Posted by Paul Rawlins on February 9, 2016 in Website

This article originally appeared in Ancestry Magazine, November-December 2009.

Ever stop to think about how, what, why? How your grandparents met each other. What exactly attracted them to one another. Why they married, had children, and chose to either stay together or go their separate ways.

Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Maybe it was kismet, maybe something larger — something societal — that caused the stars to align just right. We’ve taken a look at some of the bigger triggers in modern history that caused large groups of people to take the plunge (whatever that plunge might be). And peppered each with ideas that can help you in your own research for the hows, whats, and whys of your ancestors’ loves.

Marital Disasters

Apparently, calamity makes the heart grow fonder. Want proof? Take a look at’s San Francisco 1906 Earthquake Marriage Project.

In the month following the catastrophic earthquake and fire, the Alameda County Clerk’s office set records for marriage licenses provided. The Oakland Tribune explained that Miss Helen McGregor Murison and Harry Francis Davis substituted “an early and very simple ceremony” for “an elaborate summer wedding” because of the “unsettled state of affairs” following the quake, and the Portland Oregonian reported that crackers took the place of wedding cake for Robert F. Benham and Mary Louise Hale, whose sole dress to survive the fire acted as her wedding dress.

Other couples came together as a result of the disaster. According to the San Francisco Bulletin, a “Mr. Billingslee had saved $1.20 and figured that it would cost $1.00 for a room for himself alone or the same amount for both, so concluded to get married.” Even the New York Times made note of an order for 160 wedding rings of all sizes to meet the urgent need out West.

Want to know if your family rushed to the post-disaster altar? features a marriage database of couples that included at least one San Francisco resident and who married between 18 April and 30 May 1906.

But San Francisco isn’t alone — throughout history, couples have hurried to marry following cataclysmic events. Marriage rates in industrial nations spiked in the years immediately following World War II. A 1982 fertility survey suggests latter-20th-century marriage peaks in China following the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, and in 1962 and 1963 after “the Great Leap Forward” and subsequent turmoil. And, while it’s still too early to tell, experts are already keeping an eye out to see if knot-tying between Louisiana lovebirds increased in the weeks and months following Hurricane Katrina.

—Paul Rawlins

Baby, Oh Baby: Why Such a Boom?

Perhaps the best known baby boom occurred in the United States following World War II. Fertility rates soared between 1946 and 1964, resulting in 3.47 million births in 1946 and peaking in 1957 with 4.3 million births. All told, by the end of the boom in 1964, more than 76 million babies had been born.

But what triggered the boom? Was it the return home of soldiers or simply the prosperity of the 1950s?

Economists at the University of Michigan are now speculating that neither event propelled couples into the bedroom. Rather it was the vacuum cleaner.


Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Advancements in household technology during the 1950s came fast and furious. And each of them made working around the house a bit easier. Women suddenly had more free time and could attend to more children.

Sound far-fetched? Try another theory: cash. Birth rates markedly increased in Southeast England in 1821. Economists speculate that this baby boom was spurred on by the increase in poor relief available to citizens. In that year, the per capita relief expenditures were higher in Southeast England than in the prior year and were also higher than any other region in England. Researchers believe that because people suddenly had more money, they also had more babies.

You may find smaller trends closer to your own genes. Pull a list of all of the people in your family tree and look for time periods that saw the greatest birth rates. Then work backwards. Were there big political or social changes at the time? Did your own family or community strike it rich shortly before? While an increase in family birth rates may not directly relate to a large societal event, it may be a clue to search for something significant in your own family’s files.

Or it could merely be a happy coincidence.

—Allison Johnson

What’s the fastest way to see if a birth record of your own ancestor exists at Visit the site’s Card Catalog, select “Birth, Marriage, Death” from the search menu, then select “See More” and click on “Birth, Baptism, and Christening.” Depending on the area you’re researching, you can find baptisms dating back to 14th-century England all the way through to the latter part of the 20th century in Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas, and California.

And don’t forget to check family trees and member photos on the site. You may not have the birth certificate, but someone else might. Wouldn’t it be great if you happened to find the person who uploaded a scan of that certificate to his or her family tree?

When the Honeymoon Is Over – Divorce in America

Americans have been divorcing since 1639, though divorces were somewhat rare in the 17th and 18th centuries. They became more common in the 19th century, particularly after the Civil War, as the high rate of migration and other factors drove up the divorce rate.

Divorce laws varied in the colonies and states and have changed through the years. Some states, such as South Carolina, prohibited divorce until 1950 except for a brief period from 1868 through 1878, while other localities became divorce meccas. Ashtabula County, Ohio, granted many divorces to non-Ohio residents; Indiana had no residency requirements until 1859; and Utah Territory had none until 1878 (wannabe divorcees could get a one-day turnaround and merely had to want to become a resident of the territory to apply for a divorce). Several Western states gained notoriety for their liberal divorce laws.

Divorce notices appeared in newspapers, but faster answers may be found in the marital information about your ancestors listed in the 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 U.S. population schedules. These censuses included questions about marital status; the codes used to record the answers were S(ingle), M(arried), W(idowed), and D(ivorced).

Some widows or widowers may actually be divorced. If you find an older daughter, especially one with a different surname, in her father’s household or living with other relatives and listed as a widow, consider the possibility that she might be divorced instead. Also, wives whose spouses were incarcerated sometimes claimed to be widows.

Divorce records are found in diverse repositories, such as in county or circuit courts. Some states also require a certificate of divorce, with a copy filed at the state bureau of vital statistics. Court records are public records, but those issued in the past 50 years might be protected by privacy laws; you may need the permission of the divorced party to obtain them.

—Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG


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