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Friday, July 10, 2009

Antebellum and Civil War Weddings

In the nineteenth century women had little influence in politics, economics, or education. A woman’s wedding day was her day to shine even if she didn’t come from a wealthy family. At no other time in her life would a bride be as important as she was on her wedding day.

A wedding was also an important social event for communities, especially in the South. Relatives who lived both near and far away gathered for the joyous event.

Most girls began courting and married somewhere between the ages of 18 to 21 and men by age 23 although some girls married in their early teens. If a girl remained unmarried much past the age of 23 she was considered to be an old maid.

Just a note here; courting and dating are not the same thing. The express purpose of courtship was marriage while dating is-at least in the beginning-for fun and amusement. To court a young woman a man was expected to ask the permission of her father. It was also expected that his intentions were honorable; that is, marriage minded. Courtship usually took place in the woman’s home under close supervision. A couple was rarely left alone. While gathering information for this article I read one story about a man who was so desperate for a kiss from his beloved that he gave her chaperone a drugged peach to put her to sleep.

Of course, most people have heard of bundling which sometimes took place in the North. This was a Dutch custom that involved putting a man and woman into the same bed either fully or partly dressed. I guess we can all imagine how that sometimes went.

Our modern system of dating emerged from this tightly structured system of courtship.

I found it interesting that if you lived in the South once a man actually proposed to a girl, it was expected that she turn him down at least twice before she said yes. I guess she didn’t want to seem too eager-or maybe desperate-but given the nature of courtship it seems like a lot of silliness to me.

Once an engagement was finalized the couple would sometimes visit family members to extend personal invitations to the wedding. Engagements were usually short with many less than six months. During this time the preparations for the wedding were made. This included the bride’s trousseau.

The wedding dress itself probably would have surprised you. Prior to 1840 when Queen Victoria wore a white dress to get married in most wedding dresses were chosen so they could be used as the bride’s best dress after the wedding. White was expensive and hard to clean, so it was far more practical to marry in a colored dress. The plaid dress at the top of this post was worn by Gertrude Stoddard at her wedding to William Shapper on March 22, 1861, in Horseheads, New York.

Queen Victoria’s dress was made of white satin trimmed with orange flower blossoms and over this a veil of Honiton lace. The lace was created especially for her, and after the wedding the design was destroyed. The lace which formed the flounce of the dress was four yards long and three quarters of a yard in depth. Queen Victoria’s dress is also pictured at the top of this post as well as bridal gowns featured in an 1861 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Naturally, not everyone could afford expensive lace and satin even if Queen Victoria did wear it to “the wedding of the century.” Here’s a description of the wedding dress worn by a Missouri bride in 1859: …tight bodice, a necklace neckline and dropped shoulders with flowing sleeves… material used was linsey-woolsey… produced only on American farms and plantations…blocks of dark and light gray… formed stripes around her 5 yard skirt. The gray was broken by a band of wine colored wool and natural linen stripes alternating.

Some brides wore purple in honor of those who had fallen in battle.

Although brides didn’t often wear white their attendants did. When Cornelia Jones Pond married in 1853 in Liberty County, Georgia, her attendants wore white silk dresses covered with white tulle, white sashes, gloves and slippers.

The wedding ceremony itself sometimes took place in a church, but people often chose to be married at home. After the ceremony people partied sometimes for a period of days. It’s interesting to note that people often married in late spring or in winter to avoid heavy work in the fields.

After the ceremony it was traditional to have a wedding supper much as we do today. A typical menu would consist of turkey, ham, bread, biscuits, jellies, cakes, ice cream gelatin, candy, and fruit. Again, the poor would not have served such an assortment of dishes. It’s also worth noting that during the antebellum period wedding cakes weren’t white as they are today. They were dark fruit cakes.

Did they have a honeymoon? Yes, the upper classes did, but the poor usually didn’t. The trip usually consisted of sightseeing and visiting far off relatives and could last up to several months. What about gifts? Some people gave them, but some didn’t. The war made gift giving in the South extremely difficult.

During the war itself some things changed. For one thing it was hard to meet men because everybody was in the army. Fear of being an old maid caused many girls both North and South to marry men who would have been socially unacceptable in previous days. Esther Alden who lived in the South said, “One looks at a man so differently when you think he may be killed tomorrow. Men whom up to this time I had thought dull and commonplace seemed charming.”

Marriage between Yankees and Southern girls also took place. Women who refused to walk past an American flag or listen to Northern music could also be seen “arm in arm with dashing lieutenants and captains.” Their elders mourned this “marrying craze”, but it didn’t stop anyone. Recuperating soldiers-even amputees-were acceptable as mates.
In a way it was probably easier for girls to meet possible mates in the South than it was in the North because the war was fought in the South. The armies were closer.

So, what do you think? Are modern weddings all that much different?

I used the following links to collect information for this article if you’d care to read in more detail.


Emma Lai said...

This post was chock full of information. Great job, Elaine!

LuAnn said...

Great information. Thanks, Elaine.

Elaine Cantrell said...

Emma and LuAnn, maybe I should write a historical novel. Hope something you read turns out to be useful for you.

Sandra Ferguson said...

Great post, really interesting facts. Certainly gives a bit more info behind Gone With The Wind. So, from what you posted, the whole-virginal-white dress is something made up, something modern times have assigned to color association. My going-away outfit was all black, which happened to be my favorite -- no, not Goth -- color. My mom was outraged, couldn't imagine why I'd want to leave some a happy occasion in black. 'Um, mom, I really look good in that color.' Now, I know there is justification. Brides of old married in their favorite colors -- what a great idea!

Elaine Cantrell said...

Hi, Sandra,

One of my favorite authors when I was a child was Laura Ingalls Wilder. She got married on August 25 which was the same day I did-a total coincidence-and her wedding dress was black.

Susan Macatee said...

Great information, Elaine! And of course a queen could have a white wedding dress. She could have anything she wanted!! LOL.

It's also intereting how the war changed courting. I'm sure many a potential groom was killed in battle before his wedding, and once the men were all off to war, the local girls just coming of age wouldn've had slim pickings. And I'm sure the lure of a dashing officer in uniform, turned many a girl's eye.

Mary Ricksen said...

Love the information.
I only wanted to mention one thing about the bundling.
Engaged couples were rolled in blankets so that they could not get their arms out. My great Aunt talks about one of her relatives bundling.
Some families checked on the couples to make sure they did not roll out of the blankets.
I guess if they did the wedding was a lot sooner. Just thought I mention it.
One would hope the man was a good kisser huh?

Elaine Cantrell said...

Hi, Mary, Thanks for the info. I guess bundling saved fuel too. With those blankets they probably didn't feel the cold in the winter time.

Kaylea Cross said...

My hubby and I had a Civil War wedding at my request. He dutifully wore a Union cavalry captian's uniform, complete with period reproduction boots and my original saber. I'll post pics on my blog soon.

Anonymous said...

I am doing a project on civil war weddings for school. I couldn't find very helpful information until I came to this site. Thanks so much! I really appreciate it!

Unknown said...

I have a question. Well, first, thank you for sharing your vast knowledge. I appreciate you so much. I am planning my wedding and had planned on a grooms cake as a surprise but during the ceremony, is there something during the ceremony that I can do for him that represents southern tradition.

Unknown said...

I have a question. Well, first, thank you for sharing your vast knowledge. I appreciate you so much. I am planning my wedding and had planned on a grooms cake as a surprise but during the ceremony, is there something during the ceremony that I can do for him that represents southern tradition.

Christine Bethea said...

So fun to read this. Thanks for posting. I'm writing a novel and needed s scene for a civil war wedding. It helped to have your additional research.