My grandparents were married in Columbus, Ohio, on June 4, 1917, one hundred years ago today. Following the ceremony, they were given a beautiful oversized document commemorating the day, showing lovely typefaces, ornamental swashes, and soft illustrations. Their marriage, blessed by this certificate, lasted 67 years.
It's interesting how documents—created by individuals but representing institutions—are meant to convey more than the words on paper. To give one example, banknotes are essentially type and decorative elements printed on durable paper, having no intrinsic value. They’re designed to instill confidence in the banking system, yet that faith would be misplaced. Any trust on the recipients' part would actually be due to the skilled hands that designed the notes. (In the 1800s, some banks issuing paper money were discovered to be fly-by-night operations.)
In any case, there are many examples of decorative documents from the 1800s and early 1900s, such as land deeds, birth certificates, stock certificates, military discharge papers, and contracts. Created before photography was in widespread use and before business claims could be easily verified, the design of important documents needed to convey that the institutions represented were trustworthy and principled. Designers relied on a variety of typefaces, illustrations, and existing decorative elements (borders, swashes, banners, scrolls, and ornaments) to communicate this. While not all decorative documents are successful as graphic design pieces, each is (in addition to possibly being a precious family document) unique, reflecting the spirit of its time.
Many families have interesting old documents of their own preserved in albums, tucked away in shoe boxes, and stored under beds. Below are a few marriage licenses and certificates—issued by the state or clergy—from members of my own family:
1852 The simplest of documents. Showing no type at all, this handwritten marriage license uniting my great-great-grandparents conveys a forthrightness that was commonplace at the time, but refreshing today.
1892 The level of solemnity that the state of Ohio believed one should adopt when entering the sacred union of marriage was reinforced in this license through the enthusiastic use of a boatload of graphic elements: 13 typefaces, four decorative initial caps, two ornamental frames, calligraphy, illustrations (cherubs!), banners, and a gold seal for good measure.
1917 My grandparents' certificate is typical of other printed pieces of the time, with an emphasis on seriousness (through the choices of typefaces) and beauty (evident by the banner and artwork).
1954 This sobering graphic treatment, lacking a decorative display typeface and ornamentation, reveals how much the world had changed in just one generation of a family.
1995 Ay caramba! No wonder 50% of marriages end in divorce.