The Dowries of Hennepin County

JULY IS ONE of the busiest months for processing marriage licenses at the Hennepin County Government Service Center. It's short work telling marriage applicants apart from those who have come on other business. While the loveless squirm in their seats, impatiently wishing to get their bureaucratic tussles over and done with, newlyweds-to-be wait calmly, as if they had... well, as if they had their entire lives ahead of them. Even the air surrounding the service counter has a unique aroma. So clean, so fresh--like Mr. Clean, sort of. It's not unusual to hear people sneezing as they round the corner. Up at the counter, the odor is overpowering.

"And your names after you're married?" asks a service-center employee, Fran, of a giddy young couple. "Your new name goes there, under that line. Fill it in there. No, not there, there." Somehow, the blissful pair manages to fill out the appropriate paperwork and sign the appropriate checks. "Here's your receipt; you'll see it says 'No Refunds' on it, even if you decide not to get married." But by this time, Fran is smiling so hard that her face has become a mask of lines and moisture. "Congratulations!" And then, with a flourish, she hands the lucky couple a white plastic bag--the Newlywed Sampler.

The sampler is decorated with the profiles of a bride and groom, forever stuck inside a heart made of roses and ribbons. The profiles are in danger of engaging in a kiss. Tear at the thin plastic and a card floats out: "This is a special FREE GIFT for you. Best wishes today and always! This sponsor of this FREE GIFT wishes to join with your friends in acknowledging this wonderful time in your life and provide you with your first wedding gift."

Heavier items drop out first: a couple of cough-syrup samples, laundry detergent, dish soap, deodorant, and fabric softener. More cards follow: "Comet beats the leading bathroom spray hands down as it attacks these toughest of bathroom stains... no matter how messy your beloved happens to be"; "Now that you're sharing everything, including household chores"; "Bathroom cleaner recommended for marital bliss." Apparently, the local government thinks that marriage is about cleaning toilets and catching colds. Pretty rough first gift if you're the sentimental kind.

"It's been so many years now that I don't remember when we started handing out Newlywed Samplers." So says Violet, a Service Center employee since 1972. "The price of marriage licenses being what it is [$70 when all is said and done], we feel that it's nice to give something over and above the cost of the marriage license. People feel like they're getting something extra for nothing, and since it's provided to us for free, it doesn't cost the county anything."

When pressed, Fran admits that there have been a few incidents when customers have been offended. "Those cases are few and far between; the response has been overwhelmingly positive. But I guess when packages included things like feminine hygiene products--Tampax and that sort of thing--people got offended. There were occasional complaints when the packages included aspirin and Harlequin romance novels. But nowadays, we have more control. We've told the company that we refuse to take feminine hygiene products and medicine." But what about the cough syrup, then? "I don't consider cough syrup 'medication,'" sniffs Violet.

Steve Fleisher, vice president of First Moments, Inc., the Greenvale, New York company that distributes the Newlywed Sampler, suggests there's a quiet kind of romance to the package. "We just distribute personal items that couples can take away on their honeymoon. You know, skin-care stuff, mouthwash--nice stuff that a new couple might enjoy using together."

Wonder what comes in that Divorce Grab Bag...

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