Read more of Slate’s “Weddings” issue.
In 1901, Chicago author Myrtle Reed complained that most men fell short when it came to popping the question. In her guide to men, courting and marriage called The Spinster Book, Reed wrote that potential grooms “propose as thoughtlessly and easily as they dress for dinner,” and “devote no particular study to the art.”
Too bad Reed couldn’t be around to see the YouTube video documenting Matt Still’s proposal to Ginny Joiner. Still produced a homemade movie trailer and convinced a local movie theater to roll his amateur film alongside the other previews. Or Corey Newman’s personalized crossword puzzle in the Washington Post: Newman rigged the answers to pose the question: “Marlowe Epstein will you marry me?”
Today, men are proposing marriage via Groupon deals, tweets and flash mobs in Washington Square Park. In a 2009 survey of 20,000 brides by theknot.com and wedding.com, 32 percent said they received a public marriage proposal. In 2010, that number jumped to 43 percent. Before 2009, the survey didn’t ask the question. So how did we get from Myrtle Reed’s era of bumbling, private proposals to the extravagant rituals of today?
It was no Scrabble-themed “Will You Marry Me?” mural in the middle of New York City, but the public marriage announcement likely began in 12th century France. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the tradition, known as marriage banns, required the parish priest to announce the names of the couple on three consecutive Sundays in church. In America, the custom continued with Protestants in 17th century New England. The Protestants of the early colonies insisted a new couple hang a public proclamation of an impending marriage outside town hall for three consecutive Sundays. * If a member of the community objected to the union, he or she had time to air any doubts.
In the late 19th century, the proposal started to become more romantic. Before that, marriages were often arranged, and more like business transactions than loving unions. “The idea of one person getting down on his knee didn’t exist,” explains Elizabeth Abbott, author of A History of Marriage. “The proposal was an afterthought to the concrete arrangement that came before.” As love became a leading factor in the decision to tie the knot, it coincided with a societal movement toward individual contentment; young people began to associate marriage with happiness, love, and erotic satisfaction.
Still, even when a couple was in love, the proposal remained a private affair. In a 1922 book, Fascinating Womanhood, or the Art of Attracting Men, the author advises young women on how to elicit a marriage proposal. When going out to eat, “Avoid the dazzlingly white restaurants, the gay and glittering kind, and the cabarets … their atmosphere discourages all thought of home and marriage.”
While the wedding industry surged after World War II, the glossy extravaganzas we know today began during the Reagan administration. “In the 1960s and 70s, it wasn’t even popular to get married,” explains Chrys Ingraham, a professor of sociology at Purchase College SUNY and author of White Weddings. “During the sexual revolution, it was actually considered sort of goofy,” Others who didn’t find marriage goofy—like some feminists—thought the entire institution was a form of female servitude. They likely would’ve torn up Corey Newman’s crossword puzzle and walked out of the theater as soon as Matt Still’s preview began to play.
But the free-love, anti-institutional war cry of the ‘60s quieted during the mid-1970s and early 1980s. Then the crippling recession of the early 1980s struck and imposed a new set of economic realities on the once-carefree generation. Marriage became a pragmatic decision. For young people, the free-loving “fantasy world [of the 1960s] had dissipated by the 1980s,” explains Elizabeth Abbott.
Some experts attribute the commercialization of the wedding industry to the fairy-tale wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles in 1981. The wedding drew 750 million viewers from around the world, inspiring bridal excess everywhere. “In America, the effect was immediate,” write Elizabeth Pleck and Cele Otnes, authors of Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding. The new atmosphere launched groups like the Association of Bridal Consultants, created to feed brides hungry for professionals skilled in planning such lavish ceremonies, as well as Martha Stewart’s Weddingsbook, which debuted in 1987.
Naturally, once weddings morphed into theatrical events, proposals followed suit. In 1985, sportscaster Ahmad Rashad proposed to Phylicia Ayers-Allen (better known as mom Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show) on television before the Thanksgiving Day football game between the New York Jets and the Detroit Lions. Bill Ponath takes credit for orchestrating the first JumboTron scoreboard proposal on Jan. 2, 1987, at the National Fiesta Bowl.
Post-JumboTron, the proposal entered yet another period of flux. Another wave of feminism in the 1990s helped level the proposal playing field, and the idea that a woman could propose to a man became less absurd , says Abbott. But it’s still one place where egalitarianism hasn’t quite stuck. Many women still feel uncomfortable and unnatural proposing to a man. And some men are attracted to the extravagant proposal as an act of virility, a palpable way to exert dominance over the marriage process.
“It’s a confident thing to do, a big megaphone statement to the world,” explains wedding etiquette expert Anna Post, the great-great granddaughter of the infamous Emily Post. “I think there’s some real appeal to men in that.”
Today, both social media and a generational blurring of the public and private sphere have fueled the public proposal fire: Expressing your undying love in front of a crowd of millions now requires only an Internet connection and a modicum of creativity.
Still, does the pageantry of a lavish public proposal signal the beginning of a happy marriage? Wedding historians say no one has mapped that particular correlation yet. But if we extrapolate from one of the first public proposals in the 1970s, it seems likely that Corey Newman and Marlowe Epstein may still be scribbling love letters into crossword puzzles into their golden years.
Todd Miller asked his wife Terry to marry him on the first-ever electronic billboard in New York City back in 1978.
Miller, then a senior at the University of Tampa, bought a 15-second spot for $129 from the billboard company. His question lit up Times Square on a frigid evening right before Thanksgiving. “I wanted the world to know how much I loved my wife,” explains Miller, now a business owner in Milwaukee.
Terry, he recalls, was “100 percent” mortified by his public proposal. She remembers it differently. “I started laughing,” she says. “I thought it was very sweet.” They’ve been married for 30 years and have seven kids.
Myrtle Reed would be proud.
Click here to see a video slide show on public proposals.
Correction, June 22, 2011: This article incorrectly attributed the origin of marriage banns to 17th century New England Protestants, when in fact the tradition of marriage banns probably dates back to 12th-century France, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. (Return to the corrected sentence.)