Albright College logo fbigtwyt
HOME | ABOUT | ARCHIVES | AWARDS

licenses
Above: The wedding photo of Charles Stratton, better known by his stage name, General Tom Thumb, and bride, Lavinia Warren, and the invitation to their wedding in Rahway, N.J., in 1863.

For many years, attorney Lynne Gold-Bikin ’73 forced clients seeking her counsel to run a gauntlet of  sorts; the corridor leading to her office was lined with pieces from her collection of more than 300 antique marriage licenses and related ephemera. A senior partner and chair of the family law division at Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires and Newby, LLP, in Norristown, Pa., Gold-Bikin knows all too well how  traumatic divorce can be. “I wanted people coming to see me about a divorce to really consider what marriage is all about,” she explains. That walk never changed anyone’s mind, Gold-Bikin concedes, but, she chuckles, “I did have one client tell me that after her divorce was complete, she’d be happy to refer me to her psychiatrist.”

With more than 40 years of experience behind her, Gold-Bikin has witnessed the dissolution of many marriages and is known for literally writing the book on divorce law: Divorce Practice Handbook, published in 1994. She has also been a tireless advocate for those going through this difficult process. As one of only a handful of women practicing family law in the late 1970s, Gold-Bikin actively campaigned for no-fault divorce in Pennsylvania and also successfully advocated for the state to approve alimony.

Despite this immersion in the business of marriage, Gold-Bikin admits that collecting antique marriage licenses was not her idea. “My late husband, Martin Feldman, who was chief of neurology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, The Allen Pavilion, collected antique medical instruments and suggested that I collect marriage licenses,” she explains. Gold-Bikin took his advice and threw herself into the task with the  enthusiasm she evinces for every undertaking. Over the following 30 years, she perused flea markets and scoured the stalls of antique malls—Stoudt’s Black Angus in Adamstown was a favorite haunt. The licenses weren’t that difficult to find in those days, she recalls, as they weren’t particularly coveted; in fact, many people removed them from their frames in order to sell the latter. Gold-Bikin also ran ads seeking licenses in newspapers across the country. “After a while, I got a reputation as ‘the woman who collects marriage licenses,’ and people started contacting me with pieces to sell,” she says.

Gold-Bikin’s collection, which she donated to Albright in December 2015, numbers more than 300 pieces and includes not only marriage licenses but also wedding invitations and photographs. The variety is astonishing and runs the gamut from simple, official-looking documents to richly illustrated works of art. One license, for example, features two women in an ornate boat, sailing across a placid lake that stretches across the top of the document. A lush wreath of flowers encircles the accompanying text. Another is decorated with a spray of delicate red roses encircling a passage of verse. Still others feature black and white portraits of stern-faced brides and grooms accompanied, in some instances, by a photo of the minister.

“I find the photos intriguing,” says Gold-Bikin. “It’s ostensibly a joyous occasion, yet no one is smiling—in some instances  the couple didn’t know each other before they wed, and you also have to remember that the process of taking a photograph was a lengthy one—the subject had to stay still for quite some time in order for the photographer to secure the image. There were no spontaneous wedding-day snapshots.”

Although she doesn’t recall the piece that launched her collection, Gold-Bikin has no trouble rattling off a list of the favorites from among the documents she has gathered over the years: a handwritten license from 1787; a license signed by then-New York Governor George Clinton, considered one of the founding fathers of  the United States; the license of a Georgia slave, issued in 1867; an Israeli marriage license written in Aramaic; and an Amish marriage license, which Gold-Bikin notes is particularly rare. “The Amish typically bury the marriage license with the wife when she dies,” she explains.

Gold-Bikin is also very proud of the one 20th-century license in her collection: the first gay marriage license to be issued in Pennsylvania after the state’s Supreme Court lifted the ban against issuing licenses to same-sex couples. “That one was issued in 2014 at the Montgomery County courthouse, right across the street from my office,” she says happily. Another treasure in the group: the wedding invitation of Charles Stratton, better known by his stage name: General Tom Thumb. Stratton was made famous by P.T. Barnum, who orchestrated his 1863 wedding to Lavinia Warren.

Yet these documents are more than just an idle curiosity for Gold-Bikin, and she hopes that they will offer an  object lesson to those who view them in their new home at the College Library. “I think it’s instructive to see  the different ways that marriage has been celebrated and marked in the past,” she says.

College Archivist Sidney Dreese couldn’t agree more. “This collection provides an important visual record of marriage and the family, and I envision students and visitors from many different disciplines—history, art, and sociology, among others—finding these works of great interest,” he says. “They show how marriages were witnessed and recorded by different groups including Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish, and they are fascinating from an aesthetic point of view as well.”

“It’s too easy to get married now, and I think that once people are married, they often take the institution for  granted,” Gold-Bikin observes. “A common attitude seems to be, ‘Oh well, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll get divorced.’” But to succeed at marriage takes work, she asserts. “We don’t teach people how to be married, yet if you want a good marriage, there are things you need to know.” The most important thing, Gold-Bikin says, is how to communicate successfully. She has done her part in fostering this skill, in 1993 founding the Partners program, a course taught by lawyers that covers such topics as how to fight, how to ask for change, and how to stay close in difficult times.

“I believe in marriage, and I think the collection provides an important reminder that entering into such a  contract is not a commitment to be taken lightly nor thrown away easily,” she concludes.

Leave a Reply

Please answer the following question so we know you are a human being: *