A Playful Peek into Leap Year Customs from Wheeling’s Past

“For this is Leap Year. It is also a ‘women’s rights’ year in a particular sense. She has the right to exercise her prerogative.”

That is from 1892 so, ladies, we’ve made it. Or, I guess not. That piece from the Wheeling Sunday Register goes on to say that essentially the only real right she has gained is“to leap without being asked from the unmarried state to the pool of matrimony.” Because it’s Leap Year, and just like the popular movie from 2010 with Amy Adams taught us, girls are allowed to propose this year. Lucky us!

The leap year tradition of girls being ‘allowed’ to propose harkens way, way back. An act of the Scottish Parliament from 1288 states:

It is statut and ordaint that during that during rein of his maist blissit Megeste, ilk for the years knowne as Leap Yeare, ilk mayden layde of baithe high and lowe estate shall hae liberte to bespeak ye man she likes, albeit gif he refuses to taik to hir to be his lawful wedded wyfe, he shall be mulcted in ye sum of ane dundis or less, as his estait may be; except and awis gif he make it appear that is is betrothit ane ither woman, he shall be free.”

While the language is a bit hard to understand, in short, women can ask a man to marry her, and if he says no, he can be fined (unless he is already engaged). Today, the notion of such an act is absolutely wild. While that law did not make it across the pond, it was tradition that a man who declined marriage “should soften the blow of disappointment which his answer would bring about by the presentation of a silk dress to the unsuccessful suitor.” I don’t know about you, but I think we should bring that back – who wouldn’t want a new silk dress?

Leap Day Advice for Men

For men not wanting to risk shelling out cash for silk dresses, the 1928 Wheeling Sunday Register has you back with some tips to avoid an unwanted marriage proposal:

With a very “No Girls Allowed” opening, they are offering a bit of advice. Now, despite being a girl, I did read this, but only to pass along the tips. (The Wheeling Sunday Register, 1928).
  • “Do not allow yourself to be alone with the ladies for a moment.” Women will simply take advantage of the opportunity and start proposing left and right.
  • “Do not assist a lady by putting on her zippers for her. Of all things, beware of this. No matter how pretty she asks you, no matter how coyly she thrusts out her dainty foot, shod in the flimsiest of slippers, with ankle and calf clad in the filmiest of chiffon hose, do not do it. Explain that you have a lame back, or stiff fingers, or must catch a train, or something, and get away. The moment you are on your knees the chances are she will get a strangle hold on you.” So watch out, this is when she is most likely to literally attack. Perhaps learn some self defense.
  • “Do not blow some rings.” Women will put their fingers through your smoke rings, and then propose marriage, obviously.
  • “Do not discuss the ‘high cost of living’ with any single lady. She will spring that two-can-live-as-cheep-as-one thing on you.” With the rent prices today, I mean 1928, who can blame her?
  • “Do not go to a Leap Year ball, if you can help it.” Again, this is a prime time for women to pounce. If you must go, go home alone, or a woman will be “discussing the best place to buy furniture before she has gone half way home with you.”
  • “Wear a wedding ring, talk constantly of going into bankruptcy, state emphatically your belief that women should wear Hoover aprons during the day, have one dress a year, and have but one hat every five years.” If you seem dreadful, she won’t want you. Unless she herself is dreadful, then there is no advice but to run.

If none of these tips seem to be providing enough security, “there’s one way left to escape.” Very simple. Join a monastery. You can’t be proposed to if you can’t get married!

Leap Day Advice for Women

Now, it wouldn’t be fair if I only provided advice to the men, would it? Women, listen up, we have a plan of attack. We will get those silk dresses!

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  • “No need to tell you to pick out your man. You have long ago picked out your first choice. Also your second, third, south, fifth, sixth and seventh choice.” Just get your mental roster ready.
  • “Pick a hair off his coat, wet a corner of your handkerchief and rub a spot from his vest, invite him to your home and hand him some splendid cooking; tell him how you did it. Say the light hurts your eyes, turn them mostly out, then grab him while he is feeling docile and harmless after a good meal, also helpless, and snuggle close under his shoulder; tell him he is so strong, and that it makes you feel so small and helpless – then propose.” Lull him into comfort. Attack.
  • “Just walk right up to your choice and say ‘This is Leap Year, you big, bashful boob, and I’ve got you a ring. You give me a list of your friends to invite. We will be married next Wednesday.’ That’s all! You will be married next Wednesday.” Simple, straightforward, hope he doesn’t have plans on Wednesday.
  • This tip is a bit of cunning wordplay. “First you say to him: ‘Let’s not go to the movies tonight,’ and he will ask: ‘Why not?’ and you will reply: ‘It’s expensive; people who are thinking of getting married should save money.’” When he flounders, tell him you know he meant to ask, and that of course you will marry him. Call your parents to share the good news.
  • Reverse psychology. “Be coy; explain that although it is Leap Year, you won’t take advantage of it, because you know he will propose all in good time.” Boom, now he feels guilty, and now he is proposing.
  • “Ask him to go shopping with you some afternoon. Take him around by the City Hall and ask him naively, if that is not where they secure marriage licenses. If he hesitates, just drag him in and buy one; then still grasping him by the lapel of his coat, yell for an Alderman to come and perform the matrimonial operation.” Very brash, but I guess if that’s the tone you want for a marriage.

In preparation for all the wild proposal-based chaos of the Leap Year, the Wheeling Register got involved in quite a funny way. They would post photos and names of Wheeling’s hottest bachelors, to help women target their desired man. They included a few descriptions of these eligible young men, in order to help entice young ladies, such as “bubbles over with wisecracks”. My kind of guy. If these sound a bit strange, just think of them as early dating apps.

  • The Wheeling Register, 1956.
    The Wheeling Register, 1956.

Say, gentleman, all these tips fail you. Your picture is in the paper, all the women know you’re a hot commodity, and engagement befalls you. Don’t worry, there are rewards to reap! At least, in the early 1900s there were rewards. In Leap Years 1908, 1912, 1928, and 1932, The Wheeling Register offered one year of free newspaper to the first couple engaged on Leap Day.

It wasn’t just bachelors who could get benefits, The Wheeling Register also offered $10 in a savings account of the parents’ choice to the first baby bornon Leap Day. In 1916, parents Edward J. Kelly and Josephine Kelly, whose child, Joseph, was born just eight minutes after midnight on Leap Day, chose the Mutual Savings Bank. The bank also put $5 into the account, setting baby Joseph up quite nicely, with what would be about $422 today. The family was also given one hundred Bolton’s Principes stogies, a new hat for the father from Allen & Hunter, a new shirt and tie for the father from The Fashion Shop, a silk bonnet for baby from The Better Shop, ten pounds of Maclen Blend coffee, and a dozen cabined photographs of mother and baby from the Arcade Studio.

  • The Wheeling Register, 1920.

For all the pitfalls of marriage that seemed to lurk around every corner in the past, it does seem less dangerous now. Women no longer feel like they get one day every four years to propose. The social dynamic has changed quite a bit. I can’t picture anyone dragging someone by lapels into the courthouse and forcing them to marry you. So, stress less, you’ll probably be fine. Probably. Maybe buy a silk dress, just in case.

• Makayla Carney, a Wheeling native, is the 2023-2024 AmeriCorps member for Wheeling Heritage, where she will get to write all about the history and culture of her hometown. She has a B.F.A. in Film and Television from DePaul University in Chicago. She adores all kinds of art, a lavender latte, and the occasional performance on the Towngate Theatre stage.


“An Interesting Array of Leap Year Eligibles.” The Wheeling Sunday Register, Feb. 1932, page 25.

“Depression Should Speed Up Leap Year Proposals, The Register Free One Year to First Man Who Says ‘Yes.’” Wheeling Sunday Register, 27 Dec. 1931, page 33.

“Eligible Bachelors Pinning for Leap Year Proposals, The Register Free One Year to First Who Says ‘Yes.’” The Wheeling Register, 2 Jan. 1928, page 3.

“February 1956 Caution – Leap Year.” Wheeling News Register, 26 Feb. 1956, page 35.

“First Leap Year Baby Reported at 3:05 O’Clock A.M.” Wheeling Sunday Register , 29 Feb. 1920, page 1.

“Joseph William Kelly, the First Leap Year Baby Born in Ohio County, and His Father and Mother.” Wheeling Daily Register, 3 Mar. 1916, page 1.

“Reveries and Romance: Leap Year.” The Wheeling Sunday Register, 26 Feb. 1928, page 42.

“Some Leap Year Laws.” Wheeling Daily Register, 6 July 1896, page 7.

“Will Somebody Do Something For The First Leap Year Baby’’s Daddy? Sure Someone Will.” Wheeling Daily Register, 24 Feb. 1916, page 1.