58b-Marriage License Applications Past and Present

Introduction

The 1937 marriage license application presented in posting 58a-Muro Family in Wilmerding-Peter and Angie get married 1937 (Part 1) contained questions and language we are not used to seeing today. Uncle Sammy noticed that the language is unacceptable by modern standards. He asked me to do some research on the language used in modern day marriage license applications to see how things have changed.

We wanted to compare a modern day marriage license application from Pennsylvania to the one from 1937. Allegheny County has, like many other counties in Pennsylvania, created an on-line application process that replaces the need for applicants to download an application form and bring it to the clerk’s office for processing. Identification and other documentation is presented when the applicants go in person to pick-up the license. The language used at the online sites is neutral. There are none of what we consider the pejorative terms that were common language in 1937. We were able to find a downloadable application for a marriage license at the office of the Clerk of the Orphan’s Court for Centre County in Pennsylvania. We will use this application to compare the questions asked in one county of Pennsylvania today with those in asked 1937.

During the search for downloadable marriage license applications we learned how much the process varies across the United States. In Pennsylvania it is done at the county level and each county has its own application form and process (paper or online). Other states like Hawaii, New Jersey and Wisconsin have just one form available online for the entire state.

This posting consists of screen shots of the 1937 application and several modern applications from states and counties across the country. We’ve listed the information that is different from that requested on the 1937 application as well as terms or questions not used in 1937. This is followed by a brief section on blood tests in previous decades. Our discussion sums up what we’ve learned about how a simple comparison of marriage license language shows how different the concerns and attitudes of society in 1937 were from the ones we have today.

Allegheny County, Pennsylvania in 1937 Marriage License Application: Questions to be answered by the male

58b-1937 Marriage License-Male
1937 Marriage License in Pennsylvania.  Questions for male applicant.

Statement of Male

  • Is applicant afflicted with any transmissible disease?
  • Is applicant an imbecile, epileptic, of unsound mind or under guardianship as a person of unsound mind, or under the influence of any intoxicating liquor or narcotic drug?
  • Has applicant, within five years, been an inmate of any county asylum or home for indigent persons?
  • Is applicant physically able to support a family?

Allegheny County, Pennsylvania in 1937 Marriage License Application: Questions to be answered by the female

58b-1937 Marriage License-Female.jpg
1937 Pennsylvania Marriage License application.  Questions for the female applicant.

Statement of the Female

  • Is applicant afflicted with any transmissible disease?
  • Is applicant an imbecile, epileptic, of unsound mind, or under guardianship as a person of unsound mind, or under the influence of any intoxicating liquor or narcotic drug?

Centre County,Pennsylvania in 2016-Marriage License Worksheet

58b-Centre County PA Marr Lic Wksht 1

58b-Centre County PA Marr Lic Wkht 2
Close-ups of the complete marriage license application worksheet for Centre County, Pennsylvania in 2016.
  • The applicants are designated Applicant A and Applicant B. Each is asked to specify their gender but the instructions do not say Applicant A is the male and Applicant B is the female, as it was in 1937.
  • No blood test is required but each must answer if they have knowledge of a transmissible disease.
  • Information about previous marriages must be stated.
  • Each applicant must supply information about their occupation, education and current phone number.

The State of New Jersey-2016-Marriage License Application

Note: Pennsylvania is the next state over from New Jersey.

58b-NJ Marr Lic Appl
Close-up of the part of New Jersey’s application for license that differs from Angie and Peter’s 1937 license application.
  • The application is not limited for a license to get married. In addition to marriage, the applicants seeking a civil union, remarriage or a reaffirmation of a civil union are eligible to apply.
  • Applicant A and Applicant B are the gender neutral terms used to describe the couple applying.
  • Previous marital status is not limited to being widowed. The status of “Current Domestic Partner” ans “Former Domestic Partner” are also included. This reflects the changing status of relationship and living arrangements that have developed since the 1970s.
  • No questions about health.
  • No questions about race.

The State of Hawaii-2016-Marriage License Application

58b-HI Marr Lic Appl
Close-up of marriage license application for Hawaii.
  • The applicants are asked to provide the following information but have the choice of entering “Refused” if they do not want to provide answers to place of birth, race, occupation and educational level.
  •  Terms used are Applicant I and Applicant II with descriptions of Groom, Bride or Spouse.

State of Florida, Orange County-2016-Application for Marriage License

58b-FL Marr Lic Appl
Close-up of the application for a marriage license in Orange County, Florida.
  • The parties to the license are described as Applicant I and Applicant II.
  • The race of each applicant is not asked for.
  • If the couple have any children born in Florida they must submit an affirmation along with the application for the marriage license.
  • A pre-marital preparation course must be taken up to one year before the license is applied for.

Blood Tests: Once useful in the 20th century, no longer deemed necessary in the 21st century

In the early through late 20th century couples applying for a marriage license were required to get a blood test. According to an 1997 on-line article at The Morning Call-NJ, Pennsylvania repealed the law requiring blood tests in July of that year. The article states that the law was still on the books in New Jersey which caused couples who wanted to marry quickly to cross the border into Pennsylvania for a fast wedding ceremony. Local hotels anticipated a spike in business as a result. Expectations were that eventually New Jersey and other states would soon repeal the blood test requirement since its usefulness was now past.

Blood tests were required in the 1950s because of the very real health threat syphilis presented. It was not something partners revealed to each other so as a preventative the blood tests were required. It was a matter of protecting the health of the unknowing partner. In 1996 only one case of untreated syphilis was diagnosed prior to a marriage license being granted. Since 1947 penicillin has been used to effectively treat syphilis so well that the number of cases reported each year is much lower than in the mid-20th century. This is why the blood test for syphilis is no longer required prior to obtaining a marriage license.

A few states in the U.S. still require blood tests but some of them are to detect other diseases. In New York State African-Americans and Latinos must take a blood test to determine if they have sickle cell anemia. The reasoning behind this is that if either one or both partners carry the Sickle Cell Trait (SCT) they may not be aware of it since they do not have the symptoms of Sickle Cell Disease (SCD). The concern is that the couple be aware of what the risks are for their children, if they have any, to inherit the trait or disease.

In 2003, the Connecticut General Assembly commissioned a report on mandatory HIV testing as a condition for obtaining a marriage license. The report found that in states where such laws were passed they were repealed shortly after because the testing did not turn up large numbers of affected individuals. There has been very effective targeting and treatment given to segments of the population that are at high risk of getting HIV/AIDS so the requirement for such a blood test as part of applying for a marriage license was deemed ineffective. Instead, many states make available information about HIV/AIDS to applicants and offer to direct them to places where testing is offered.

Discussion with Uncle Sammy on Sunday, April 24, 2016 11 – 11:30 a.m.

 Here is a summary of the key points that arose and were discussed after comparing the 1937 marriage license application with modern ones.

What the 1937 marriage license tells us about the societal attitudes and concerns of that time:

  • Today we consider the word imbecile highly offensive. But in the 1930s it was part of a system of classification for defining degrees of what was described as mental retardation. An imbecile was a person with the mental age of a 3 to 7 year old child. Even the term mental retardation is no longer used. Today the term mentally challenged is considered appropriate.
  • Former inmates would have a difficult time finding employment and supporting a family. We do not think there were many training programs or organizations that helped former inmates transition back to life on the outside.
  • Treatment and understanding of epilepsy was not advanced as it is today. Medical treatments were limited and the general public was not aware of how to treat an epileptic should a seizure arise. Concern for the effects seizures would have on the care of a family and children would cause the public to question whether or not a person with epilepsy could effectively handle the demands of raising a family.
    • Epileptics were often sent to live in communities where there was a limited array of treatments available to them. This isolation prevented them from living a full life in mainstream society. There were even jobs assigned to those who could work but they remained within the community to perform these jobs.
  • Alcoholism and substance abuse were not something people admitted to. The knowledge we have today of these as treatable conditions was not yet discovered. Popular opinion considered alcoholics and substance abusers as self-indulgent, corrupt and irresponsible individuals.
  • Society as a whole emphasized “normalcy”. Men and women had clearly defined roles and were expected to live up to those roles. Men worked and provided for their families. Women stayed home, had children and took care of the domestic life. To do anything other than what was considered “normal” and in the mainstream was to be considered odd or perhaps mentally and socially maladjusted.
  • Family life and having children was for the strong and the healthy. The social services provided at the time were limited and the stigma was very great for the person who was the recipient of any government program.
  • We think the marriage license application shows that the emphasis on being employable and in good health of body, mind and spirit was due to the limited safety net programs available at this time, too.

What the marriage license applications in 2016 tell us about the change in our attitudes:

  • Marriage Equality laws now require us to use gender neutral language on such documents as the marriage license application. Terms like Male and Female have been replaced by the terms Applicant I and Applicant II.
  • We have higher divorce rates so some states will ask the applicants to specify if this is a new marriage or remarriage.
  • Where blood tests are required of certain racial groups, such as for sickle cell anemia, the concern is on finding out whether or not the applicants to the marriage license carry or have a condition or illness that is prevalent in that particular group. The goal is to focus on treatment and raising awareness about treatment and living with the condition or illness.
  • Testing for HIV/AIDS is not required as part of the marriage license application because the responsibility for disclosing this condition is left up to the partners. With the exception of a few states like Vermont and Rhode Island, there are statutes in effect throughout the country where it is a felony to engage in sex and not disclose to the partner that one has HIV/AIDS.
  • There is a comprehensive safety net in place and support system for people who are mentally challenged or live with conditions like epilepsy. Awareness, training and correct medications can help individuals live a full and productive life which might include marriage and family.
  • The focus today is on inclusion, not exclusion. People ask more questions and answers are more varied. It is not necessary to conform to an external standard defined as “normal” to live a full and productive life.
    • There is freedom to be a member of the mainstream by contributing through work and participation in the life around us. There is also leeway to make a lifestyle in tune with a person’s preferences. This makes for a much more complicated social setting.
    • Yet in many ways it also makes us look at the “good old days” of the past as being not as good or understanding or as accepting as the emotion of nostalgia causes us to look at it, especially when we have our own problems coping with the complexity our new freedoms of expression and choice bring.

Resources

Ancestry

Application for Marriage License

Peter Muro and Mary Angela E. Carola

Pennsylvania County Marriages 1885-1950 FHL microfilm 1953544.

The Free Dictionary by Farlex

Definition of imbecile

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/imbecile

English 7-6 Mental Retardation in the 1930s

https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/13e-B8ElpK9DeBx4oe4g0BvAp0Aft3R9soSJ5QuIfvAE/edit?pref=2&pli=1#slide=id.i12

ACLU American Civil Librties Union

State Criminal Statutes on HIV Transmission

https://www.aclu.org/state-criminal-statutes-hiv-transmission?redirect=lgbt-rights_hiv-aids/state-criminal-statutes-hiv-transmission

This page contains a link for downloading a comprehensive state-by-state list of the statutes currently in effect.

Allegheny County, Pennsylvania

Department of Court Records

Marriage License Records

https://dcr.alleghenycounty.us/Marriage/HowToApply.aspx

Bucks County, Pennsylvania

Register of Wills & Clerk of Orphans’ Court

http://www.buckscounty.org/government/RowOfficers/RegisterofWills/MarriageLicenses

Centre County, Pennsylvania

Document Center

http://www.centrecountypa.gov/DocumentCenter

From the File Tree select the folder: Register of Wills

The Marriage License Worksheet is available from this folder.

PDF File link for Centre County Marriage License Worksheet: http://www.centrecountypa.gov/DocumentCenter/View/1218

New Jersey Department of Health

Marriage/Remarriage/Civil Union/Reaffirmation of Civil Union License Application Form

Click to access reg-77.pdf

State of Hawaii Dept. of Health

Vital Records

http://health.hawaii.gov/vitalrecords/marriage-licenses/

Tiffany Moore Russell

 

Orange County Clerk of Courts

http://myorangeclerk.com/enu/Pages/additional-services/marriage-licenses-and-ceremonies.aspx

Orange County Florida

Application for Marriage Licence link is on this page.

NoLo

Chart: State Marriage License and Blood Test Requirements

http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/chart-state-marriage-license-blood-29019.html

NoLo

Marriage Requirements, Licenses, and Ceremonies FAQ

Are blood tests still required before marriage?

http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/marriage-requirements-licenses-ceremonies-faq-29142-5.html

FreeAdvice Legal

Do I have to take a blood test to get married?

http://family-law.freeadvice.com/family-law/marriage/blood-test-marriage.htm

The Morning Call-NJ

“They’re Saying `I Do’ In Pa. By Abolishing The Blood Test Requirement, Pennsylvania Has Become The Newest Hot Spot

For N.j. Couples Unwilling To Wait To Be Married.”

August 10, 1997|by KATHLEEN PARRISH, The Morning Call

http://articles.mcall.com/1997-08-10/news/3160252_1_blood-tests-couples-new-jersey

Business Insider

Military & Defense

“The Cure for Syphilis Was Developed As Part Of The US Effort to Win World War II”

by Pierre Bienaime

Dec. 18, 2014, 5:40 pm

http://www.businessinsider.com/the-cure-to-syphilis-was-discovered-as-part-of-the-us-effort-to-win-world-war-ii-2014-12

Center for Disease Control

“What You Should Know About Sickle Cell Trait”

Click to access SCD%20factsheet_Sickle%20Cell%20Trait.pdf

OLR Research Report

“Mandatory Premarital HIV Testing”

10/14/2003

https://www.cga.ct.gov/PS98/rpt%5Colr%5Chtm/98-R-0995.htm

Health Topics A To Z

Epilepsy: Historic Overview

Source: The World Health Organization

http://www.allcountries.org/health/epilepsy_historical_overview.html

This posting was created in the Gutenberg Editor using the Classic Block.  All images utilize captions and center position.

5 thoughts on “58b-Marriage License Applications Past and Present

  1. I also found this very interesting. While some of the questions on the old forms were not what we would care to see today I will withhold judgement. I also agree with Amy about old newspaper stories and some of the statements they use. They can make one cringe. But once more I tend not to let it bother me too much. We judge people (I feel) to harshly from other time periods. Many of us were in our teens in the 1960s and some of the things that were said and done by today’s standards are rightly look down on today. When you think about it was not that long ago. Oh yes one more thing just from a family history research point of view I wish the census had even more questions. Perhaps I would have fewer brick walls. 🙂

    1. You are so right about not judging previous generations by today’s beliefs. Unless one has lived through the time period it is hard to truly understand it all. Like you and Amy I cringe at many things I see today. I was watching Burns & Allen on YouTube and was caught by surprise when the episode had a section about Minstrel Shows from their vaudeville days. George and Gracie were performing a la Al Jolson and they looked absolutely insane to me. It was awful, just awful. And I think it’s good I reject what they did as funny because it means I’ve been sensitized to the issue. And that was about the time I was 4 or 5 so you are right not that long ago.

      One thing I never found funny was the cruelty to animals in 1940s and 1950s cartoons. In Krazy Kat, Ignatz the Mouse throws bricks at her and she thinks he loves her. Today such a cartoon wouldn’t make it onto a TV show for children.

      And yes, having more info on the families via the census could provide more navigation for searches.

  2. Very interesting bit of sociology. I am often offended by newspaper articles that identify an individual by their race or religion where it is not at all relevant to the underlying story. Of course, we still ask people to identify their racial or ethnic background and their sex on many forms including the census. I wonder whether we will reach a time when that is considered completely irrelevant except for very specific purposes. Fascinating research, Emily!

    1. Good points, Amy. Given how vitriolic some people are these days I almost think some info should be confidential for the safety of all concerned. Perhaps some info like gender and religion may be needed in some areas but it should never be released when not needed.

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