Weddings are a $165 billion industry in the United States, according to the Association of Bridal Consultants. The introduction in 1934 of Bride’s magazine, the first publication devoted to this market, played a central role in its growth.
From the beginning, Bride’s linked weddings to consumption, promoting the lucrative formal white-wedding ideal. Behind the scenes, the magazine worked with retailers to expand the market and introduce new “traditions.”
Before bridal magazines came on the scene, businesses in search of wedding trade had to cast a wide net. Beginning in the 1920s, kitchen-range makers, furniture dealers, ice companies and real-estate agents sent congratulatory sales letters to brides and grooms-to-be setting up a new household. Many of these businesses then turned to traditional advertising media such as newspapers and women’s magazines and, by 1930, to radio soap operas.
Social observers of the time noted the role of business in ballooning wedding expenditures. According to Purveyors to the bride, a 1925 Saturday Evening Post article, the cost of society weddings had doubled since the mid-1910s and “even the trades have joined in the conspiracy for more and bigger weddings.”
Bride’s magazine gave advertisers direct access to that growing market. Founded by Wells Drorbaugh, a former advertising manager for House and Garden, the slim magazine was first called, So You’re Going to Be Married. Drorbaugh reportedly got the idea after reading an article on the “Depression-proof” wedding trade. His publication started small, in the New York City living room of its first editor, Agnes Foster Wright. Building on methods employed by the jewelry industry, it reached its target audience by relying on clipping services to track engagement announcements in newspapers. At first, it circulated at no cost to a limited northeastern audience. It soon added newsstand sales to become a national advertising publication.
Bride’s quickly increased the scale and scope of its advertising, expanding the definition of what was considered bridal. As a service for those about to marry, it published lists of businesses that offered wedding-related services or products across the country, a format followed by its rival Modern Bride, founded in 1949.
According to Barbara Tober, the editor-in-chief of Bride’s from 1966 to 1994, the magazine had to work to convince some manufacturers that there was a bridal market for their product. In doing so, it helped define what was necessary for the ideal wedding and the new household. Over the decades this notion of necessity expanded, along with the size of bridal publications. The spring 2000 issue of Bride’s came in at 1,271 pages, entering the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest magazine ever produced.
Bride’s expanded the industry in other ways, too. Beginning in the late 1930s, it hosted annual bridal business clinics for department stores and those interested in starting specialty bridal shops. Developed by Alexandra Potts, the magazine’s head of merchandising, these events helped stores open bridal departments and gift registries.
Her clinics at the Waldorf-Astoria and the Ritz-Carlton brought in store executives and consultants to learn about the bride as a “volume customer.” In the early 1940s, clinics addressed wartime weddings and promoted new ideas on flower displays, bridesmaid dresses and wedding-gown fashions.
A program for a clinic in the late 1940s listed presentations on structuring store-wide bridal selling operations and discussions on the gift bureau’s “unlimited money-making possibilities.”
By the early postwar period, there were 500 bride’s shops with full-time consultants in towns of 50,000 or more. Aided by soaring marriage rates, the wedding industry boomed.
In the late 1950s, Bride’s magazine sponsored the first major study of the bridal market. The study randomly queried 3,800 brides and provided statistics on readership and spending habits that helped the magazine sell advertising space to a wider range of manufacturers, retailers and service-providers.
The bridal magazine industry flourished in the late 1960s and 1970s, despite opposition from the women’s movement and the counterculture. By the end of this period, bridal magazines had expanded “tradition” in new directions. As social norms changed, the magazines made accommodations, but always in directions that expanded markets. In 1977, Modern Bride began to address the “mature” bride, a segment previously ignored.
The wedding industry eventually even found profit in rising divorce rates. Priscilla of Boston, a prominent wedding-gown manufacturer renowned for its White House weddings, designed a “Contemporary-Romantic” line in the 1980s for brides who, according to the company’s designer, John Burbidge, were “marrying for the first to third time in a semi-formal atmosphere.”
Betsy Kidder, the daughter of founder Priscilla Kidder, reported that “the more often a woman gets married, the better it is for business.”
By the late 1990s, bridal magazines urged other nontraditional brides, such as the visibly pregnant, to have a formal white wedding with all the trimmings. And in 2003, for the first time, Bride’s addressed the issue of gay marriage in a short, one-page piece that noted “same-sex affairs can be nearly as traditional as heterosexual ones.” And, one imagines, just as profitable.
Vicki Howard is an associate professor of history at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. She is the author of “Brides, Inc. American Weddings and the Business of Tradition.”