Marriage isn’t a tradition, it’s an industry

Posted Thursday, Jun. 13, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Weddings are a $165 billion industry in the United States, according to the Association of Bridal Consultants. The introduction in 1934 of Brides magazine, the first publication devoted to this market, played a central role in its growth.

From the beginning, Brides linked weddings to consumption, promoting the lucrative formal white wedding ideal. Behind the scenes, the magazine worked with retailers to expand the market and introduce new “traditions.”

Before bridal magazines came on the scene, businesses in search of wedding trade had to cast a wide net. Beginning in the 1920s, kitchen-range makers, furniture dealers, ice companies and real estate agents sent congratulatory sales letters to brides and grooms-to-be setting up a new household. Many of these businesses then turned to traditional advertising media such as newspapers and women’s magazines, and by 1930, to radio soap operas.

Social observers of the time noted the role of business in ballooning wedding expenditures. According to “Purveyors to the Bride,” a 1925 Saturday Evening Post article, the cost of society weddings had doubled since the mid-1910s and “even the trades have joined in the conspiracy for more and bigger weddings.”

Brides gave advertisers direct access to that growing market. Founded by Wells Drorbaugh, a former advertising manager for House & Garden, the slim magazine was first called So You’re Going to Be Married. Drorbaugh reportedly got the idea after reading an article on the “Depression-proof” wedding trade. His publication started small, in the New York City living room of its first editor, Agnes Foster Wright.

Brides quickly increased the scale and scope of its advertising, expanding the definition of what was considered bridal. As a service for those about to marry, it published lists of businesses that offered wedding-related services or products across the country, a format followed by its rival Modern Bride, founded in 1949.

According to Barbara Tober, the editor-in-chief of Brides from 1966 to 1994, the magazine had to work to convince some manufacturers that there was a bridal market for their product. In doing so, it helped define what was necessary for the ideal wedding and the new household. Over the decades, this notion of necessity expanded, along with the size of bridal publications. The spring 2000 issue of Brides came in at 1,271 pages, entering the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest magazine ever produced.

Brides expanded the industry in other ways, too. Beginning in the late 1930s, it hosted annual bridal business clinics for department stores and those interested in starting specialty bridal shops. Developed by Alexandra Potts, the magazine’s head of merchandising, these events helped stores open bridal departments and gift registries.

Her clinics at the Waldorf-Astoria and the Ritz-Carlton brought store executives and consultants to learn about the bride as a “volume customer.” In the early 1940s, clinics addressed wartime weddings and promoted new ideas on flower displays, bridesmaid dresses and wedding gown fashions.

By the early postwar period, there were 500 bride’s shops with full-time consultants in towns of 50,000 or more. Aided by soaring marriage rates, the wedding industry boomed.

The bridal magazine industry flourished in the late 1960s and 1970s, despite opposition from the women’s movement and the counterculture. As social norms changed, the magazines made accommodations, but always in directions that expanded markets. In 1977, Modern Bride began to address the “mature” bride, a segment previously ignored.

The wedding industry eventually even found profit in rising divorce rates. Priscilla of Boston, a prominent wedding gown manufacturer renowned for its White House weddings, designed a “Contemporary-Romantic” line in the 1980s for brides who, according to the company’s designer, John Burbidge, were “marrying for the first to third time in a semi-formal atmosphere.”

By the late 1990s, bridal magazines urged other non-traditional brides, such as the visibly pregnant, to have a formal white wedding with all the trimmings. And in 2003, for the first time, Brides addressed the issue of gay marriage in a short, one-page piece that noted “same-sex affairs can be nearly as traditional as heterosexual ones.” And, one imagines, just as profitable.

Vicki Howard is an associate professor of history at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York.

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