A History of Wedding Announcements in The New York Times

From a lithub.com post by Cate Doty headlined “A Brief History of the New York Times Wedding Announcements”:

The first piece of content that can be identified as a wedding announcement appeared in the New-York Daily Times on September 18, 1851. “In Trinity Church, Fredonia, on the 15th, inst., by Rev. T.P. Tyler, JOHN M. GRANT, Esq., of Jamestown, to SARAH, daughter of Hon. JAMES MULLETT of Fredonia.”…

By 1865, as many as twenty couples an issue submitted their matrimonial announcements to the Times, which, as with the notice for the Grants, gave only the barest of details. These were the plebeians, however—those who did not live on Washington Square. For at least 25 years, newspapers had already been in the practice of reporting and writing about society and royal weddings, the details of which set trends for years and decades to come….

Over the 19th century, reports of weddings, parties, and social affairs became more entrenched in what newspapers were expected to provide their readers. By the 1880s, society journalism was well established, and society reporters thronged every major bridal event in New York. While old-line society families may have feigned horror at the infiltration of the dirty masses into their well-protected enclaves, they needed that publicity to keep power. The write-ups of society weddings were, on their surface, details of wedding parties, veils, trousseaus from Paris, and wedding tours to the Riviera. But what they really signaled was a family merger: a connection made legal in the eyes of the church, and state, that consolidated social, political, and academic power between families….

For decades and centuries, people—women, really—have established, gained, and consolidated power through marriage, and wedding announcements bear that out. Edith Wharton knew that gossip was and is power, and those who hold the most knowledge hold the strings of power. Understanding bank balances and legal this-and-that is important, to be sure—but families are made and destroyed by the stories we tell, and wedding announcements are no different. Which brings me to my other point: even though New York society families may have eschewed these write-ups in private, they used them to publicly signal where their money was going and what their priorities were….

Of course, times are different now. But they aren’t that different. The Times wedding announcements are signalers not just of social class but of intellectual and economic achievement. The du Ponts and Rockefellers still pop up occasionally, but for the most part, the pages are filled with a new guard of American society: still pretty white, but way more Jewish and far less straight than they used to be. David Brooks wrote a lot about this in his book Bobos in Paradise: since the Gilded Age, the pages, and the announcements, have traced the evolution of America’s ruling class from a consolidation among a hundred or so ruling families, to an ambitious establishment created by those who have gained entry on merit.

Well, sort of. Merit is as merit does. The announcements largely feature white upper-middle-class people, which means, of course, that they were born with at least one leg up. I will tell you that I can count on one hand the number of Black couples that I wrote about during my tenure on the desk, despite Ira’s attempts to reach out to Black churches and community groups. This was a historical failing and not one that had improved much with time.

The Times did manage to cover the nuptials of Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching journalist who the newspaper’s editorial writers, seeking to justify lynching just the year before, had called “a slanderous and nasty-minded mulatress.” Her wedding in Chicago to Ferdinand L. Barnett, “a local colored attorney of prominence,” warranted a notice on the front page of the edition of June 28, 1895. It was a remarkable development for a Black woman born into enslavement and who was herself, as Nikole Hannah-Jones later noted in the Times, “by definition, remarkable.”…

Cate Doty is a writer and a former editor at The New York Times, where she worked for nearly 15 years, including as a wedding announcements writer, presidential campaign reporter, and a senior staff editor on the Food desk. She teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, from which she graduated, and lives in North Carolina with her family. Mergers and Acquisitions is her first book.

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