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Marriage Records Survey of Philadelphia's Clerk of the Orphans' Court
conducted by Kenneth W. Milano in the Fall of 2005
 
Repositories for Philadelphia Marriage Records
 
Marriage records for Philadelphia are located in two main repositories, the Philadelphia City Archives and the Clerk of the Orphans' Court. The City Archives maintains marriage records from 1 July 1860 to 31 December 1885. These are the oldest records for Philadelphia and are located at the following address:
 
Philadelphia City Archives
3101 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104.
 
The other main repository of marriage records for Philadelphia and the one that I have chosen for this survey is the Philadelphia Marriage Records Department, located in Philadelphia's City Hall. This office is better known as the Clerk of the Orphans' Court and their full mailing address is as follows:
 
Marriage License Bureau
Clerk of the Orphans' Court
Orphans' Court Division of the Court of the Common Pleas
City Hall, Room 415
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107
 
The Clerk of the Orphans' Court houses marriage records from October 1, 1885 to the present. I decided to look at this particular department as it has many more marriage records then the Philadelphia City Archives.
 
While these two departments of the city government (City Archives and the Clerk of the Orphans' Court) house all of the records for marriages since the time that the city made it mandatory to record them, there are still other marriage records which should be consulted when doing genealogical research. Places like the Historical Society of Pennsylvania house collections of marriage certificates that are indexed by surname. Researchers should consult various published and unpublished resources when searching for marriage notices, as well search church records and local newspaper announcements. One particular published index is that entitled, "Marriage Records Recorded by Various Philadelphia Mayors and Aldermen: 1800 - 1895." A copy of this publication is available at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which is located at 1300 Locust Street, in Philadelphia.
 
The Clerk of the Orphans Court
 
Since the Clerk of the Orphans' Court, houses marriage records starting for 1 October 1885, that date would be the earliest record at this office. While I asked the clerk that was helping if I could look at their earliest record, he could not pin point any particular record that was the "oldest." He only showed me the multiple volumes of indexes for the earliest years of records, which were arranged by surname and not by date. A quick look through a random volume of the surname indexes did show some records for the year 1885, so I filled out the required forms to have the record pulled. Unfortunately, one must wait three business days to look at the records, so if you are from out of town, it would be wise to call in advance in order to have the records ready for you.
 
This earliest record that I looked at was dated 9 November 1885. While not technically the "earliest" record in the office, it was probably the same type of form used in the previous month (Oct 1885), which is the earliest record for this office. This record was a marriage license, which included the application and certificate, or which this office calls the return. The1885 Marriage Application provides the following information:
 
1. Place of marriage: county, state
2. Name of bride and groom
3. Place of birth for bride and groom
4. Date of birth for bride and groom
5. Address of Residence for bride and groom
6. Occupation of bride and groom
7. If the bride and groom are related by blood or not
8. If the bride and groom have ever been married before
9. If the bride and groom were married before is the marriage dissolved and how was it dissolved (dissolved by death or if dissolved by divorce state when, where, and on what grounds divorced was obtained).
10. Date when application filed
11. Signature of bride/groom (the certificate I looked at had the groom's signature)
12. Signature of the civil officer (an official of the Clerk of Orphans' Court, be it the clerk or assistant)
 
The certificate itself only provides the following information:
 
1. License/Certificate Number
2. Name of person who performed the marriage and what position they held (Minister of the Gospel, Justice of Peace, or Aldermen)
3. Date of marriage
4. Place of marriage
5. Names of bride and groom
6. Date the License/Certificate was filed
 
The certificate also stated that it must be "returned to the Clerk of the Orphans' Court, No. 211 South Sixth St., within 30 days of the solemnizing of the said marriage."
 

While the application might "ask" for all of the above information, there is no guarantee that all of the blanks on the application will be filled out. It depends upon whom was filling it out, or what clerk was "minding the store" so to speak.
 
While at the Clerk of the Orphans' Court, I asked if I could speak to someone who was knowledgeable about their records. I was introduced to a young man whom the first clerk I spoke with felt confident that I had the right person for the job I wanted to do (a survey of the records). I was told by this informed clerk that the Clerk of the Orphans Court has in its files, marriage licenses, returns/certificates, marriage registers (which I was told by the clerk that they call them indexes), and consents of minors. The clerk I talked with was not aware of any marriage bonds, or intentions, being held at this office, and would not be able to direct me to a resource in his department that would tell me if they did indeed have them.
 
As mentioned previously, the Clerk of Orphans' Court has only marriage records from 1 October 1885 until the present. For marriage records previous to this date one would have to go to the Philadelphia City Archives, where they have records from 1 July 1860 to 31 December 1885. The clerk I interviewed was not aware of any great loss of records due to fire, or other destruction, and that the only other marriage records issued by the City of Philadelphia, other then the Clerk of the Orphans' Court, would be those described above as being at the City Archives. For the location of this archives, see the beginning of this essay. The Archives is located about 15 blocks west of the Orphans' Clerk Office, so that if you were visiting Philadelphia you could easily cover both institutions in the same day, or even morning.
 
The records of this office for the twentieth-century are open to the public. You are able, for free, to have three records pulled. However, if you want more then three records pulled, you have to pay $5.00 per record over the original three. You cannot photocopy the records unless you are willing to pay $20.00 per record. The office only issues "certified" copies.  A record will usually consist of the marriage application, return/certificate, and the "consent of a minor" form, if applicable.  I also should mention that to pull three records you must file the necessary paperwork and then come back three business days later. The clerk did not mention, and I did not ask, that if you came back three days later, could you then ask for "another" three records for free? Knowing Philadelphia government from living in this city my whole life, I rather doubt if anything would be free, if they could find a law that says to charge you, but it is a question that should be asked if you are planning to research a number of marriage records for Philadelphia. It would also be wise as stated above, to perhaps phone in advance for the records to be pulled, but to do this you would have to have the name of at least one of the parties that were married and the date, or at least a rough guess of the year of the marriage.
 
In doing my research at the Clerk of the Orphans' Court, I tried to look at a range of marriage records between the years that their records cover. I was able to look at marriage records for the years 1885 (the first year), 1894, 1898, 1912, 1915, 1919, 1930, and 1945. I also already had copies of some of my own ancestors' marriage records that were married in Philadelphia. These records are for the years 1924 and 1952. 
 
Cumulatively, the marriage records I looked at, gave me a look at the range of information that is available to researchers for more then half of the years which are available at the Clerk of the Orphans' Court. By looking at the various records I have gathered from 1885 to 1954, I compared and contrasted how the forms changed over time and was able to see just when those changes occurred. I chose to transcribe the marriage records for 1885 and 1915, as they are very different in appearance and compare and contrast quite nicely (plus it would have cost me $40.00 for Xerox copies of them both).
 
I chose only to transcribe two records because the other records I looked at offered the same information, but worded differently. The marriage records that I looked at for the years 1894, 1898, and 1912, had the same information as the one I transcribed for 1885. The marriage record I looked at for 1919 was different from the previous years, but the same as the one I transcribed for 1915, so I kept the 1915 as the one to use for comparison against the 1885 record. Furthermore, the 1924 marriage record was the same as the 1915 and 1919 record, so there was no reason to do anything with it.
 
The real change in the marriage application form appears then to have taken place between the years 1912 and 1915, with the years before 1912 offering the same information as far back as 1885 and the years after 1915 (until at least 1945) offering all the same information as was available in 1915.
 
In summary, you can say that there does not appear to have been any changes in marriage applications between 1885 and 1912. Starting about 1915 the applications began to ask a lot of additional questions about the parents of the bride and groom and the mental health of the couple to be married, with an additional question to the husband if he was physically able to support a family.  The marriage application stayed the same until at least 1945.  Marriage certificates, or returns, while the wording may have changed, the information provided does not appear to have changed at all between 1885 and at least 1930.
 
Comparing and Contrasting the 1885 and 1915 Marriage Application and Certificate Returns
 
As stated above, the earliest records of 1885 contain the following information:
 
The 1885 Marriage Application
 
1. Place of marriage: county, state
2. Name of bride and groom
3. Place of birth for bride and groom
4. Date of birth for bride and groom
5. Address of Residence for bride and groom
6. Occupation of bride and groom
7. If the bride and groom are related by blood or not
8. If the bride and groom have ever been married before
9. If the bride and groom were married before is the marriage dissolved and how was it dissolved (dissolved by death or if dissolved by divorce state when, where, and on what grounds divorced was obtained).
10. Date when application filed
11. Signature of bride/groom (the certificate I looked at had the groom's signature)
12. Signature of the civil officer (an official of the Clerk of Orphans' Court, be it
the clerk or assistant)
 
The certicates/returns in 1885 included the following information:
 

1. License/Certificate Number
2. Name of person who performed the marriage and what position they held
(Minister of the Gospel, Justice of Peace, or Aldermen)
3. Date of marriage
4. Place of marriage
5. Names of bride and groom
6. Date the License/Certificate was filed
 

Starting about 1915, you start to find the following additional information:
 
1.      Race of bride and groom and race of their parents
2.      If applicants (bride and groom) are inflicted with any transmissible disease
3.      Name and surname of parents of bride and groom
4.      Maiden name of mother of bride and groom
5.      Residence of parents of bride and groom
6.      Occupation of the parents of bride and groom
7.      Birthplace of the parents of the bride and groom
8.      Is the applicant (bride and groom) imbeciles, epileptic, of unsound mind, or under the guardianship as a person of unsound mind, or under the influence of any intoxicating liquor or narcotic drug.
9.      Has the applicant (bride and groom) within five years been an inmate of any county asylum or home for indigent persons.
10.  Is the applicant (groom) physically able to support a family.
 
The certifcate/return for 1915, while perhaps worded slightly different, contains all of the same information that it contained in 1885.
 
Looking at these two examples of marriage applications for 1885 and 1915, you immediately see that the 1915 application has a whole host of additional pieces of information that the bride and groom needed to supply, with most of this additional information being about the parents of the bride and the groom. The government now seems to want to know about the parents, almost the exact information that they want to know about the prospective bride and groom. The only other additional information that you find out about the man and woman who are going to be married (discounting the new information on their parents), are the questions that concern the couples state of mind (are they imbeciles, epileptics, of unsound mind, or drunkards, or on drugs, etc.). The application for 1915 is also interesting in that it asks if the man (not the woman) is physically able to support a family.
 
Kenneth W. Milano is available for researching marriage records in Philadelphia, at the Clerk of the Orphans' Court (1885-Present), as well as the Philadelphia City Archives (years 1860 to 1885), contact him at:  kennethwmilano@gmail.com
 

 


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