it’s also important to point out it that, in addition to security, that women get a world, a domain, a domestic sphere within which their care and nurturance of others can be expressed. And we have now a normative gendered male model of individuality, and that is you’re supposed to be able to go out there and do your own thing. But it’s in tension with another deep imperative in the human psyche and that is to care for others.

ED: So Peter, somehow something changed, you know? How was it that evolved? Was it slowly? Or abruptly?

PETER: So Ed, these changes take place sometimes for very surprising reasons. And women do get more control over property, at least under the law. In the 1830s we have the first of the married women’s property acts, this one in Mississippi of all places, in which the property of the wife will be secure against her husband’s failures, that he goes bankrupt and he loses everything. This is the boom to bust century. This is Horatio Alger and the dark side of Horatio Alger is when he loses it all. Rags to riches? Well, back to rags. So how do you maintain continuity across generations and provide for the children If the family fortune is constantly at risk? And this is why women begin to enjoy a more substantive rights. It’s not women’s liberation. This is not Seneca Falls, Seneca Falls is not located in Mississippi.

BRIAN: So, for people in the 18th century and the 19th century it’s all about family. And marriage is about protecting that family. And you’ve really put your finger on why marriage looks so different in each of our centuries, because those institutions surrounding marriage, the economy, social relations, always changing in flux. But Peter, I think you’re right. It’s all about family.

PETER: We’re going to take a quick break now. But don’t go away, when we come back we’ll take a road trip to the 1930s equivalent of a Las Vegas chapel.

ED: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

TONY FIELD: Hello again, this is Tony Field, BackStory Senior Producer. We wanted to take a quick moment thank all of you who have left reviews on our page in the iTunes store in recent weeks. The more reviews we get there, the more visible we become in the store, and that means that people who don’t already know about BackStory are much more likely to find out about it. If they haven’t already done so, please consider taking a moment to help us out in this effort. Just search for BackStory in the iTunes store and when you find us click the “ratings and reviews” tab and look for the button that says “write a review”. A few words there will go a long way.

As always, you can also show your support with a financial contribution. There’s a link to give at the top of our website backstoryradio.org. Thanks for listening, talk to you next week.

BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh your 20th century guy, and I’m here with Ed Ayres.

ED: Your 19th century guy.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf.

PETER: Representing the 18th country. Today on the show, how the institution of marriage has been defined and redefined throughout American history.

ED: And we’re going to turn now to a moment when hundreds of thousands of people’s marriages were redefined all at once. I’m talking about emancipation. A turning point where slaves, who had not been allowed to marry legally, became freed people, who could. So put yourself back in 1865. The Civil War has just ended. Formally enslaved people all over the South are beginning the long search for those loved ones whom slavery had snatched from them, their husbands, and wives, and children. And for some couples it’s a joyful reunion, but others find that their former partners have moved on with their lives. That they’ve remarried and begun new families.

A woman named Laura Spicer was in that last group. She’d been sold away from her family in Gordonsville, Virginia before the war began, and she had always hoped to reunite with her husband someday. But when she managed to track his address down and she wrote to him here’s a letter she received in response.

MALE SPEAKER: The reason why I have written you before in a long time is because your letters disturb me so very much. I want to see you and I don’t want to see you. I love you just as well as the last day I saw you.

ED: But he also wrote that he couldn’t see her again.

MALE SPEAKER: I am married and my wife have two children. And if you and I would meet it would make a very dissatisfied family.

ED: Situations like Laura Spicer’s weren’t uncommon. And we can imagine how heartbreaking they must have been. But the confusion of sorting out who is married to whom, and which marriages were legitimate, wasn’t just a personal matter, it ended up going through the federal bureaucracy. The government, for instance, had to figure out who was entitled to the pensions owed to the widows of black soldiers killed in the war. And in cases where soldiers had had multiple marriages under slavery, it wasn’t at all clear who should get the money. Liz Regosin is a historian who wrote about all this in a book called “Freedom’s Promise.”

LIZ REGOSIN: There’s a story I use in my book about two women, one is named Sarah and one is named Sally, always gets a little confusing, but both claim to be the widow of a man named Riley Pitts. And I think on the part of the Pension Bureau the first inclination is to assume that one of the widows is lying. But, you know, when you start to look at the stories you have the sense that it could definitely be the case that two women would have a legitimate claim as a man’s widow. Sally has the support of her former owner and Riley’s former owner, saying that these two were married.

But Sarah makes a really good case for why the two of them should be married. And she points out that, yes, Riley had been with Sally, but that they had had problems in their marriage, and that he left her. And that the two of them, she uses the language we took up together, and that he considered me his wife. And because under slavery there were no marriage certificates, there were no marriage ceremonies that had legal sanction, there were certainly ceremonies among slaves, but nothing with legal sanction.

There were no divorces, no legal divorces, among slaves. If slaves decided to end their marriages they would quit them. Sometimes they were forcibly separated because of their masters. And so it’s possible that Sarah could have been Riley’s wife, he could have considered her his wife. But she wouldn’t have any of the markers of that relationship that she’d had if she were a free white person.

ED: The federal government’s interest in free people’s marriages wasn’t limited to the Pension Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau, established at the war’s end to help the newly freed slaves, also spent a lot of time trying to sort all this out. Who was married to whom, how many children they had, where they’d lived. And this came at a moment when tens of thousands of freed people were living as refugees, in need of the basic necessities like food, and water, and shelter. I asked Liz why it was, that the face of such a humanitarian crisis, the federal government would spend time and energy documenting marriages?

LIZ REGOSIN: Marriage is so central to their understanding of how society will function. Good strong families are the cornerstone of society. The place where morality was instilled, where a sense of duty and citizenship was instilled in all the members of the family. And so this idea that we needed to help former slaves make the transition from slavery to freedom, they really focused on marriages as a way of facilitating that transition, of making it happen. And making it work so that people wouldn’t turn around and say, wow this whole emancipation idea was a mistake. And see? We were wrong to free the slaves.

ED: Now did the freed people eagerly embrace this? Was there resistance to it? Did problems ensue?

LIZ REGOSIN: I think that many freed people did embrace the idea of having their marriages legalized. Because it was something that hadn’t been recognized under slavery, and that meant that they were subject separation in their marriages, they were subject to separation from their children, and other family members. There was nothing there that protected those relationships. Also I think it was a sign of being free, and it was a sign of being a citizen. And so for all those reasons getting your marriage legalized, then having a legal relationship to the rest of your family members, was a very attractive prospect.

But at the same time, it also meant that there was regulation of your family relationships, just as they had been regulated under slavery. Not in the same way, but that some, sort of, outside entity was paying attention to you how you responded to other people in your family, how you interacted. It’s complicated. All a sudden you have the government sort of up in your business and asking you private things about your life, wanting to know about your sexuality, wanting to know about your children.

You had a lot of women who had children with men they did not consider their husbands, perfectly fine under slavery, becomes highly problematic to government agents after slavery. And so I think that people are both excited about the idea of having legal marriages, but also confounded by it. You know, I think that not everyone was going to run into it you know all ready to go.

ED: That’s Liz Regosin. She’s a professor of history at St. Lawrence University.

You know it strikes me that this episode of African-American families, the Freedmen’s Bureau at the very end of the Civil War, is marked change in American history. There’s been a gradual movement of the 200 years before from local to state, you have the sort of patchwork of state laws of different ages of consent and of marriage and divorce, which really continues deep into the 20th century. But now, suddenly in 1865, the federal government is coming in for black families and laying down the federal law, because local law, state law has been in place upholding slavery in its position. So now what we see suddenly in the middle of the 19th century is in some ways a kind of rehearsal for the 20th century, in which the federal government is going to come in and start trying to define what the appropriate bounds and content of marriage are.

BRIAN: You know Ed, I think that the example of federal intervention into the intimate affairs of formerly enslaved people is a good look into the future, in some ways, but as you know, that national state backs off really quite quickly at the end of Reconstruction. And so what you get–

ED: Or actually, even faster than that, Brian. This only last couple years and then they sort of hand this back over to the state.

BRIAN: I love when you make my points even stronger, Ed. And what you get instead is state, local, and at the margins federal government, trying in different ways to bolster the family. Because the government, especially a government that supposedly is weak and stays out of the picture, really needs strong families in order to perform a lot of the central functions that states, at least in Europe, are beginning to perform pretty directly.

So the family can educate people, rather than having a national education system. Families work on passing along their properties, rather than having some kind of redistributed state doing that. On the other hand, by the late 20th century the state is now doing so many things, some aimed a little bit at the family, some really not aimed at the family at all, that it can’t help but intervene in family relations, in marriage relations in many ways.

I mean take the example of the income tax. You know, folks actually calculate how much more they’re going to pay in taxes before they get married how much less they’re going to pay in taxes before they get married. So inadvertently, the state has come around to intervening in the family, and actually in whether people get married or not, almost the way that Ed’s Freedmen’s Bureau intervened directly in the lives of Americans.

PETER: I think there’s a real tension in American history that keeps resurfacing, and that is between the notion of the family as an institution that serves certain functions that are vital for the larger society, we need these as basic units on which to build the society and polity, on the other hand we like to think romantically about the family as a domain of domesticity and privacy, immunity to state interference, my home is my castle, don’t mess with me. Those values are always complicated, interpenetrated, and hard to separate, now more than ever.

BRIAN: Keep your government hands off my marriage certificate.

PETER: You got it.

BRIAN: Hey guys, I got a question for you. If you want to get married quick where do you go to these days?

PETER: Well, my daughter went to Las Vegas.

BRIAN: There you go. And I’ll bet when she drove in she was bombarded by these neon signs all advertising wedding chapels. Graceland Wedding Chapel, Chapel of Flowers, Wee Kirk o’the Heather Wedding Chapel. And a lot of them are open 24/7.

ED: You know, Peter but before Vegas was Vegas, the tiny town of Elkton, Maryland was the nation’s quickie wedding capital. And one of our producers, Nell Boeschenstein recently took a trip to Elkton, along with reporter Kelly Libby. And they visited one of the chapels where tens of thousands of couples got hitched all the way back in the 1920s and 30s. And they brought back this report.

FEMALE SPEAKER: And we have two young ladies from– what radio station again?

FEMALE SPEAKER: We’re from a history show, it’s a radio show. On the second floor of a small stone building along the main street in Elkton, Maryland, a bride stands in front of a full length mirror making sure her veil has not messed up her hair. How are you feeling?

FEMALE SPEAKER: I’m a little nervous, butterflies.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Ever since she was little, Amanda Herkner has known the little wedding chapel is where she’d eventually tie the knot. A church or courthouse in her home state of Pennsylvania was never in the cards.

FEMALE SPEAKER: My mom and my step dad got married here. And my– their grandparents got married here and my aunt and my uncle got married here as well.

FEMALE SPEAKER: While family tradition may have been what brought her here, if you go back to the 1930s, the opposite would have been true. That was when couples flocked to Elkton to buck tradition, not honor it.

MIKE DIXON: The street is full of parked cars, and abuzz with people as the lights illuminate the night.

FEMALE SPEAKER: That’s Mike Dixon. He works for the Cecil County Historical society, and he’s showing us a photo of Elkton’s main drag in the 1930s. You can see the street glowing with signage, advertising chapels and ministers.

FEMALE SPEAKER: The story of Elkton’ boom days begins in the early years of the 20th century. As a generation of young people tested the limits of parental authority, quickie weddings were on the rise. In an effort to curtail the unsavory trend, state legislators had begun making couples wait at least 48 hours between applying for a marriage license and getting one. In 1913 Delaware became the latest in a string of Northeastern states to implement such a rule.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Those couples who couldn’t wait two days to get hitched saw a road around the new laws. That road led to Elkton, just five miles south of the Delaware state line. In Maryland there wasn’t a residency requirement or a waiting period.

MIKE DIXON: Of course Delaware is not that big so it wouldn’t generate the volume.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Again Mike Dixon.

MIKE DIXON: But it’s New York, New Jersey, Camden, Trenton, Philadelphia. So it was really geography that’s doing it to us. You know we’re the first place in Maryland that you could easily get to for the urban areas north of us, and then you can get married and you can get out of town.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Within a few years 15 chapels had set up shop along the town’s main strip. The number of wedding skyrocketed from 300, in 1913, to 36,000 in 1936. That’s more than 10 times the population of Elkton itself.

MIKE DIXON: So it’s enormous. And what it was doing was it was bringing– like some days there were 100 couples getting off that train. So the cab companies see a business opportunity, and I’m always amazed at how entrepreneurial they were.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Those cabs would bring couples to get a marriage license, then deliver them to a chapel, wait outside while the couple said their vows, and then return the Mr. And Mrs. In time to catch the afternoon train home. While the rest of the country struggled through the depression, business in Elkton was gangbusters. Of course not everybody was happy about the industry behind the town’s economic boom.

MIKE DIXON: If you were a [? state ?] old Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal minister, and you’re looking at these fast marriages it’s not what you approve of. Certainly the Roman Catholic Church is not going to approve of these things. And they would do everything they could to kill it off, or regulate it, let me say regulate it.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Ordinance after ordinance was proposed to constrain the wedding trade. Some were targeted at the cab companies, other at the explosion of street signs pointing the way to the chapels. Local business leaders were able to defeat these laws. Unfortunately for them, there were larger factors at play.

ON T.V.: Good morning I– stop that music.

FEMALE SPEAKER: This is a scene from the “Philadelphia Story” which came out 1940.

ON T.V.: Dexter Dexter what next?

ON T.V.: Two years ago I did you out of a wedding in this house by eloping to Maryland.

ON T.V.: Two years ago?

FEMALE SPEAKER: Thanks to Elkton, “eloping to Maryland” had entered the cultural lexicon. The entire state was being tarred by the town’s tawdry reputation.

ON T.V.: Which was very bad manors.

ON T.V.: Which was very bad manors.

FEMALE SPEAKER: And so state lawmakers took matters into their own hands. In 1938 they passed a 48 hour waiting period.

MIKE DIXON: To quote the Evening Sun, I think they said a melancholy gloom descended over Elkton’s matrimonial [? magnets. ?]

FEMALE SPEAKER: The town never really recovered. Marrying couples continued to come, but more out of nostalgia than need. Which brings us back to Amanda, the current day bride in Elkton.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Downstairs the wedding party and minister have taken their places. Within minutes the bride has made her entrance.

MALE SPEAKER: Will you, Charles, have this woman to be your lawful wedded wife, to live together in the covenant of marriage.

FEMALE SPEAKER: With that, Amanda’s family tradition continues. But there’s a decent chance it will end with her. The little wedding chapel is the last remaining chapel from Elkton’ heyday, and it’s for sale. So far its owners haven’t found a buyer willing to perform weddings there, which means that Elton’s matrimonial history may soon be reduced to just another historical marker on just another street in just another town off I-95.

PETER: That story comes to us from Nell Boeschenstein Kelly Libby.

BRIAN: We’re out of time for today’s show. But we’re eager to hear your thoughts on the history of marriage. Write them down and share them with us at backstoryradio.org. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter, BackStory radio is the handle.

ED: Know on our website you’ll also find some other resources about the history of marriage, as well as our photos of Elkton’s chapels then and now. All of our past shows are there as well.

PETER: That’s at backstoryradio.org. Don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Nell Boeschenstein, [? Jesinga ?] [? Bretson ?], Eric Mennel, and Allison Quantz.

BRIAN: Jamal Milner is our technical director, Alan Chen is our intern, we had help from Chioke I’Anson, our senior producer is Tony Field, and BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel, history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History, Ed Ayres is president and professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.