Courtship, Proposals and the Phonograph

The Phonograph's Role in the Steps Towards Matrimony


By Doug Boilesen, 2022

The phonograph's revolution included its participation in sometimes unexpected aspects of daily life. One of these areas was its involvement with courtship all the way up to the day of the wedding.

A machine that could record spoken words with unimpeachable veracity would naturally become part of popular culture and the humor of its time. Examples of the words of a participant being unknowingly recorded and then later played back as evidence of what had been said are numerous.

An early illustration of this was in Judge magazine, January 28, 1888 titled "Courtship of To-Day." Pictured in Grant E. Hamilton's lithograph are several new sources from "Modern Science" capable of documenting words and actions in ways never before available. Two Edison tinfoil phonographs are shown ready to record whatever is said. Telephones, two cameras, a stenographer, an illustrator, and a typesetter also await the suitor's next step.

Judge's warning is clear:

"Young men must be very careful how they trifle with the tender affections of the young maidens of today as Modern Science has come to their aid, and the way of the transgressor will be made hard for him!"

The Courtship of To-Day, Judge, January 28, 1888 (PM-0519)




The Chadron Democrat, Chadron, Nebraska February 2, 1888




Young Ladies' Anti-Breach of Promise Protective assocation, The Rushville Standard, June 21, 1889





Breach of Promise Series, postcard ca. 1908 (PM-0680)

Like the father capturing the proposal with his camera, the Phonograph can captivate “sounds, with or without the knowledge or consent of the source …” Thomas Edison, “The Phonograph and its Future”, 1878




Have you had your Phonograph taken yet? postcard ca. 1908 (PM-0235)




A Proposal by Gramophone, postcard ca.1905 (PM-0652)




An Imaginative Proposal, postmarked 1909 (PM-0270)




A Leap Year Proposal, postcard ca. 1905 (PM-0266)




A Last Remembrance, Life Magazine, 1903 (FOTP PM-1208)

Even if the illustration wasn't included newspapers across the country repeated humor like the above for their local readers. The Gordon Journal in Gordon, Nebraska included "A Last Remembrance" in their September 11, 1903 newspaper (and credited Life).




The following newspaper story reports how one engagement announcement in Leominster, Massachusetts in 1912 was performed using the phonograph.


The Nebraska State Democrat, May 16, 1912




The engagement is off. He was calling, and she pleasantly said: “I sang into a phonograph to-day.”

“Indeed,” he replied, innocently. “I suppose you broke the record.”

Humor of the Day, Longmont Ledger, January 29, 1904





After marriage the phonograph would also be seen in popular culture as a potential participant (at least as a humourous subject).


Recording the words of a scolding wife for future use, postmarked 1908 (PM-0265)



This following poem reveals the fate of man wooing another man's wife, both unaware that a phonograph had been hidden behind the door by the husband.


As reprinted by the Colorado Springs Gazette, September 21, 1878