Decades before gay marriage became legal anywhere in the US, same-sex couples were committing themselves to each other in front of friends and loved ones. Few records of these ceremonies existed – until now.
In 1957, a young man went to a photo shop on the corner of North Broad Street and Allegheny Avenue to have his wedding photos developed. The photographs captured the usual moments: the exchange of rings in front of witnesses, an officiant leading the ceremony, the first kiss, dancing, opening of gifts, cutting of the cake and more.
But the young man would never see them. That’s because the photos depict him in a commitment ceremony with another man, and unbeknownst to him, the store manager allegedly deemed these particular wedding photos to be inappropriate and refused to return the photos to the grooms.
The photos, though, lived on because the manager of the shop had another policy: Staff were allowed to do whatever they pleased with confiscated pictures. An employee held on to the photos, which her daughter discovered in her Cherry Hill home 60 years later, after she passed.
“My mother had a somewhat photographic memory for faces and retained these in the event the customers who dropped them off ever came back to the shop so that she could give them to the customers on the sly,” she wrote in a letter to the ONE Foundation, an LGBTQ archive in Los Angeles.
In 2013, she sold the photos on eBay to a donor who later gave the photographs to the ONE Archives in Los Angeles and the John J. Wilcox Jr. Archives in Philadelphia. Since then, the organizations have been looking for the grooms, their friends or family. In the photographs, the two men and their friends appear to be mostly in their twenties and thirties; if they are alive today, they would be in their eighties or nineties. Archivists have reached out to local business owners and elder LGBTQ Philadelphians. But so far, their efforts have been fruitless.
“It’s a needle in a haystack—there’s too many questions and not enough information about this photo collection,” said Michael Oliveira, an archivist at ONE. “While many people and families tend to stay put in the Delaware Valley area, we can speculate about where they were taken, who took the photos and so much more—and never arrive at an answer.”