Something Old, Something New, Something Simple: Early Weddings in Chesterfield

We have all been through that phase of life where it seems like everyone we know is getting married in the same year. It becomes an endless stream of bridal showers, bridesmaids’ dresses, bachelor/ bachelorette parties, tuxedo fittings, rehearsal dinners—and, oh yes, the weddings!

We have many stories in our family’s  long history in Cheserfield. Some have been written down; some have been shared verbally and some stories are in the form of mementoes and tangible items—but, strangely, we have very few stories about weddings. We have a few items and stories from my grandmother’s wedding in 1935– stories about family weddings before that? –Nothing, really.

This isn’t necessarily uncommon in a family history. Weddings were often much simpler affairs, often including elopement, particularly in rural farming communities such as Chesterfield. Many of the traditions we know today were slow evolutions of simpler customs of the past.

In the early 19th century, brides often wore colorful dresses. But in 1840 when Queen Victoria wore a white satin wedding gown, the popularity of the white wedding dress emerged. By the though turn of the century wedding photos show a variety of styles. In looking through some of Chesterfield’s archived photographs, it is apparent that while sometimes brides may have worn white gowns, more often brides chose a darker dress, in some cases possibly a quality dress they already owned– yet other times more casual attire was worn.

My great-grandmother’s wedding photograph shows a smart and fashionable blouse and skirt typical of styles in 1914, while my great-grandfather wore a suit. Wedding photography was very different than it is today. Most notably, photographs were taken in a studio rather than at the actual wedding itself. Today a bride and groom may receive hundreds or thousands of choices from their photographer. However, the limitations of early film photography required that most photographs taken indoors be shot in a studio for ideal lighting—no flashes. And candid, outdoor photography was often overexposed or blurry, due in part to the need for longer exposure times. So rather than take time out of the actual wedding day events for what could be a lengthy process, couples would often go to a studio beforehand for one or two posed shots.

In my family, we actually have more photographs of wedding cakes than we do of brides and grooms! Apparently, several family members were quite skilled at baking and decorating and they created most of the wedding, shower and anniversary cakes at home. While the photos are sadly a bit blurry, it is clear that these weren’t just a typical sheet cake. They were often multi-layered, intricately decorated cakes. And remember, this was in the days before boxed cake mixes and electric mixers were common. I do remember my great-grandmother telling me that baking a cake required a strong arm and a lot of patience to gain a light and fluffy texture. Angel food cake in particular required whipping more than a dozen egg whites by hand. Electric stand mixers must have seemed like quite the revolution when they made their appearance in the residential market in the 1920s. That is, for those who could afford them—the first KitchenAid stand mixers would have cost about $2,000 in today’s currency. Perhaps that’s why I don’t remember my great-grandmother or even my grandmother ever owning an electric mixer.

The 1920s, a decade of emerging wealth for the middle-class, as well as some economic growth in Chesterfield, brought slightly fancier weddings. The Chesterfield archives have a few wedding photographs from this era—still taken in a studio, but with larger wedding parties, flowers, ring bearers and flower girls. When my grandparents married in 1935, one of the local St. Louis papers described the event, giving a detailed idea of the fashion of the 1930s. “[The Maid of Honor] wore a gown of Dubonnet transparent velvet, designed along the princess line, flaring below the knees… [and] carried an arm bouquet of yellow roses.” Despite the drastic change to a fashionable wedding, the article also mentions, “a reception was held at the home of the bride.” Receptions were commonly held at home, attended by close family and friends. This was not unusual as most other major life events, such as funerals and births, centered on the home. It wasn’t until much later that growing reception sizes—and perhaps the family’s desire for less work—moved receptions into larger venues.

While most traditions have been added or become more elaborate, a few traditions have fallen by the wayside. A “shivaree” (spellings vary) is one of the few wedding customs that my relatives remember from the early days in Chesterfield. This wedding night tradition actually dates back to medieval Europe when citizens would gather in a noisy group as a form of social coercion against social “errors” such as premarital relations. However, by the late 19th century in small US communities like Chesterfield, the custom had evolved into more of a prank. Well-meaning friends and family would gather outside of the newly betrothed couple’s bedroom window. They would use pots, pans and makeshift musical instruments to create a noisy disturbance as the bride and groom began their wedding night.

Clearly, this was more amusing to the participants than to the bride and groom. While I’m sure some modern couples long for a return to smaller and simpler wedding traditions, I’m equally sure they are thankful that a “shivaree” is no longer part of the local wedding customs.

If you have memories, comments or suggestions for future topics, please email Aimee at aimee@thehistorychick.com