Innovations and trends that shaped your ancestors' lives. In this issue: the evolution of weddings.
Fathers of the bride had it easy way back when. Our ancient ancestors simply carried off their brides, saving Dad the expense of a pricey wedding. Originally, in fact, the best man’s job wasn’t merely safeguarding the ring, but helping the groom capture the bride and fend off rescuing relatives.
Even today, the bride stands to the left so the groom has his sword-hand free. And the charming tradition of tying shoes to the happy couple’s car started with stealing the bride’s shoes so she couldn’t run away. The bride’s garter, of course, was presented as proof the marriage had been consummated.
We have the ancient Egyptians to thank for setting us on the road to today’s $28,000-plus weddings. They came up with the idea of getting engaged to make sure a couple was compatible, as well as tossing rice or grain—symbolic of fertility—during the ceremony. Originally, however, the dowry was reversed, with the groom paying the bride’s family. (Wedding comes from the Anglo-Saxon word wedd, meaning “pledge” as well as “bet” or “wager,” a guarantee paid by the groom once a marriage was negotiated.)
Couples have been exchanging wedding rings since Pharoah’s time, too, though it was the ancient Romans who decided the ring should go on the third finger, which they believed was connected straight to the heart. This tradition was cemented in medieval times when Christian grooms would place the wedding ring in turn on the first three fingers, for God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, leaving it on the last. Traditions differed on right versus left hand, but in England, a 1549 edict by Edward VI settled the question in favor of the left.
Romans also invented the wedding-cake tradition, in the form of a loaf of barley bread the groom would break over the bride’s head. In medieval England, wedding guests brought small sweet buns they piled in front of the newlyweds, who tried to kiss over the stacked sweets. Success meant lots of children ahead. Beginning in the
mid-1600s, there might also be a bride’s pie, in which a glass ring was hidden; whoever got the ring was said to be next to marry.
Wedding cakes became popular in the 19th century, although only the wealthiest couples had the multitiered extravaganzas expected today. Grooms got their own cake, typically dark to contrast with the primary white cake, a tradition that persists mainly in England and the American South.
Bridesmaids, not florists, were responsible for assembling the bridal bouquet, which could well have seasoned the wedding feast: Garlic was included to ward off evil spirits, sage for wisdom, dill for lust. Flower girls carried sheaves of wheat—still more encouragement to fertility—rather than posies. Later, roses and rosemary became popular for the bridal garland, and there was a mania for orange blossoms because the orange tree bears fruits and flowers at the same time (again, fertility symbolism).
Weddings were held in the morning, sometimes followed by a celebratory breakfast. Not until the 1880s was it considered proper to get married as late as three in the afternoon.
The father of the bride has long been expected to pay for all this. In Elizabethan times, however, a bride helped pay for her wedding by selling ale in the village.
Early American weddings were typically held in a family’s home. The bride wore her best dress, which might be a simple calico smock or linen shift. Black wedding dresses were most practical, as the bride could one day be buried in the same outfit. Brides who could afford a special gown favored blue, the Biblical color of purity. The symbolism persists in the “something blue” of the popular saying.
White didn’t take over until the 1840 wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, a lavish affair that would haunt the wallets of future fathers of the bride. By 1849, Godey’s Lady’s Book proclaimed (incorrectly), “Custom has declared, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.”
In the 1890s, Ladies' Home Journal echoed this historical revisionism: “From time immemorial the bride’s gown has been white.” Even when Coco Chanel introduced the knee-length wedding dress (still with a long train) in the 1920s, the color was white.
By that time, a nascent wedding-planner business had begun, and photographers had realized that they could make money capturing the occasion. In the 1920s and 1930s, department stores introduced bridal registries and bridal shops popped up.
Las Vegas, with a budding tourist industry and some of the nation’s loosest marriage-license requirements, also started cashing in. Clara Bow and Rex Bell were among the first celebrities to get hitched in Vegas, in 1931. Wedding chapels were soon almost as popular as casinos, and today the self-proclaimed “Wedding Capital of the World” issues 120,000 marriage licenses every year.
Although diamonds had long been a popular choice for engagement and wedding rings—medieval Italians thought diamonds were forged in the “flames of love”—they didn’t become de rigeur until a 20th century ad campaign. In 1938, with diamond sales declining, Harry Oppenheimer of De Beers Consolidated Mines sought help from the N.W. Ayer & Son advertising agency. Almost immediately, the agency’s campaign linking diamonds and marriage began to boost sales.
In 1947, copywriter Frances Gerety came up with what Ad Age would later call the most successful slogan of the 20th century: “A Diamond Is Forever.” The timing, on the cusp of postwar prosperity, was perfect. By the 1950s, the modern fairy tale wedding—from diamond engagement ring to white gown—was fully formalized. Another royal wedding, the 1956 nuptials of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco, provided the icing on the wedding cake of what’s now an $86 billion-a-year industry. Cash-strapped fathers of the bride can’t be blamed for wishing the prince had simply grabbed the movie star and eloped.
1477 | Austria’s Maximillian I popularizes diamond engagement rings in proposing to Mary of Burgundy
1499 | Ann of Brittany wears one of the first white wedding gowns
1551 | England’s Edward VI introduces the sixpence coin, later deemed lucky for brides
1799 | Nellie Custis wears white to marry George Washington’s favorite nephew
1840 | Queen Victoria marries Prince Albert in white satin
1924 | Marshall Field’s establishes the first bridal registry
1947 | De Beers launches “Diamonds Are Forever” campaign
1951 | The Little White Wedding Chapel opens in Las Vegas
1981 | Prince Charles marries Lady Diana Spencer
2007 | "Say Yes to the Dress" premieres on TLC
Bridal showers originated in the Netherlands as a way to help a bride whose father disapproved of the marriage and refused to pay a dowry.
Some accounts say the expression “wedding toast” comes from a custom of flavoring drinks with actual spiced toast.
Newlyweds were supposed to drink honey wine for one full moon cycle after their wedding—hence the term honeymoon.
In rural England, a joining-of-hands ceremony called handfasting informally married a couple for a year and a day, after which they could wed for good or try another trial run. Sometimes the hands or wrists were tied in the ceremony, giving us the phrase “tie the knot.”
From the July-August 2012 Family Tree Magazine