Back in Time
Weddings in the historical context of society
The history of how people have held weddings over the years, and the various customs that have developed around them are often a surprise to many people. Things that go on at modern weddings today, often seen as beautiful or romantic, were necessary for certain purposes in the past.
Take the tradition of flowers for instance. The story goes that the carry over of having them at weddings today are a result of medieval sanitation habits when people only took a bath once a year, usually in the spring. That is the reason most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and still smelled pretty good by June.
However, by that time they were starting to smell at least a little so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide body odors. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.
In the agricultural communities of medieval England, the most popular months for weddings were January, November and October, when harvest was past and the time for planting had not yet arrived. Late autumn and winter were also when animals were usually slaughtered for food, so freshly butchered beef, pork, mutton and similar meats would be available for the wedding feast, which often coincided with annual festivals.
Summer weddings, which might also coincide with annual festivals, enjoyed some popularity, as well. June was indeed a good time to take advantage of good weather and the arrival of new crops for a wedding festival, as well as fresh flowers for the ceremony and celebrations. The use of flowers in wedding ceremonies goes back to ancient times.
Depending on the culture, flowers have numerous symbolic meanings, some of the most significant being loyalty, purity and love. In the late fifteenth century, roses were popular in medieval Europe for their connection to romantic love and were used in many ceremonies, including weddings.
As for "yearly baths," the idea that medieval people rarely bathed is a persistent but false one. Most people washed themselves on a regular basis. Going without washing was considered a penance even in the early Middle Ages. Public bathhouses were not uncommon.
In short, there were numerous opportunities for medieval people to cleanse their bodies. Thus, the prospect of going a full month without washing, and then appearing at her wedding with a bouquet of flowers to hide her stench, is not something a medieval bride was likely to consider any more than a modern bride would.
Moving up in history the weddings in the 1850's were often a very solemn affair. The over-piety of earlier years still held for most church ceremonies. But here and there, organ music before or after the marriage vows was being permitted, and soon became customary. At first, the organist was left to select as he pleased from Bach and the other classicists. Gradually, however, two favorites appeared, The Bridal Chorus from Wagner's Lohengrin and the Wedding March which Mendelssohn wrote for Midsummers Night's Dream. Everyone knows the opening strains of Wagner's "Here Comes the Bride", also the gay Mendelssohn music which accompanies the wedding party as they march away from the altar. Thus was set the wedding's traditional musical entrance and exit, which has existed now for over 100 years.
Most 1850 weddings were church ceremonies. White was not the only color worn by the bride, and she used a short veil, sometimes none at all. Seldom does one find a picture of bride and groom, and one of the entire wedding party is even more rare. In those times, the wedding was invariably followed by a family feast.
Gaiety predominated then and guests sometimes stayed to escort the newly married pair to their bedroom-a survival of the old time rural "hornin party."
Honeymoons away from the home locale were quite unusual. Newlyweds stayed at their parents' homes or journeyed about among nearby kinfolk. Niagara Falls had not yet taken on glamour as the ideal place for a honeymoon trip.
Glancing over the album photos available from those days indicates considerable information about those who lived and loved in those bygone times. They tended to marry young, raised large families, and assumed the lace cap and beard of old age by the time they were 40. They were a stalwart lot, and America owes much to their being.
By the 1880's weddings had changed. In this decade the family picture album became quite general throughout the land. Even those who were farming the western prairies took time out for a wedding photograph. George Eastman's Kodak also came on the market, and with it the opportunity for informal snapshots of bridal affairs. As a result, historians have a wide choice for sampling the era's belles and beaus.
The long engagement was becoming fashionable, and while there was less emphasis on an elaborate bridal trousseau, the ceremony itself took on added glamour. Preparations began three months in advance, with hand painted white satin cake boxes. Stationers got a big order-engraved invitations enclosed with a -"church" or "usher" card and "breakfast card" for a high noon wedding. The "old fashioned (1870's) custom" of having bridesmaids and escorts lead the wedding procession followed by the bride's mother on the arm of the groom was now replaced by having the bride lead, preceded only by the flower girls.
The entire church was decorated instead of just the altar, and songs were introduced to supplement the organ processionals. The soloist was usually a friend of the family, but in large weddings a full vested choir might be used.
The bridesmaids carried flowers, and a new type of bridal bouquet made its appearance; blooms arranged loosely with pendants of ribbons and vines falling from them. First called a "chatelaine," after 1900 it became known as a "shower" bouquet.
The practice of having clergymen kiss the bride was now discontinued as "unwarranted liberty" and "an osculatory display not calculated to tie the matrimonial knot any tighter." Some society matrons even put a ban on the bride's being kissed-even after the ceremony-by anyone but her husband; it was "not considered in keeping with the dignified occasion."
And dignified indeed were some of the wedding parties of the day. Formalities of the reception line were stressed to the detriment of exchanging intimate family pleasantries. The wedding tended to become, in fact, a "front" exhibited for benefit of the entire town.
Then came the 1900's. This was the era of the Gibson Girl and Arrow Collar Boy, the dawn of a new century. People who married in that day wanted "something new" as well as "something old." New indeed was the engagement ring, a diamond solitaire in a high gold-pronged `Tiffany' setting and America's favorite for 25 years to come.
New also was the high pompadour beribboned hairdo and the tie worn ascot fashion with scarf pin.
But old as marriage itself were such practices as carrying the bride across the threshold of her new home. Parents of the decade must have been rather insistent that a man be well established financially before taking a bride; at least this would be a ready explanation for the prevalence of late marriages indicated photographs of the time. The honeymoon also became a more prosaic affair, with a hired hack ride to the station and a brief train trip to some other town.
In this decade the bridal flowers were white roses, white orchids, lilies of the valley, or orange blossoms. Bridesmaids also carried white, and these flowers were often paid for by the groom, as is still customary with the bride's bouquet.
As for the wedding ceremony itself, the procession was arranged and rearranged according to various self-styled authorities. Some formal weddings went back to the old custom of having little girls cast flowers before the bride as she led the procession down the aisle on the arm of her father. Others held aloft a garland of flowers for her to pass under as she took her place before the altar. Still other weddings adhered to the new practice of placing the little girl and her basket of uncast flowers after the maid of honor and just before the bride.
All formal weddings now tended to have the ushers and bridesmaids march as two separate groups in the processional but to pair up and follow the bride and groom in the recessional.
For more informal home weddings, the Gibson bride and her groom simply had another couple "stand up" with them. Afterwards father and mother might stand with the wedding party for an album portrait. Very appealing indeed are some of these principals, mothers and grandfathers to many of us today.
Then came the roaring 1920's. The world has been made "safe for democracy" and America didn't seem to have a care. Unlimited industrial production, increasing stock dividends, silk shirts for day laborers, chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage. The spirit of these fun and irresponsible times is carried in many a wedding picture of the day. Informality, and more informality, elopements galore and a justice of the peace instead of a minister became popular.. Gone were many time-hallowed institutions-along with the corsetted figure. Prohibition notwithstanding, guests drank wedding punch made with bathtub gin and engaged in all manner of horseplay with the newly married pair. Jokes were broad, if not downright bawdy. Few brides wanted to be given in marriage by father; the `old folks' were often almost crowded out of wedding affairs.
Above all, the 20's were days of nonconforming. One's friends were married (if at all!) atop flagpoles or under water. Some brides affected black velvet.
Yet some dignity remained when the bucket-hatted, short-skirted bride and her knickered groom stood up to take their vows, the solemnity still shows through in photos.
The songs sung also tell these young lovers story. Since the turn of the century there had been two all time favorites-the 1920's were also there in preferring "I Love You Truly" and "O Promise Me."
Fashions in wedding rings were changing as rapidly as fashions in dress. Matched engagement and wedding bands were the order of the day. The high set diamond solitaire gave way to square or lace mounts, and platinum or white gold was preferred over the traditional yellow color. In 1925 a plain gold ring could get a couple legally married, but the carved designs were considered much more "youthful." This was very good salesmanship, for everywhere the accent was on youth.
By the 1940's and 50's dignity had returned to weddings. Elaborate church services had come back into vogue. The utmost in correct formal attire was expected not only of the bride, but of the groom and his ushers.
It was not uncommon for people of moderate circumstances to rent all the wedding costumes. But rented or owned, these were worn proudly and formed a cherished picture by all who viewed the affair. The formal reception line was now restored to favor; gifts were now properly displayed and tuneful music provided opportunities for dancing. There was very little crude horseplay as the pair left for the standard automobile honeymoon, a handful of rice perhaps and ribbons wishing Godspeed. Many, brides were looking up old family pictures or dresses, so that their wedding could be in some respects a repeat of great grandmother's.
As for wedding music, that also continued traditional. Besides Lohengrin and Mendelssohn, and favorites like "O Promise Me" as shown herein, many other musical selections were used.
One of the days wedding accessories is the Bridal Secretary. She was an employee of the shop where the bridal outfit was bought and her services were free.
Since the 1950's weddings have changed, mostly becoming more elaborate and certainly more costly as the decades rolled on into the turn of the century.