Not Your Average Fundraiser

4, December 2017

NHPRC logoThe Picturing 1930s St. Louis: Sievers Studio Collection Project is made possible by an NHPRC grant from the National Archives.

Event-based fundraising is pretty straightforward, right? You hold an event, get people to attend, and raise money for a cause. Of course, it helps if you have an interesting hook to draw in attendees. Enter womanless weddings, staged productions that served as fundraisers for churches, charitable causes, or civic organizations throughout the first half of the 20th century. During these events, men, typically the most prominent men in a community, played every part in the wedding, from the mother of the bride and the flower girl to the maids of honor and the bride herself.

Black-and-white photo of a womanless weddingWomanless wedding show at Kingshighway Methodist Episcopal Church (908 Bellerive Blvd.), November 22, 1935. Photo by Fred Delporte. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Womanless weddings, like the two photographed by Sievers Studio in the 1930s, became so popular that a variety of scripts were published for them. These often featured satirical storylines about jilted lovers, uncooperative parents, or shotgun-wielding fathers. Scripts generally advised selecting actors for the greatest comedic effect, such as having big, burly men playing brides and small men playing grooms. Meanwhile, actors were encouraged to kiss members of the audience, flash their garters, and otherwise ham it up with ribald humor.

The vows at womanless weddings were usually rather . . . unromantic, like this example from a script titled Phunology, published by E. O. Harbin in 1920:

Minister (to the groom): Will you purchase for this spouse a machine of the latest model, with which she may while away her idle time? Either a Singer or Wheeler and Whistle will do.

Minister (to the bride): Wilt thou give him hot rolls at least twice a year and pies like mother used to make on Thanksgiving Day?

Black-and-white photo of womanless wedding in 1932Actors in a womanless wedding show at Wagoner Place Methodist Church (1527 Wagoner Pl.), October 14, 1932. Photo by Isaac Sievers. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

At first glance, womanless weddings appear to contradict what we regard as the traditional community values of the 1930s. However, through the use of humor and satire, they actually reinforced the very values they upended. By mocking deviations from social norms of the time, womanless weddings supported existing ideas of what was expected from men, women, and the institution of marriage.

As these traditional norms and values shifted in the second half of the 20th century, womanless weddings began to fall out of favor, though some still happen today.

—Lauren Sallwasser, NHPRC Project Archivist

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