For men, the practice of wearing the now-common symbol of betrothal is a surprisingly young custom.
When word arrived recently that Prince William wouldn't be wearing a ring to commemorate his upcoming nuptials, there was a hue and cry across the land. Not across England, but in its former colony.
The folks stoking the all-American brouhaha clearly were not history majors. Otherwise, they'd have known that not only do British men often eschew wedding bands, but that American guys have been ring bearers only for about 70 years. And once married, American men and women often stop wearing rings, sometimes as blithely (and duplicitously) as changing their Facebook relationship status and sometimes for purely practical reasons.
In the millennia-old annals of marriage, though, rings have been a ladies-only proposition. "It's very traditional to have a single ring gift, not a double exchange," said the Rev. Spenser Simrill of St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis. "Historically, the woman was the only one who received a ring. Today [a male ring] is the standard, but it can be an elective."
It basically took World War II to kick off the double-ring tradition. According to research by Vicki Howard, author of "Brides Inc.," the number of men who incorporated a ring into their wedding vows increased from 15 percent in the late 1930s to 80 percent in the late '40s as part of "a new cult of marriage."
The shift "was shaped by changing gender ideologies," said Howard, an associate professor of history at Hartwick College in New York. "It symbolized a new form of domestic masculinity, a feeling of shared bonds and togetherness as part of a household unit. Wearing a band to signal that you're married was a symbol of these changing roles."
Business interests played a role, too, Howard said, with the jewelry industry lobbying the War Production Board to get rid of gold rationing and ads morphing from "men socializing with other men at lodges and women with their coffee klatches" to "a soldier's hand with a ring on it, reading a letter from home."
But this was not the marital equivalent of marketing-driven "Hallmark holidays," Howard said. "In the invention of the double-ring ceremony, consumers played a very prominent role."
Pragmatism can be a factor
The tradition quickly took a firm hold in American marriages. Simrill said that in his 39 years of presiding over wedding liturgies, every man has received a ring. Even in nonreligious ceremonies, rings of some sort are involved. Former Timberwolves star Tom Gugliotta, after countless jammed and dislocated knuckles made rings a tough option, opted for a tattoo of one.
So did both members of a couple wed by the Rev. Griffin S. Dunlop, an officiant whose website proclaims him the "Minnesota Marrying Man." He also has had couples who wanted unadorned hands to go another route: "They'll use a ceremony ring and then put it on a necklace."
Others find more practical reasons to leave their left hand bare, whether it's because of allergies to metal, gaining or losing weight, or something more unusual.
Ken Harmon of New Brighton has lost two wedding rings "because when my hands get cold my ring slips off," he said. "I'm pretty sure one of the rings is in the Brule River Gorge, where I was photographing the landscape in the winter."
Ivor Matz of St. Anthony simply doesn't like wearing jewelry, although it took awhile for his wife to get used to the idea.
"For the first few years, it was somewhat annoying for her because she felt that wearing a ring was a public statement of fidelity," he said. "But eventually she got used to the idea. I told her that wearing a ring wouldn't make me more faithful, nor would not wearing a ring make me less faithful."
The road to hanky-panky
Some who choose to stop wearing rings have less noble intentions, said Minneapolis attorney Jonathan J. Fogel.
"I've heard quite a few times something like, 'I noticed that he would go out and leave his ring and make an excuse like, "Oh, I'm going out and playing sports," whereas in years past he would still wear it.'"
Later, when couples are splitting up, the engagement and wedding rings can become yet another band of contention. Basically, anything that was bought as a gift belongs to the recipient, while a family heirloom ring reverts to the original owner. Still, contentious divorces can spawn reprehensible behavior.
"I had a case where I represented a wife," Fogel said. "The husband, about six months prior to the divorce, offered to have all the jewelry cleaned. When we had everything appraised, it turned out that he had the diamond taken out of the engagement ring and replaced with cubic zirconium."
Of course, most men don't act so heinously, but April Walter, a saleswoman at Arthur's Jewelers in West St. Paul, has noticed a gender pattern among engaged couples.
"Sometimes the men are reluctant about getting a wedding band," she said, "but most of the time they do end up getting one. But they don't want to spend a whole lot of money on it."
They must be channeling their great-great-grandfathers, who would probably wonder what all this fuss was about.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643