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City Clerk's Marriage Licenses, New York City, 1908–1937: One of 20th Century Genealogy's Best Primary Sources

by Leslie Corn, M.A.

Originally published in The NYG&B Newsletter, Spring 1999

Ah, New York City marriage certificates. As researchers, we delight in finding them and their illuminating information about spouses, parents, birthplaces, the wedding—

But wait. Let's go back for a moment before the wedding, to the time when the prospective bride and groom sat in the City Clerk's Office of one of New York City's boroughs and filled out, perhaps in their own hand, something more revealing than a marriage certificate: a marriage license affidavit.

If you're researching a marriage that took place between 1908 and 1937 in New York City, you can now search for two types of marriage records that were simultaneously filed only during those years:

  1. Marriage certificates issued by the New York City Department of Health
  2. Marriage licenses issues by the City Clerk's Offices in New York City boroughs To Top of Page

City Clerk's marriage licenses, newly available to researchers at the NYC Municipal Archives, have become one of my favorite 20th-century research tools. The scope and accuracy of the information of these marriage licenses usually far surpass that of Health Department marriage certificates. The range of years that both records were required to be filed is short, just 1908-1937. After 1937, it was no longer necessary to report marriages to the Health Department.

Kenneth Cobb is Director of the NYC Municipal Archives. His repository houses the microfilms of the Department of Health's marriage indexes and certificates, as well as the recently accessioned and microfilmed indexes and marriage licenses issued by the City Clerk's Offices from 1908-1929 for Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Richmond, and 1914-1929 for the Bronx. “The main benefits that a marriage license provides,” Kenneth Cobb explains, “is that it gives the bride's occupation and the most specific place of birth in any vital record. A license will state that the bride or groom was born in Boston, Massachusetts, or in Kiev, Ukraine. That specific place information is very rare in Health Department marriage certificates.”

Marriage license records after 1929 for all five boroughs are kept at the Office of the City Clerk in Manhattan. Records over 50 years old are available to the public. Copies of more recent marriage licenses may only be obtained by the parties to the marriage, by persons presenting written authorization from one of the parties, or by an attorney for litigation purposes. To Top of Page

What's in a Marriage License?

Let's compare the information in Department of Health marriage certificates—the documents most of us have used—to the newly-available City Clerk's marriage licenses:

Health Department Marriage Certificates from 1908-1937 typically contain:

  1. bride's and groom's names, addresses, ages, color, marital status, birthplace (usually the country and sometimes the state/territory of birth)
  2. groom's occupation
  3. father's name (for both bride and groom)
  4. mother's maiden name (for both)
  5. number of this marriage (for both)
  6. place and date of marriage
  7. signatures of bride and groom
  8. witnesses' names and signatures
  9. name, address, and signature of person officiating the ceremony. To Top of Page

    City Clerk's Marriage Certificate

    Figure 1. The City Clerk's Marriage Certificate The Health Department's Certificate for the same marriage is shown in Figure 2.

City Clerk's Marriage Licenses from 1908-1937 contain all the information in the marriage certificate as noted above, plus:

  1. specific birthplaces of the bride and groom—usually the town of birth—in the United States or abroad
  2. father's and mother's country of birth (for both bride and groom)
  3. bride's occupation
  4. former spouses living or dead
  5. if applicant is divorced, when and where divorce or divorces were granted. To Top of Page

    Health Department's Marriage Certificate
    Figure 2. The Health Department's Marriage Certificate. The front of the certificate is shown at the top of the image, and the back of the certificate is shown at the bottom of the image. The City Clerk's Certificate for the same marriage is shown in Figure 1.

Why do Marriage Licenses start in 1908? To Top of Page

Starting in 1908, couples who wished to marry were required by New York State law to obtain a “License to Marry.” This was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac, 1908, page 607 (courtesy of Joseph Silinonte):

MARRIAGE LICENSES.

Chap. 742, laws of 1907, amending the marriage law, requires on and after Jan. 1, 1908, a marriage license from the town or city clerk of the town or city in which the woman to be married resides; if the woman or both parties are non-residents, then from the clerk of town or city where the ceremony is performed. The license fee is $1. A due form of license conforming to the marriage law of the state is furnished by the clerk applied to. The license must be filled out by the clerk and signed by both contracting parties, under oath, who must apply therefore together, in person. If it appears that the parties are legally competent to marry, the license must be issued. Each town and city clerk and each county clerk must record and index in a book for that purpose as a public record each statement, affidavit, consent and license, together with the certificate thereto attached showing the performance of the marriage ceremony filed in his office. These records shall be evidence in all courts. . . .

 

In New York City, these licenses were issued by the Clerk's office in each borough, except that Bronx licenses were issued in Manhattan until the creation of Bronx County in 1914. To Top of Page

A typical Marriage License includes three parts:

  1. Affidavit for License to Marry. If they could write, the bride and groom usually filled out this form—an exciting primary source document in their handwriting. The form contains the information described above.
    On the reverse side of the affidavit is the Certificate of Consent, signed by parents or guardians of minors who wished to marry.
  2. Marriage License. The information is similar to that of the affidavit. The City Clerk signed this form, empowering authorized persons to marry the applicants.
  3. Marriage Certificate. This is the City Clerk's marriage certificate, not the Health Department's marriage certificate. The person who performed the marriage was instructed to return the signed license and certificate to the City Clerk for filing. To Top of Page
Affidavit for License to Marry
Figure 3. The Affidavit for the marriage of Raoul Laurencelle and Dorothy Strube.

Marriage License
Figure 4. The License for the marriage of Raoul Laurencelle and Dorothy Strube.

Accuracy of Marriage License information To Top of Page

If the prospective bride and groom filled out the affidavit themselves, it is likely that the information is correct. The marriage certificate, on the other hand, was filled out by the person who married the couple, leaving more room for error, especially misspellings.

Attachments in Marriage Licenses

Informative attachments can sometimes be found with the marriage license. Attachments are not included with marriage certificates.

Kenneth Cobb explained, “If a person was being married for the second time, the divorce decree for the first marriage, birth certificate, and baptismal certificate may be included with the license for the second marriage.”

Divorce records are sealed in the State of New York for 100 years. Until 100 years have passed they can be accessed only by the parties involved, or with a court order. However, if an applicant submitted a divorce decree as part of the application to marry, that decree is considered a matter of public record and is not subject to the usual restriction.

(N.B. Attachments will be photocopied with licenses found at the NYC Municipal Archives. However, it is not the policy of the City Clerk to photocopy attachments or otherwise provide them to researchers.)

Information about a divorce proved invaluable in the search for a client's grandmother's maiden name and birthplace, grandfather, and great-grandparents.

Following is a description of the search for those answers, but because this case involves some sensitive family matters, the names and dates have been altered to maintain client confidentiality.

My client thought that his grandmother and his grandfather—or was it his step-grandfather?—both immigrants from somewhere in Russia, were married in Brooklyn around 1920. He knew that his grandmother had married a man by the name of Charles DIXON. But he wasn't sure if this was his grandmother's first or second marriage or if Charles DIXON had been his grandfather or step-grandfather. He had heard that his grandfather might have been named DANIELS. He had also heard the names DANIELS and WISE associated with his grandmother as maiden names. These were all unconfirmed and, as you can imagine, confusing family stories. He wanted to know the truth. To Top of Page

A Search for a Marriage License

I went in search of Charles DIXON's name in the indexes for marriage certificates. My goal was to find the marriage license, with all its rich information, but I searched the indexes to marriage certificates first. Without a known date of marriage, the groom's and bride's marriage certificate indexes of the Department of Health are simpler to search than the indexes for licenses issued by the City Clerk's Offices and, therefore, the quickest way to find a marriage date.

Kenneth Cobb agrees. “City Clerk's indexes aren't true indexes. They're usually broken down into 2-3 month chunks and by first two letters of the last name. Health Department indexes are true annual, alphabetical indexes.”

I searched the 1920 Brooklyn Groom's Index at the NYC Municipal Archives. No entry for Charles DIXON. Nothing in 1921. But in 1922, something looked promising. A Charles DIXON married in Brooklyn on 25 February 1922. I viewed the certificate on microfilm. The bride: Esther WISE. Bingo.

The groom Charles DIXON was 38 years old, white, widowed. His occupation: tailor. Birthplace: Russia. Father: Samuel DIXON; mother's maiden name: Sarah ROZAK. This was Charles DIXON's second marriage.

The bride Esther WISE was 30 years old, white, divorced. Her birthplace was Russia. Father's name: Moses W. WISE. Mother's maiden name: Ida ROSENBERG. It was her second marriage, too.

This was, of course, exciting news and was my client's first introduction to two of his great-grandparents. I say “two” instead of “four,” because the marriage postdated his father's birth. It appeared that Charles DIXON was not his grandfather. To Top of Page

My client now knew that WISE was his grandmother's maiden name. But the marriage certificate didn't answer the question of where in Russia she was born, nor did it address the question of her first marriage. What was his grandfather's name? Whom had Esther divorced?

Armed with the exact date of marriage, it was time to search for Charles DIXON and Esther WISE's marriage license and see what information there might be about her first marriage, divorce, and birthplace.

Marriage licenses may have been filed just before, or, less often, weeks or months before the wedding. According to the New York State law, they were supposed to be filed in the bride's county of residence. But sometimes they were filed in another county. Those variables can add to the challenge of the search for marriage licenses.

As I knew that Esther WISE's residence was Brooklyn before the wedding, I first searched the Brooklyn index for 1922.

The marriage license indexes, compiled by year, are searchable by the name of the groom (left side of the index page) or by the name of the bride (right side of the index page). Indexes are searched, first, by looking for the first letter of the surname, then by locating the chronological section with the date of application for the license, usually within an increment of 2-4 months, then by finding the specific bride or groom in the index by the first two letters of the surname.

I looked in the index under the “D” heading, then in the section covering January–March, 1922, for the groom's name, then to the “DI” grooms. There was Charles DIXON's entry. The marriage license had been issued on 24 February 1922, the day before the wedding.

The license stated that bride and groom had both been born in Grodno, Russia. This opened up the possibility of searching records overseas. Charles's former wife was dead. Esther's former husband was alive at the time the license was issued.

Where and when had the divorce been granted? The license contained that information: 25 May 1921 in Kings County. Who was Esther's first husband? Written in the margin were the words “DANIELS or DANIEL.” Could that have been my client's grandfather's name? Could it help explain the original confusion about his grandmother's maiden name being WISE OR DANIELS?

Research in the index to Kings County divorces (index to matrimonial actions) proved the theory. Esther WISE's first husband's name was Thomas DANIELS. Additional vital record searches confirmed that Thomas DANIELS was my client's grandfather.

Using marriage licenses, my client had discovered the name of his grandfather and the birthplace of his grandmother —information that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find in any other existing record. To Top of Page

Using Marriage Licenses to find a town of birth in the U.S.

Marriage licenses can reveal an American-born ancestor's place of birth, too. This is especially useful in finding information about births that predate the existence of birth certificates.

A marriage certificate for a couple married in Staten Island on 18 March 1914 stated that the groom was 23 years old and the bride 22, making their approximate birth years 1890-1892. Birth certificates for Richmond County prior to New York City's consolidation in 1898 are filed at the State Department of Health in Albany. The NYC Municipal Archives has the town and village copies of those certificates, but registration of births was incomplete in this period and I searched these birth records to no avail.

So I turned to marriage licenses for birth information. The couple had filed in Staten Island, and there, on the license, were their places of birth: Rossville, Staten Island, for the groom, and Kreischerville, Staten Island, for the bride. To Top of Page

Verifying information with a Marriage License

Can't read the handwriting on a marriage certificate filled out by the person officiating the ceremony? Check the affidavit of the marriage license, written by the bride and groom, or, if they were unable to write, written by a city clerk. Comparing handwriting for the same information on two documents can often solve the mystery of an illegible entry.

What if a parent's name given on a marriage certificate doesn't match the name you already have? Or what if, in spite of repeated searches, the names of parents on a marriage certificate haven't led to any genealogical finds? Could the marriage certificate have the wrong information? Maybe. The marriage license may help sort things out.

A client wanted to find the marriages of three siblings from Queens County, Raoul, Yvonne, and Alice LAURENCELLE, the children of Raoul LAURENCELLE and Mary ZUFALL. The names of the spouses and the dates of the marriages were unknown. My client assumed that the siblings had married sometime after 1920, as they had appeared in the 1920 census as single and in their teens.

Searches of the groom's indexes revealed that a “Ravul” LAURENCELLE had married in Queens on 13 June 1928. I viewed the marriage certificate (see figure 2). The name of the groom on the top of the certificate, filled out by the deputy city clerk who had performed the ceremony, was indeed Ravul, but the groom's signature was clearly “Raoul.” His bride: Dorothy STRUBE. In this case the certificate contained their birthplaces: Elmhurst for the groom, L.I. City for the bride. His parents: Raoul LAURENCELLE and Mary ZAPALL or—the handwriting was unclear—was it ZAFALL? Oh dear. ZAPALL/ZAFALL was not ZUFALL, the name my client had. Which name was correct? Time to find a marriage license.

As I had the correct marriage date, it was not a difficult search in the Queens certificate indexes. There, in the index for 1928, January-June, was the groom's name, Raoul LAURENCELLE, and the certificate number.

The affidavit (see figure 3), the first page of the marriage license, had been filled out, it certainly seemed, by the bride and groom themselves. The handwriting matched their signatures on the marriage certificate. Raoul mother's name on the license: Mary ZUFALL. Discovery of the two sisters' marriage certificates verified the mother's maiden name as ZUFALL. To Top of Page

When a Marriage License or Certificate cannot be found

It's not uncommon to locate a Department of Health marriage certificate without finding a City Clerk's marriage license. This may mean that the license was filed in a county other than that of the marriage or, as Kenneth Cobb explained, it may have been applied for earlier than you might have expected. A license could have been issued several months before the wedding, so keep looking back in the indexes, before you give up on the search in that locality.

Sometimes a couple married, but only the City Clerk's marriage license can be located and not the Health Department certificate.

I was trying to find two brothers for a due diligence case. The surname was common, as were the given names of the immigrant brothers: Samuel and Joseph. I needed to prove which two men of several with the identical names were the correct siblings. It was necessary to find their parents' names.

I had already researched naturalizations and knew from those records the dates the men were married in Manhattan and the names of their spouses. But there were no New York City marriage certificates for either of the brothers or their brides.

What was another efficient way I could, perhaps, locate their parents' names? I researched City Clerk's marriage licenses. Knowing the dates of the marriages, I was able to search for and, serendipitously, discover marriage licenses for both brothers in Manhattan. The parents' names and the men's birthplace on the licenses confirmed that they were the right Samuel and Joseph and were siblings.

Sometimes you can find a City Clerk's marriage license affidavit without finding a Health Department marriage certificate. If a couple changed their minds and canceled the wedding, there may still be a license to be found with all its wealth of information. So be sure to check for a license if you believe that a wedding was canceled. To Top of Page

Obtaining Marriage Licenses

Currently microfilm copies of New York City marriage licenses and indexes are not available at any library. All requests must be made to the NYC Municipal Archives or the Office of the City Clerk.

NYC Municipal Archives, (http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/doris/html/index.html) 31 Chambers St., Room 103, New York, NY 10007, houses marriage licenses for the following years and boroughs:

1908-1929: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Richmond

1914-1929: Bronx (prior to 1914, search Manhattan)

You can search microfilms of indexes and licenses onsite by paying the usual $5 daily vital record microfilm viewer fee. Certified copies of marriage licenses are $5 each. Payment may be made by money order, personal check, or cash.

Ordering by mail involves certain restrictions. NYC Municipal Archives staff will search for Department of Health marriage certificates when you don't know the exact year or borough, but they will only search for City Clerk's marriage licenses if you provide the month and year of the marriage, and the borough where the bride resided. The cost by mail is $10 for this specific search and a certified copy of the marriage license. Include a SASE with your request. Searches must be prepaid. For more information, write to the Archives at the address above, or call 212-788-8580, or fax 212-385-0984. To Top of Page

Office of the City Clerk, City of New York, (http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/doris/html/cityclerk.html) Marriage License Bureau, Municipal Building, 1 Centre St., Room 252, New York, NY 10007, has marriage licenses for 1930 to present for all New York City boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Richmond, the latter renamed Borough of Staten Island in 1975). Remember that only licenses over 50 years old are open to the public.

You can apply for these records by mail or in person, but, if you show up at the Marriage License Bureau, be prepared to wait an hour or longer for your record. This isn't a repository that only works with records from the past. Prospective brides and grooms apply here each day for their marriage licenses, and the line for service can extend out the door.

Certified copies of licenses are $15, payable only by money order—no cash or checks are accepted.

It is possible to research the indexes yourself if you have a letter from a genealogical society stating that you're a member. The search fee is $5, also only payable by money order. Appointments, which last one hour, from noon to 1 P.M. or from 1-2 P.M., Monday–Friday, must be scheduled in advance. To make an appointment, contact Ann Marie Neary, Executive Assistant, phone: 212-669-4521, fax: 212-669-3300.

To apply by mail, write to the Office of the City Clerk at the address given above. Include a $15 money order, a SASE, and any information you have about the bride's and groom's names, ages, and, residences. For more information, write to the office or call 212-669-2400.

I hope you benefit from researching City Clerk's marriage licenses. They are exciting, valuable research tools for the family historian. To Top of Page

Marriage Licenses for the rest of New York State

As the law quoted above indicates, marriage licenses were required beginning in 1908 in all parts of New York State, not just New York City. From that date until 1936, licenses were issued by city and town clerks, but the full record (including the affidavit, license, and certificate) was filed with the County Clerk. These records remain in the custody of the County Clerks, except where they have been transferred to a County Archives. Marriage certificates on file in Albany for this period are copies of those filed with the County Clerks.

Under the Laws of 1935, Chapter 535, the County Clerks were relieved of this responsibility, which was assumed by the municipal (i.e., city, town and village) clerks who were already registering births and deaths and forwarding the certificates to Albany. This is the arrangement in effect today.

Some County Clerk marriage records 1908-1936 have been filmed for the Family History Library.

New York State Department of Health, Vital Records: (http://www.health.state.ny.us/nysdoh/consumer/vr.htm) To Top of Page

Leslie Corn is a professional genealogist based in New York City.

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Last updated: April 17, 2001
E-mail:  resources@nygbs.org