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...or the day in court.

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 article in 1891 by Edward D. Easton titled "The Modern Talking Machine" enthusiastically noted the impact the phonograph would have for lovers communicating their thoughts when separated.


The Phonogram, June-July, 1891


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 an 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).


Engagement Announcement

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


Post Marriage

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)


Funeral for the wooer?

The 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


The Proposal, spoken into a Phonograph - But did she become Mrs. Auguste Van Biene?

The Phonoscope, April 1897


DIVORCE and the Phonograph

The Phonoscope, December 1899




The following song was sung by Mr. Bass Kennedy on the 'Halls' in Scotland around 1900. It appeared in The Talking Machine Review, Issue No. 3, April 1970, pp. 81-82, and was contributed by William Gallacher.

The story tells how the telephone was used to woo a young lass and how the phonograph brought justice against the man on the other end of that phone who had promised marriage but who had then married another.



Miss' Mary Orr's uncle wis coalmaister John

She managed his mansion hoose over at Braidloan

But the plague o' her life was a new telephone

'Tween the office and hoose it kep' ringing

John's clerk wis a masher ca'd Masher McClean

Wi' plenty o' siller though scanty o' brain

And tae Mary a sang wi' this lovin' refrain

He wis aye through the telephone singing


Chorus: -

Oh Mary, dear Mary, I now telephone

My love to my sweet little fairy --

My beautiful own, when the roses are blown

I am going to marry you Mary.


The roses had come an' gane 'wa' twa three times

And Moll wis he 'rt seek o' his havers and rhymes

For he wantit tae ken hoo the dollars and dimes

Wad divide if her uncle wis deein'

A'e day whin the masher wis howlin' his sang

On the telephone, bachelor John cam' alang

As the sportive refrain through the corridor rang

An' Miss Mary gaed up the stair fleein'.


Chorus: -


John flate on Miss Mary and swore at McLean

But laughed up his sleeve as he heard her explain;

Then says he, ”Ma braw Lassie jist lea him alane

for your roses he he'll never get smellin' "

An' syne for sax morning's the clockmaker Dean

Wis up at Braidloan wi' his speakin' machine

And ilk mornin' he phonographed clever and clean

A' the nonsense the masher wis yellin'.


Chorus: -


The masher no' seein 1 Moll's siller in view

He wooed a rich widow an' mairrit her too

Then says Uncle John - "Noo fur a hullaballoo”

An' he aff wi' the phonograph grinnin'

Gaed straight tae the lawyers ca'd Hunter and Hounds

And entered an action for five thoosan' pounds

While proving the promise the comical sounds

Cam' aff o' the cylinders spinnin'




The masher wis summoned and dully he swore

He had never promised tae Miss Mary Orr

"Your memory” the judge says ”We'll maybe restore

When you hear your voice singing before us”

The jury retired and before very long

The judge gave five thoosan' 'mid cheers frae the thrang

And the phonograph loudly repeated the sang

While the jurymen j''ined in the chorus.







This 1908 postcard shows a marriage proposal being recorded as potential evidence for enforcing a promise. Note that the father in the background is also taking a photograph to document this event. This image also reinforces Edison's statement that "The Phonograph can captivate “sounds, with or without the knowledge or consent of the source …” Thomas Edison, “The Phonograph and its Future”, 1878.


My personal favorite popular culture example of the phonograph being used in a court case is from the 1901 Musical Comedy "The Head Waiters." Pictured in the sheet music (below) are the Boss and Susan, his typist, during their courtship and out for dinner. One of the songs from this musical is titled "Susan, Dear Sue (Phonograph Song)" with the boss, who was in love with Susan, saying "“You’re name Susan, won’t do; Link it with mine forever”. Be mine dear from today and I will part from you never.”


The boss, however, breached his promise of marriage and “Susan, dear Susie, did Sue.

Susan's legal case was strong since had made a phonograph record of his wooing which she brought as a witness in the court.

Thanks to the phonograph recording Susie won her case.

Here are the lyrical details of how Susie, not to be trifled with, executed her precautions with a Phonograph:

“Once with a Phonograph near her,

Set to record all that he’d say,

With graces that made him revere her,

She caused him to plead in this way:

Sue, Sue, Susan, dear Sue,

I’m in love dear, with you

You’re name Susan, won’t do;

Link it with mine forever,

Be mine, dear, from today

and I will part from you never.”



For more examples of expressing love and friendship in popular culture see Phonograhia's Valentine's Day and the Phonograph.