The Victorian Wedding
Part Two--The Ceremony and Reception
Before the 1880s, a couple was required by law to have a morning ceremony. By the late 1880s, permissible hours were extended until 3:00 p.m.. In the Eastern United States, the fashionable hours were between 10:00 a.m. and Noon because it was an English custom. In New York in 1890, half after three was also a fashionable hour. Southern American weddings, however, were almost always at 6:00 p.m. because it was cooler then.
The marriage ceremony took place either at home or in church, with many guests or few. In the 1850s, weddings were almost always held in church, and it was customary to use the bride's parish. The clergyman and parish clerk were in attendance. After the ceremony, the couple signed their name in the parish register in the vestry. The bride signed her maiden name. Flowers decorated the church, the arrangements growing more elaborate as the decades wore on--from potted palms to festoons of evergreens and blossoms.
One usher was usually in charge of matters at church, while the others went to the bride's house for their favors. In England, the bride pinned favors of white ribbon, flowers, lace and silver leaves on the ushers' shoulders. In America, ushers wore boutonnieres in their lapels. In early Victorian England, the bridesmaids also made favors and pinned them on the sleeves and shoulders of the guests as they left the ceremony. Later in the era, even the servants and horses wore flowers. The servants' favors were handmade by the bride and included a special memento if she'd known them from childhood.
Guests in mourning entered the church quietly and hid amongst the crowd, so as not to cast negative aspersions on the couple.
In England, a country bride and her wedding party walked to church on a carpet of blossoms to assure a happy path through life. For the wealthier, a grey horse pulling the wedding carriage was considered good luck. Church bells pealed forth as the couple entered the church, not only to make the populace aware of the ceremony taking place, but also to scare away any evil forces lurking nearby.
The wedding ring was usually a plain gold band with the initials of the couple and the date of their wedding engraved inside. There were few double ring ceremonies in the Victorian era. It was considered good luck for the ring to drop during the ceremony, thus all evil spirits were shaken out.
After the ceremony, the bride and groom walked out without looking left or right. It was considered bad taste to acknowledge friends and acquaintances. The bride's parents were the first to leave the church, and the best man the last after he paid the clergyman for his services. From a custom dating back to Roman times when nuts were thrown after the departing couple, the practice continued, but in the form of rice, grain or birdseed, a symbol of fertility. The wedding carriage awaiting the bride and groom was drawn by four white horses.
If the ceremony was at home, (as was popular in the 1890s) the decorations were no less elaborate. A profusion of white, and another color according to the theme, abounded in the bride's home, adorning doorways, balustrades, windows and fireplaces. In America, a good luck symbol was hung over the spot where the couple exchanged their vows. This could be a bell, dove, wishbone, or any other good luck symbol.
Because of the early hour for weddings, the reception was traditionally a breakfast. It was an English custom to have a Noon ceremony with the breakfast thirty minutes later at the bride's home. There, the couple received the guests and accepted congratulations. In the Eastern United States, they emulated the English in their ceremonies. In the West, they mimicked the East, especially New York and Boston Society.
A special and elaborately decorated corner was reserved in the bride's home for receiving her guests. The parents congratulated the couple first, then stood nearby. In early Victorian times, the maid of honor (or first bridesmaid) stood near the bride to assist her. Bridesmaids stood to the left and right of the couple, while ushers guided the guests. Etiquette dictated that guests address the bride first, unless they were only acquainted with the groom, in which case they congratulated the groom and were then introduced to the bride. The bride was never congratulated, as it was implied that the honor was conferred upon her in marrying the groom.
Guests were served standing, although the bridal party was served seated. If the house was large enough, or the weather nice enough, tables could be set up for the guests. There was no entertainment at the wedding, unless it was a lavish evening affair, at which time there was dancing. It was understood that the guests needed no entertainment, as they the honor came in attending the wedding itself.
In early Victorian times, there were usually three wedding cakes--one elaborate cake, and two smaller ones for the bride and groom. The cake was cut and boxed and given to guests as they left. Traditionally the wedding cake was a dark, rich fruitcake with ornate white frostings of scrolls, orange blossoms, etc.. The bride and groom's cakes were not as elaborate. Hers was white cake, his dark. It was cut into as many pieces as there were attendants and often favors were baked inside for luck. Each charm had its own meaning.
The ring for marriage within a year;
The penny for wealth, my dear;
The thimble for an old maid or bachelor born;
The button for sweethearts all forlorn.
This tradition died away with the century, as the bridesmaids did not wish to soil their gloves looking for the favor. The cake the bride cut was not eaten, rather it was packed away for the 25th wedding anniversary!
The bridal couple usually left for their honeymoon after the wedding breakfast. The honeymoon originated with early man when marriages were by capture, not by choice. The man carried his bride off to a secret place where her parents or relatives couldn't find her. While the moon went through all its phases-about 30 days-they hid from searchers and drank a brew made from mead and honey. Thus, the word, honeymoon. The honeymoon is now considered a time to relax.
In the early 19th century, it was customary for the bride to take a female companion along on the honeymoon. The bride wore a traveling dress, which may have been her wedding dress, especially if the wedding had been an intimate affair with few family and friends, or they were traveling by train or steamer immediately after the reception. Colors for the dress were becoming and practical--brown or black for mid-Victorian. But whatever she chose, the bride was advised not to wear something conspicuously new out of respect to the sensitivity of her husband who might not want people to know he was just married. If the bride was married in her traveling dress, she often wore a bonnet with it instead of a veil.
If changing into the traveling costumes, the bride and groom did so immediately after the cake was cut. Bridesmaids went with the bride to help her, at which time she gave them each a flower from her bouquet. By the time the couple was ready to depart, only family and intimate friends were present. As the couple drove off in a carriage pulled by white horses, the remaining party-goers threw satin slippers and rice after the couple. If a slipper landed in the carriage, it was considered good luck forever. If it was a left slipper, all the better.
The best man preceded the couple to the train or steamer to look after their luggage. No one asked where the bride and groom were going. It was bad taste. Only the best man knew, and he was sworn to secrecy.
Finally, upon their return from their travels, one final custom required that the groom carry the bride over the threshold to their new house. This would ensure that the bride did not stumble, which would bring bad luck.
As you can see, Victorian traditions were steeped in superstitions and age-old customs, some of which we still follow toady, though not necessarily in fear of evil spirits.
For more information on Victorian Weddings, see Part One--Preparation.
For a list of resources on Victorian weddings, see the Researching the Romance page of Literary Liaisons. Some of the books listed are available in our Bookstore.
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