Almost a century ago, an Illinois bride cracked open her wedding diary. The thin, white-cloth covered book had empty pages where a bride could record the details of her nuptials. There was a page to describe how the couple met, another to note the engagement, and several to paste in the engagement announcements.
The bride, 18-year-old Marjorie Gotthart, was seemingly unimpressed with the book. She completed only one page—a form designed to resemble a marriage certificate. In big, loopy cursive, she recorded who she married, when, and where. The rest of the pages were empty.
Marjorie's slight wedding diary was typical for brides of her time. The book did not devote any pages to receptions or pre-nuptial parties. There was no space for a bride to describe her reception venue, the music played by the band, or the meal served. Couples of that era most often married in their parents' home, usually on a weekday. The lavish affairs that are now de rigueur didn't become popular until the 1970s.
This means the customs we now call "traditions" are fairly recent. The Saturday evening affair with dinner, dancing, centerpieces, and party favors is not a long-standing tradition. For most modern wedding guests, a "traditional" American wedding would be totally unrecognizable. Here are seven traditions that have changed the most over the years.
1. Traditional weddings were on weekdays.
More than a century ago, there was a rhyme that helped brides pick a date. Mondays were for wealth and Tuesdays for health. "Wednesday the best day of all, Thursdays for crosses, Fridays for losses, and Saturday for no luck at all." The 1903 White House Etiquette guide reminded young, society women of the rhyme and also noted that in addition to bringing terrible luck, Saturday weddings were terribly unfashionable.
2. Weddings were early.
"High noon," assured the White House Etiquette guide, was the most fashionable time to get married. Lunchtime weddings were modeled after English tradition, and demanded more effort than the late afternoon nuptial, which only required a reception.
3. Receptions were optional.
As late as the early 1960s, many couples were forgoing receptions, even if they had a church wedding. The practice was common enough that the popular 1961 guide, Check List for a Perfect Wedding, detailed how the receiving line should be ordered "if there was to be no reception."
For many couples, the wedding took place at home with only a few family members and witnesses present. The 1879 guide, Wedding Etiquette and Usages of Polite Society, reminded couples marrying at home that no procession was expected. The couple entered the room and faced the wedding official together. Refreshments were typically served afterward, but few families hosted an elaborate meal.
4. Receptions were simple.
For couples who did host a post-nuptial celebration, receptions were typically limited to cake and punch. There were no passed hors d'oeuvres, circulating wine stewards, or dessert bars. Society pages in newspapers reported these simple events but treated them as elaborate affairs. At one 1961 North Carolina reception, for example, the local newspaper reported that guests were served cake and punch "from a crystal bowl," a detail that was clearly noteworthy. The story even noted how the ice-cubes in the punch were shaped like hearts.
5. The day was DIY and inexpensive.
At most cake and punch or breakfast receptions, family members were put to work serving guests. This practice was so common that newspaper wedding announcements even listed which family members doubled as staff. At one New Hampshire wedding in 1951, for example, the paper noted how the bride's aunt and cousins served breakfast to all the guests. The guest list was notably large – 200 people — and the bride recruited six aunts and five cousins to serve the crowd.
6. Parents didn't always pay.
Etiquette books such as the White House guide clearly stated the bride's parents were responsible for most of the expenses. And while such was the standard among many marrying couples, there were many cultural communities who had other practices. Well through the 1920s, Italian-American grooms, for example, were responsible for paying for the reception, securing a home, and furnishing the new property. Some brides were able to pick the furniture for the new home and send their fiancés the bill.
7. The honeymoon and home took precedent.
Many modern couples spend significant money on rings and receptions, but neither expense is long-standing tradition. The 1909 Sears Catalog, for example, had pages of rings, including "baby rings" that one purchased for fashionable infants. For ladies, there were rings with pearls, rubies, sapphires and diamonds, but none were designated as engagement or wedding rings. A standard wedding ring was a band of gold, according to the 1879 guide, Wedding Etiquette and Usages of Polite Society, which claimed to be on top of the elite bridal trends.
Without a reception or ring to eat up costs, couples put their money toward their honeymoons and post-wedding residences. Marjorie's wedding diary reflected this value. The little book had several pages to record honeymoon memories and paste photographs. The following section was her place to describe the couple's new home and include a photograph. Marjorie, however, chose not to do either. It seems the only thing that mattered was that she and Samuel Bowers were married.
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