In the 1930s, Fortune magazine called weddings a “depression-proof” business; these days, the term is “recession resistant.” That isn’t exactly true, but there’s no denying that the U.S. wedding industry is big business today: Even in a sluggish economy, the average cost of a wedding in 2011 was $26,501, according to a Brides magazine survey.
Much of the debt incurred by marriage-bound couples and their families stems directly from a desire to follow tradition -- to purchase the goods and services necessary for a “proper” wedding. But many of these traditions are actually relatively new: They were invented by businesses using shrewd advertising campaigns, promotions and consumer “education” programs.
One such invention is the practice of exchanging rings.
Jewelers were the first to conceptualize a bridal market, consciously targeting those about to marry, starting in the 1920s. Their trade press tracked marriage rates and licenses, advising on the best months for promotions. Jewelry merchants sought the business of brides with themed window displays, tie- in advertising campaigns and gift registries that tracked china and silverware patterns.
Increasingly innovative, jewelers introduced matching engagement-ring and wedding-band sets for the bride, which cost more than individual items sold separately. To reverse declining sales in the 1930s, De Beers, the international diamond cartel, hired the N.W. Ayer advertising agency. The diamond industry ran sophisticated ads that not only promoted the bride’s diamond engagement-ring tradition, but also pushed higher carat and more costly stones.
Jewelry manufacturers also began to advertise brand-name diamond engagement rings with names such as “Rings o’ Romance” or “Token o’ Love.” To sell these ritual goods, the industry’s trade journal, the Jewelers’ Circular Keystone, advised retailers and manufacturers to “trade on tradition” and use sentiment as their “star salesman.”
At first, jewelers in this period made their sales appeals largely to women, as the groom and the father of the bride had long been seen as reluctant consumers. Seeking to expand their traditional market, they soon attempted to get American men interested in rings of their own.
Manufacturers and retailers first united in 1926 to promote a “modern expression of an ancient custom” -- the male engagement ring. Manufacturers employed radio advertising and sent newspaper electrotypes for thematic window displays to retailers across the country. The campaign sought to create a network of jewelers that would work cooperatively to put “this immense idea into the public consciousness.” Ads sought to make men’s engagement rings seem like a masculine object, made of rugged materials for “he-men.” Moreover, ad copy made clear they didn’t challenge male prerogative. Women weren’t intended to pop the question, but were only to acquire the ring after the man proposed.
The campaign failed. For the most part, “getting engaged” remained something that happened to women. The industry didn’t give up, though. At least one entrepreneurial jeweler sought to revive the “ancient” custom in the 1950s with a men’s “acceptance ring.” In recent years, there have been further efforts to develop new markets with the “man-gagement ring.”
A New Tradition
While engagement rings never became traditional for men, the groom’s band did. Before World War II, the vast majority of husbands in the U.S. didn’t wear a wedding band. In 1930, the jewelers’ trade press even felt the need to justify the groom’s band as a “real man’s ring.” Organized campaigns led by ring manufacturers and the jewelry industry’s trade association -- which included successfully lobbying the government to lift wartime restrictions on gold -- changed this very quickly.
During the war, the Jewelry Industry Publicity Board campaigned widely to promote “the story of the double-ring service.” Using radio, movies and newsreels, they reached a broad audience, and the campaign worked: By 1943, about 80 percent of couples wanted to have a double-ring ceremony. After debating it into the early 1950s, even the Catholic Church decided to accommodate the new custom by blessing two rings in wedding masses.
Hollywood was also helping popularize the tradition. Manufacturers had used tie-in advertising since the 1920s when Bristol Seamless Ring Co. featured a movie still of a wedding scene to promote matching bride and groom bands. In the context of the post-World War II marriage boom and the expansion of middle-class affluence, jewelers had more success. In 1946, Humphrey Bogart chose to wear his first groom’s ring when he married for the fourth and final time to Lauren Bacall. Actresses Ann Blyth and Shirley Temple also publicized the tradition.
The jewelry industry’s successful campaigns for the groom’s band took place in a particular window of consumer readiness that hadn’t existed before. Relations between the sexes and ideas of the family were changing, as postwar domestic ideology evolved. During the Cold War, families were “homeward bound,” as historian Elaine Tyler May has argued. In this context, perhaps more men were willing to “look married” by wearing a band on their left hand. A wedding band embodied the new social value placed on “togetherness” in the postwar era, when couples increasingly socialized and shopped together across the suburban landscape.
But togetherness had its limits: Male engagement rings failed to catch on in the 1950s, and never did.
(Vicki Howard is an associate professor of history at Hartwick College and the author of “Brides, Inc.: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition.” The opinions expressed are her own.)
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To contact the writer of this article: Vicki Howard at HowardV@hartwick.edu.
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