Divorce lawyer's marriage license collection pays tribute to wedded bliss

Norristown attorney Lynne Gold-Bikin, author of The Divorce Practice Handbook, and one of only a few women practicing family law in the 1970s. Gold-Bikin has spent decades collecting licenses, certificates and photos related to marriage. Her collection is on exhibit at Albright College in Reading.

Though known as one of the nation’s more formidable divorce lawyers, Lynne Z. Gold-Bikin wanted to show her clients that she had deep respect for marriage, even as they were paying her to undo theirs. 

For decades, she covered the walls of her Norristown office with her collection of antique marriage licenses, certificates, and wedding photos, documenting the history of "I do" back to the 1760s.  To all who entered, they were reminders that in newly wedded hearts, hope springs eternal, more or less.

“I want people to believe in marriage. I’m not just out here to take their money,” said Gold-Bikin, 78, of Upper Merion. “A lot of marriages shouldn't end. People are just stuck.”

Her collection, sort of a happily-ever-after Exhibit A,  is now gone from Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby LLP. Gold-Bikin has donated the archive of 300 pieces to her alma mater, Albright College in Reading.  A newly mounted show of about 40 of the documents and photos, called “Till Death Do Us Part," will continue through May 24 in the college’s Gingrich Library. The entire collection will be permanently housed at Albright and available on the school’s website.

Among Gold-Bikin’s treasures: a handwritten license from 1787; Georgia church certificates commemorating the 1868 marriage of former slaves; a 1916 invitation to a Tom Thumb wedding (possibly a church pageant based on the wedding of General Tom Thumb, a circus performer); and a copy of the first marriage license issued to a same-sex couple in Pennsylvania in 2013.

One wedding photo, likely from the early 20th century, sits inside an ornate gold-colored frame with the bride's veil attached to the edges. One marriage certificate includes an illustration by 19th century lithographers Currier and Ives.

Albright plans to use the collection in sociology, history and fashion classes. “You sit down and say, 'What year is this? What is going on in this community? What traditions does the document convey, perhaps ethnic and religious?'” said John R. Pankratz, an Albright history professor who has photographed each document. “For an historian, an artifact set within its context is the learning experience.”

At the exhibit's opening reception last week, college president Lex O. McMillan III paid tribute to Gold-Bikin's skills as a divorce attorney and her role as a trailblazer in family law.

Happily married husbands, he said, would sometimes keep Gold-Bikin on retainer, just in case a divorce might be in their future. Then, if a conscious uncoupling did occur, the wives couldn’t secure the services of the tenacious lawyer because she was already engaged.

Born and reared on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Gold-Bikin enrolled at Albright as a 35-year-old homemaker and mother of four. She had moved to Pottsville with her then-husband, businessman Roy Gold, and became active in the League of Women Voters.

“In those days, women got married, had children, and that was it,” she said. “I wanted to save the world.”

She commuted from Pottsville to study political science at Albright, then enrolled in law school at Villanova University.  After graduating at 38, she was hired by family law attorney Jack Rounick.  Soon after, she and her husband divorced.

At the time, Gold-Bikin was the rare woman practicing family law. She was named to a committee formed to draft Pennsylvania’s 1980 no-fault divorce code, and became a go-to expert for the media, so adept was she at delivering plain-spoken quotes. She led the family law section of the American Bar Association, wrote Divorce Practice Handbook, co-wrote The Divorce Trial Manual: From Initial Interview to Closing Argument, and created Partners, a high school program to teach communication skills -- a pre-emptive strike against the issue that often leads to divorce. She is a senior partner at Weber Gallagher and heads its family law division.

She began acquiring matrimonial papers 30 years ago. Her then-husband, Martin Feldman, a neurologist, collected antique medical instruments, and the couple spent most Saturdays shopping in Adamstown, Lancaster County's collectibles capital.

 “He would go looking for instruments and say, ‘You ought to look for something,’” Gold-Bikin said. “I started looking for marriage licenses.”  Feldman died in 2005. 

Gold-Bikin found about 80 percent of her collection in Adamstown. Others documents surfaced from ads placed in newspapers. She estimates she has spent $250,000 on the collection over the years, including framing.

Most of the collection’s pieces are made of rag paper and wood pulp. Some are civil documents, others are religious certificates, in languages including English, Aramaic, and German.  Many of the older documents are ornately decorated, written in cursive, and surrounded by illustrations of hearts, flowers, Cupid, and boats symbolizing the couple embarking on a journey. 

 Elizabeth Kiester, an assistant professor of sociology, has already begun using the documents and photos in her class on the sociology of the family. She assigned students to examine the collection and decipher what it says about marriage, and more.

The class talked about the role of religion, why brides wear white, and the legal requirement of notarization. They also noted couples typically paid fees of between $20 and $50 for a license. “And that’s what entitles you to all the civil and legal rights of marriage,” Kiester said of a license.  “And that’s the thing you have to undo in a divorce.”