The Marriage Mill of Manhattan: 1905

 Manhattan alderman marrying2THE MARRIAGE MILL OF MANHATTAN

By Nina Carter Marbourg

Illustrated with special photographs

There is a veritable Marriage Mill in New York. Spend a morning in it and then if you can, say that there is no romance in this prosaic world. In this mill the God of Love is not overburdened with care concerning the quality of his grinding, nor is he at all deliberate in the process.

When I stepped from the bright sunlight of City Hall Park, into the gloom of a long corridor that runs through the basement of the City Hall, I suddenly and quite unexpectedly collided with a group of men and women. Naturally I begged pardon, and asked where I could find the Marriage Bureau.

“It’s right here,” in a thin voice and accompanied by a series of suppressed giggles came from a girl near the wall. I started toward the door, when the same voice called out: “It is too early, lady, the door isn’t open yet. Yes we are waiting to get married,” she added amiably. “Been here this half hour. We’ve got to hurry too or put it off until noon, because if—if we are late at the office we’ll lose our jobs.”

Waiting for the opening of the marriage mill.

Waiting for the opening of the marriage mill.

Astonishing and unique it did seem to find young people making this plunge into the maelstrom of the marital sea in such a matter-of-fact way, just as though it were an every-day occurrence, and something that might be deferred until tomorrow without making much difference to either of them.

“You don’t mean to say that you will be married this morning and then go to your office and enjoy no honeymoon, do you?”

“Um—!” the bridegroom-elect rejoined this time, “and later on our vacations come at the same time so we are going away then. We’d have been married last week, only we couldn’t get a chance, one of us was working all of the time—. But…”

At this period of the interesting explanation a man came down the corridor. He cast a glance at the waiting couples, nodded, grinned, placed a key in the lock, turned it and announced: “Business begun for the day. Step in all youse who are in love and want to be married.”

The two young couples needed no urging, and the conductor of the marriage mill surveyed them critically as they filed to the chairs against the wall.


The chamber of ceremony is not over prepossessing. The ceiling is very low; an ordinary flat-topped desk stands at the back of the room; in front of it and around the sides of the wall are ranged a single row of chairs ; a smaller desk completes the furnishings. The supervisor waved the young people to the seats and without taking further notice of them proceeded to dust the desk. Presently he looked up, very much as though his grey matter had begun work.

“In a hurry?” he managed to say out of the side of his mouth, as he chewed a piece of gum.

“Yes, sir,” from the more courageous bridegroom.

“How much is it worth?” he paused a moment in his dusting and looked speculatively at the young people.

“Why, I’ll give you a dollar,” volunteered one of the men.

“So will I,” chimed in the other.

“Well “considered the keeper of the Mill, continuing his dusting, and, judging from the furrows between his brows, thinking deeply.

“Well?” queried the more audacious of the two men.

“Say,” ejaculated Mike, fixing the young people with his eyes, “Say did any of youse ‘lope?”

Indignation in all its righteousness arose; the four young people stood up as though they were mechanical dolls and the spring had been touched.

“Well! Well! That’s all right. Don’t get huffy about it. Stick to yer perches an’ I’ll see if I can hustle an Alderman fer youse. A dollar a piece you said? All right. Hi, Jerrey, pike down the shoot an’ hustle the Alderman. See? Git!”

During this performance the young people, having regained their respective chairs, sat staring at each other in blank amazement, but soon this dazed condition of their minds wore off and they looked rather sheepish.

The young man who entertained apprehensions concerning the safety of his “job” looked at his watch. His bride-to-be whispered at him. For an instant he gazed blankly at the floor and then, man fashion, answered in a distinctly audible tone:

“Yes, and we’ll get a new table for the dining-room and lace curtains bye-and-bye.”

The girl blushed as red as an American Beauty rose, and the young woman on the opposite side of the pillar giggled.

All five of us straightened perceptibly as a sharp, quick step neared the door; then the Alderman, that all-important Mr. Leopold Harburger of this morning’s romances, came in, tossed his hat on the desk, pulled off his gloves, and remarked as he did so: “Now, young people, if you are in as much of a hurry as I am, we’ve no time to lose. Who is first?”

“We are, sir,” returned the prospective purchaser of the new “table for the dining room and lace curtains bye-and-bye.”

“All right, step up; what’s your name?” said the Alderman without pause or break in his sentence.

”Henry Roth.”

‘”The lady’s?”

“Margaret Dean.”

“Your age?”





“New York, and so was she,” he added wishing to hurry matters and evidently thinking of his “job” the whole.

“Now, then, where are your witnesses?”

“Haven’t any.”

“Well, then, you two young people back there step up here, take the witness places and be sworn.”

The other couple did as the Alderman desired and presently the Master of Ceremonies was rattling on in his rapid-fire manner: “Bride and groom join hands. Henry Roth, do you take this woman, Margaret Dean, to be your lawful and wedded wife?”


“Margaret Dean, do you take this man Henry Roth to be your lawful and wedded husband, and do you promise to love, honor and obey him as long as you remain his wife?”


“Well, then, Henry Roth kiss your wife, Mrs. Henry Roth, and go back to your homes and be happy all the rest of your days; there you two stand back and play witnesses for these other young people as they have done for you; it will take you only a minute and as I am in a hurry you will accommodate me as much by doing this as I have by getting you two married and if you owe the keeper of this marriage bureau anything pay it before you go though there is no charge for anything down here.”

a world of advice to the young couple2

I drew a deep, long breath as Alderman Harburger completed this utterly unpunctuated list of instructions. It seemed as though his lung power must be exhausted, but before I had time to draw another breath he was off at the same mile-a-minute pace.


Within twenty minutes four people had been made two, everything was done up in proper shape, the certificates were ready, and the big red seal was placed on them. Then the young man paid the keeper of the Mill his little fee and in a second more had left the room.

“There,” said the Alderman as they disappeared, “I’ve done my duty by them. Now I’m going over to my office. I’ll be back by half-past ten. If others come, hold ’em or get another Alderman.” So saying, he picked up his hat and was off.

The superintendent once more regained his feather duster, not that anything needed dusting, but it was a habit with him. We were left alone in this strange Cupid’s Court. Resting his weight on one foot and flourishing the duster at intervals, he remarked: “You see, it’s this way. These young folks have no people in town, so they don’t have church weddin’s; they just come here, an’ we ties the knot fer ’em. Then there’s folks what ‘lope. Sometimes you can spot ’em, because they look so scared, but now and then they gets away. After them comes older folks what takes marriage just as indifferent like as they do anything else in life. They come here ’cause it’s like going ‘jest round the corner’ and there ain’t no fuss and feathers.” Here he dabbed at the chair as though he were making a body thrust at some hated enemy, and after a pause remarked in subtle, deep-meaning tones: “Last of all there’s them [ethnic slur.] S’pose you call ’em Italians. They are the worst ever. Why, they come here morning, noon and night, and—hello, there’s some now. Want to get hitched? All right, come in here.”

He motioned them to chairs with a grand sweep of his feathered scepter.

The party in hand was a queer one. It was comprised of the young Italian, his sweetheart, her father and mother. They were decked in holiday day regalia, all the colors of the rainbow could be found in the dresses of the women, and brilliant purple and red neckties threw the deep bronzed features of the men into fine relief.

Every Italian in America must be married twice. The man of Little Italy is married in his Church. To our authorities this means nothing, so a civil marriage is necessary. To the Italians a civil marriage means no marriage whatsoever, for this reason there is a double wedding.

The party from Little Italy sat staring in wide-eyed astonishment at the King of the chamber, the little bride-to-be tugged at her husband’s homespun coat sleeve.

“Say—where we find marrying man. Here? Yes?”

He of the homespun nodded, but the little woman was not yet content.

“S—ay, when, now?”

Again he nodded.

By this time two more couples had come to have the knot tied for them. They represented the up-town young people, a homey, comfortable sort. You perceived instantly that they were not strangers to Broadway, still they were not of the theatrical type, but a couple of young people who had succeeded in reaching the happy medium of existence. Being of such a class they sat down for a comfortable chat and a wait for the Alderman. To them, a wait of half an hour or so didn’t matter much; they could find plenty to interest them.

Suddenly there was a rustle of skirts in the corridor, a quick step, a flutter at the door, and a young man quite breathless, demanded: “Where’s the man who ties the knots?”

“He’ll be here after while,” slowly answered the attendant from behind his morning paper, wholly unmoved by this sudden entrance.

“Say, I’ll give you five dollars if you’ll get him here in as many minutes.

“Whew!” whispered Mike, and in an instant he had darted from the room.

He had forgotten to ask whether or not they had eloped; it did not seem to matter to him what they had done. The young girl was all of a flurry, and they sat down near the very much sophisticated young couple. The flurried young woman held her hand to her heart a moment, and the girl in the next seat passed her vinaigrette.

“Oh, thank you ever so much. You see we hurried and—and I’m a little out of breath and…”

“Why, child,” remarked the young woman of the vinaigrette, “you are as white as a ghost, now for heaven’s sake don’t faint, because if you do you’ll probably spoil it all. You see when you’ve had enough courage to elope—there, there, I can read it in your face, you’ve eloped all right enough—and as I was about to say, when you’ve had enough courage to do that you don’t want to ruin things at the very end. There now— here comes the Alderman and everything will be all right. Courage,” she whispered, as she patted the back of the small, well-gloved hand.

The timid girl smiled her thanks, and in a more breathless manner than usual the marriage ceremony was read. The young men exchanged cards and the newly-married pair were out of the marriage bureau door before you could comfortably say Jack Robinson.

The Alderman was just calling the second couple when the door burst open and a very red faced, irate little man raised on tip toe, and shouted: “Where are they?”

“Oh,” remarked the Alderman,” so they did elope after all. I thought so, for the fee was unusually big. Well, they have been gone some twenty minutes, and they said they were going to catch a train.”

“They did, did they?” shouted the little man, “What train where?”

“I don’t know,” said the Alderman, “But I’d advise you to telegraph their description.”

“Oh, it’s a shame. It’s a shame. I’ll forgive them, but I wanted to give them a fine wedding, and only said ‘No’ because I wanted the pleasure of being asked over again. So, they’ve stolen the march on me, the young rascals! Well, that makes me love ’em more than ever,” he completed, as he handed the Alderman a bill for no other reason than that his ill temper had turned to joy, and that smiles superseded the frowns.

“Now, I’m going to telegraph for them, and when I find them we’ll have to celebrate. Good-bye, thank you.”

“Good-bye,” responded the Alderman, “and good luck.” Then turning to the other American couple he remarked: “Queer old codger, isn’t he? Now, what on earth did he thank me for? Well, no time to lose, suppose you want to be made miserable, too?” jocosely smiled the marrying man.

“No, rather happy. But, say, won’t you do me a favor? Read that marriage ceremony in a way that we may understand what we are doing, for goodness sakes don’t make us say ‘yes’ to a lot of things we don’t intend to do.”

“All right,” laughed this good-natured Alderman. “Now, ready? We’re off,” and he read the ceremony in a more decorous manner than previously.

Presently these young folks were married and sauntered out of the Court, but before going, the bridegroom exchanged such a good, well-relished kiss with his bride that it made everybody feel particularly glad that this comfortable young pair had come to the Mill.

manhattan marriage mill2

The two Italians were next taken in hand. They could speak but little English and understand less. The marriage ceremony was read rapidly and when the Alderman came to the question: “Do you take this woman, etc.,” our friend of the feather duster nodded violently at the man and then the man nodded; the same performance was repeated when the question was addressed to the woman. So the ceremony was accomplished, the certificate was handed to the group, he turned it over and contemplated the big red seal. Presently he went to the table in the corner where the superintendent was sitting.

“Red spot,” he said pointing to the seal. “Two?”

“No, that’s all right.”


“No, one’s enough. You’re married now.”

“No. Two red spots.”

“Now, see here,” jerked out the keeper of seals, “you go on back to Little Italy, and be happy. You’re married fast enough, and one seal’ll hold the knot as tight as you want it to be tied. Most folks are willing to do with half a seal. So long.”

He waved the man imperiously aside. In all probability the Italian did not understand a word said to him, but so long was the sentence and in such a gattling-gun rapid-fire manner was it delivered that he picked up his hat and catching his little bride by the hand bolted out of the door, followed by the mother and father.

Sometimes there are as many as twenty or twenty-five marriages ground out in this mill a day. Sometimes it is very dull. There is always an Alderman on the tapis, and at a moment’s notice he will appear and say the word. Alderman Leopold Harburger holds the record for making the greatest number of marriages in the city. He is familiarly known as the “marrying Alderman” and well has he earned his title.

Any one who wants to may visit the Marriage Mill. All he has to do is to go to City Hall and inquire for the place. You may be stared at by the man of whom you inquire your way, but that need not trouble you, for down in City Hall they have a way of staring at one if one only asks where the Mayor’s office is.

The Hampton Magazine, Volume 14, 1905

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is surprised that the “little man” took the elopement with such equanimity. The bereft Papas in the story of The Elopement Bureau displayed much more temper.

The Italians are particularly mentioned because a large wave of emigration from Eastern Europe and Italy had swept the United States at the turn of the 19th century. Many had not yet assimilated into the American mould; hence the careless ethnic slur and remarks on the Italians’ multi-coloured clothing and imperfect command of English and of American customs. Several decades earlier the same charges had been levelled against Irish immigrants to the States (with the exception of the multi-coloured clothing) and with additional accusations of criminality, drunkenness, and humorous dialect stories. The fabled Melting Pot of America has seemed, at times, perhaps more like an Automat.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



2 thoughts on “The Marriage Mill of Manhattan: 1905

  1. Ike Renfield & Sally Campbell

    Careless ethnic slurs were a great source of “humor” in this era, and unfortunately, well beyond. I suspect that the ungainly phiz of the bride and the portliness and age of the groom in the “Two Hearts Beat As One” illustration were also considered real knee-slappers. What an age of great elegance and great cruelty.
    Lovely or un-lovely, your illustrations for each digression are most welcome. They enlighten and enliven every “post.”


    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      It is a matter of curiosity how standards of beauty differ from era to era. Mrs Daffodil was perusing an article about a so-called “most beautiful girl in New York” (one of the many subjects of this journalistic hyperbole). The young lady had a neat enough figure, but her “phiz,” was startlingly plain. Most perplexing. Of course the young member of the chorus was marrying a shipping magnate’s son, so perhaps her fascinations were magnified by that simple fact. She was also an actress, so perhaps a photograph simply did not do her mobile charms justice.



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