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.
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.
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