The day started so innocently. A bagel with lox cream cheese from Murray’s. Left my daughter with my parents. Leisurely made my way down to Chambers Street so I could spend my last morning in New York City checking out the archives before meeting my sister, the Tweedle Twirp, for lunch. “I’ll be ready around 1:30 or so,” I told her.

And I was. But then I wasn’t.

Before going to the archives, I used to look up all the documents I wanted to find: my great-uncle’s birth certificate, the marriage license for my great-grandfather’s sister, the possible death certificate (wasn’t sure to what he changed his name) for the nephew of my great-great grandmother. While these things may seem unusual, one of the greatest takeaways I found in my own experience, and which was validated at the conference, is that working sideways can give you a lot of necessary info. My nephew’s papers will give me evidence on the town his aunt–my great-great grandmother–was from. It might give his own parents names (her brother). You never know what gems you’ll find.

I copied a lot of info down (no need to pay $11 for a document that merely verifies what I know, so I just record that myself) but I had a few copies printed. I texted the Tweedle Twirp before 2 p.m. “Copies being made. Will be ready to leave in 15.” She texted back that she’d start walking down and we’d meet halfway.

Only that’s not the way things work at the archives. Because as I was sitting at my little microfilm machine, I overheard two folks chatting behind me. One said to the other, “You know you’ll get a lot more information from the application for the marriage license than you will from the marriage certificate.”

Whoa! I ever so rudely interrupted them with a great big, “Huh?” Turns out there’s an entirely different index in which you can look up these applications. These three page applications, which include the marriage license, the certification of the person who performed the marriage, and the affidavit of those married. I found the index, and began to look up names. And then I texted Tweeds: “Fallen down a rabbit hole. Better meet me here.”

Perpelitt marriage

The index is a little cumbersome–you have to find the year and then you look it up by the first letter of the last name and the month. Within each section, names are not alphabetical (all the KRs are together, but in order of date). The date doesn’t correspond to the wedding date, but to the application date, which could be a full month earlier (folks had 30 days to marry from when they get their license). The records start in 1908, which is a bit of a bummer as many of the most vital documents I could use are from 1906. The archives have records till 1933. After that you have to go to 141 Worth Street, where the bureau of marriages is, to get the records. Of course one of the documents I wanted was from after 1933.

Tweeds found me. And waited with me. And then, at about 3 p.m., I said, “Let’s get lunch, but on the way, can we stop by Worth Street so I can order this form?” She rolled her eyes at me, but was game.

Have you ever tried to do something quickly at a municipal office? Holy cow are those people mean! Tweeds and I showed up. “I’d like to get a copy of an application for a marriage license.”

“Credit, debit, or money order. How will you pay?”

“Uh, credit.”

“Fill this out,” he said throwing me a form. I had all my numbers from the previous index so I filled them out. I brought him back the form.

Pulling out my wallet, I asked, “So, do I give this to you and you can mail me the form?”

“Pay in there.” He hands me a number. “Go in there and wait for your number.”

Uh oh. Around us are happy people getting their marriage licenses or even coming to be married. Tweeds and I walk into a dark room filled with miserable people sitting in cold plastic chairs. Double uh oh. But my number is called quickly.

“I want the application for the license. Not the certificate.”

“What’s it for?” the woman yells at me.


“That’ll be fifteen dollars.”

“Okay,” I say, reaching for my wallet. “And you’ll mail that–”

“Pay later. Sit down!”

I sat. Totally cowed. The room is filled and someone moves so Tweeds and I can sit together. And we sit. And we sit. Finally I turn to two women behind me. “How long have you been here?”

“We got here at 2:14 exactly.” I look at my watch. It’s now 3:43. “Well they can’t keep us longer than another hour and 17 minutes because they close at five,” I said hopefully to Tweeds. She shot me another dagger-y glance. Meanwhile, we’re supposed to meet my mother and my daughter to take my daughter shopping for first day of school clothes. After the lunch Tweeds and I are going to have. At 3:43 in the afternoon. The two women behind me are called. The older one does a jig as she leaves and calls out, “We’re outta here!” I finally tell Tweeds that she should go get food and I’ll meet her after. But two minutes after she’s left, I’m called. Despite my certainty that they were going to hand me the document I didn’t want, they had the correct form and I was out in minutes. And Tweeds and I finally had our lunch. At 4:12 p.m. And we met with my mom and daughter just after five, in time for cupcakes at Sugar Sweet Sunshine. The girl and I still got in our first day of school outfit shopping, and I was home with my precious documents by 8:15 p.m.

Moral of the story: Don’t make any other plans on archive day. And be sure to always eavesdrop on others at the microfilm! So many more documents to find…!