Also, the average age of people getting married is creeping up. In 1958, the average first-time bride and groom were 20 and 23, respectively. In 1998, they were 25 and 27.
Older couples are more likely to be independent-minded, and resist having a big wedding just to please the parents or conform with tradition, experts suggest. With the divorce rate at roughly 50 percent for couples younger than 45, there is a steady increase in second marriages, which lend themselves to smaller ceremonies.
Experts also point to the ongoing relaxation of social mores about marriage, and the decreasing stigma against having non-traditional nuptials.
Elopement — The Package Deal
The wedding industry in recent years has begun creating and marketing elopement packages, in response to the demand for nice, small, relatively inexpensive ceremonies.
Las Vegas has seen a steady growth in the number of marriages. Last year 123,143 tied the knot in the desert gambling mecca. The city's wedding chapels noted a sharp slowdown after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but say that business these days is booming.
Some in the wedding industry there say the trend is toward more traditional style weddings, and away from extremely kitschy or casual events.
In California's Napa Valley, the Rev. Blaine Ellsworth helped start a wedding planning service catering to couples who want small, affordable weddings in the region's picturesque wine country.
"We started this a year ago," he says, of the company, Enchanting Elopements.
The company offers "elopement packages," with a weekday wedding in a Napa vineyard, along with a photographer, minister, and flowers, for less than $2,000. He estimates the average cost for a large, traditional, weekend wedding in Napa at $36,000.
"We get a lot of calls from people saying, 'We're looking for something different from Tahoe or Vegas,'" he says.
He cites the economic slowdown, as well as a shift toward weddings that combine traditional and non-traditional elements.
"They want that sense of frivolity along with that sense of spirituality," he says.
Different Elopements for Different Folks
At the Wedding Chapel in West Des Moines, Iowa, about 40 percent of the marriages are elopements of one form or other. The small, traditional chapel accommodates people looking for more than a civil ceremony by a justice of the peace.
Most decisions to elope are economically motivated, says the Rev. James Love, who performs the chapel's wedding services.
Some 20 miles away in Dallas Center, Iowa, the Candle Lit Way Wedding Chapel recently started offering elopement packages along with traditional larger weddings.
"A lot of people had come looking for a small place to get married," says Mary Ellen Oberender, who owns the chapel with her husband Dan. A basic elopement marriage with a minister there costs $233.75, including a half-hour rental of the chapel.
"I think there are a lot of people who really don't have any money — they really don't," she says. "They want to be married and they want to do it in the eyes of God."
But many of her clients make a virtue of necessity, she says.
"I think elopements can be much more intimate and much more meaningful to people."
At the Little Chapel of the Flowers in Las Vegas — which performs 7,200 weddings a year — only one quarter of the couples were there spontaneously. The rest planned their weddings months ahead of time.