Holly Atwood, 18, chose a sequined, strapless wedding gown and train with a shoulder-length veil for her wedding to Steven Joseph, 21. He wore a tuxedo with a red vest and tie, a nod to Valentine's Day. She was so nervous she left her heels in the car and walked into the Baltimore County Courthouse in satin slippers.
Court Clerk Julie Ensor officiated at the brief civil ceremony and offered the Harford County couple best wishes. Theirs was among the last of nearly 30 weddings there on Valentine's Day, the most love-infused day of the year and the busiest wedding date at many area courthouses.
"They have been friends forever, and they chose the most romantic day of the year to marry," said Arthryn Minkins, the groom's mother.
The ceremonial room, on the second floor of the courthouse, handles dozens of Valentine's Day nuptials, so many that the court clerk's office handles the overflow. Before noon, 20 couples had said "I do."
"This is traditionally our busiest day for marriages," Ensor said. "They take the elevator up and when they hit the second floor, they will know exactly where to go. Sometimes they just follow the crowd to the ceremonial room. If it gets too crowded, some will get married in my office."
No one waits long; after all, the exchange of vows takes about 10 minutes. And latecomers need not worry.
"I assure them that they will not leave here single," said Judy Pasqualone, a deputy clerk.
Ensor, clad in a red suit, knows from a 40-wedding Valentine's Day last year to maintain a tight schedule, but she does allow brief family photo sessions. A few couples make appointments, but it is mostly a first-come, first-married schedule.
"This is a really fun day, one of happiness and filled with excitement and laughter," she said. "Some people go all out, arriving in all the traditional wedding finery. Each ceremony is unique, and I think that is because it depends on the couple and who is with them."
Couples like Danielle West and Sean Monahan opt for the courthouse over a chapel wedding, which can cost more and require months of planning. They, like several couples who wed in Towson were residents of Baltimore, where a marriage license costs $85. The county's license is $35.
West donned bright red satin for the ceremony.
"I have been married before and had all the big hoopla wedding," she said. "That really is a party for other people. This one today is just for us."
For James Sanders, 43, who wed Ranetta Smith, 27, in Towson, the date of the ceremony had the added benefit of simplifying his calendar.
"This is the day of love!" he said. "And I will never forget our anniversary date."
Marriage is declining nationwide, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. census data. In 1960, 72 percent of U.S. adults were married. That figure has fallen to 51 percent and appears to be on a steady decline, researchers said.
In 1989, Janice Potts, Cecil County's deputy court clerk, officiated at 83 Valentine's Day weddings and still went out for a romantic dinner with her husband.
"We won't see that again ever, not anywhere," she said, adding that she expected to perform about 15 ceremonies Tuesday.
Six couples were married Tuesday at the Howard County Courthouse, a number that Margaret D. Rappaport, the court clerk for 21 years, called exhausting. She loves to see the couple's reaction when she presents their rings. "They look at each other and it gets serious."
Harford County, which requires appointments for weddings, scheduled nine Tuesday. But if a couple wandered in with a license, they would not be turned away, said Jennifer Karras, a deputy clerk in Harford for three years whose Valentine's Day record is 11 weddings.
"We started with the first couple right at 8:30 a.m.," she said Tuesday. "We will be squeezing the rest in all day. I haven't seen a tux and gown yet, but that happens. They will even pull up in a limo."
Valentine's is the most popular date, she said, but 11-11-11 might have surpassed it.
"We had a lot of requests for that date, but, of course, we were closed for Veterans Day," she said.
Halloween is another popular choice, she said.
"We had one couple come as a gorilla and banana," she said. "It was really the coolest wedding I have had. Most of the time outfits run the gamut from Sunday finery to jeans and T-shirts."
In Carroll County, five couples tied the knot, down slightly from other years.
"It's the middle of the week, and couples usually like a long weekend after the ceremony," said Carmen Cashman, assistant to Carroll's clerk of court, who had officiated at two weddings before 11 a.m.
"We make it really nice for them," she said. "We don't herd them in and out like cattle."
Cashman said she has performed many ceremonies and still feels the emotion of the occasion.
"This is just your basic civil ceremony, but the more serious the bride and groom, the more choked up I get," she said. "This can be a really fun day for all of us."
Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.