Rosa-Maye Kendrick Harmon's wedding table (Kendrick Collection, TESHS)
EVEN THE SMALLEST wedding took time to organize. For larger weddings, preparations could take months. There were church banns to be posted, reservations to be made, invitations to be sent out, announcements to be engraved, bridesmaids to be picked, dresses to be sewn, musicians to be hired, etc., etc., etc.
SETTLING ON A TIME & PLACE
The first thing that had to be done was to pick a date for the event. At one time, most couples chose to get married on a weekday or a Sunday rather than a Saturday. According to one bit of Victorian verse, the seventh day of the week was considered an unlucky choice for a wedding day:
Regardless of the day, weddings could be held either in a church or at the home of the bride's parents. The manner in which the home was decorated emphasized the special nature of the day: out of the ordinary and special. Familiar household furnishings were dressed up with flowers and greenery. Ferns and palms were popular, as were all manner of flowers, from daisies and poppies to roses and lilies. A bit of ivy was almost always in evidence as a symbol of the lasting bond of matrimony. When John Kendrick and Eula Wulfjen were married in 1891, their church was decorated with another symbol of longevity, evergreens:
An arch of evergreens and flowers [was] illuminated with colored electric lights. In the center hung a large bell of evergreens and flowers with an electric light suspended from the center. The alter was a scene of artistically arranged flowers, paintings and banners.
John and Eula were married at the Methodist-Episcopal Church in Greeley, Colorado. Rosa-Maye Kendrick and Hubert Harmon were married in 1927 at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. When Manville Kendrick married Diana Cumming two years later, they chose a slightly larger venue: The National Cathedral's Bethlehem Chapel.
The giving of expensive wedding gifts such as silver or crystal by anyone other than close family members – or those who could truly afford them – was once met with harsh disapproval. Even so, the practice of displaying the gifts at the wedding reception prompted many people to give beyond their means in order to "keep up." Expensive didn't mean best, however. Brides and grooms throughout the ages have enjoyed homemade gifts such as paintings, quilts and needlework pieces. The offer of a family heirloom was a symbol of trust and provided a sense of continuity from one generation to another.
John and Eula Kendrick's wedding gifts included china, silver, linens, books, paintings, pillows and a carpet sweeper. Thirty-six years later, Rosa-Maye Kendrick and her husband Hubert Harmon received nearly 400 gifts from friends, relatives, and her father's political acquaintances. These gifts ranged from a pair of antique Bristol glass sweetmeat jars and assorted silver bonbon dishes to a fancy feather duster and sets of monogrammed linens. They even received what is arguably the twentieth century's most popular wedding gift: an electric toaster.
One of the more unusual gifts received by Manville Kendrick and Diana Cumming on the occasion of their 1929 wedding was a pail of honey from Cecilia Hennel Hendricks of Honeyhill Farm in Powell, Wyoming. Though she had never met the bridal pair, Hendricks nevertheless wished them well:
Under separate cover we are sending you a pail of honey to express our good wishes for you at this time. The honey, made by our Wyoming bees, contains the sweetness, the fragrance, the warmth of Wyoming, and will prove, we hope, a little foretaste of the joy that will be yours as you come to make Wyoming your home.
For more on the Kendrick brides' wedding gifts, read A Treasure Trove of Wedding Gifts.
Like births, deaths and other major life events, weddings were opportunities for people to gather together and eat good food. For weeks prior to the event, the home cook (or the professional chef if the meal was to be catered) spent hours preparing special foods and delicacies for the wedding feast. In the days before refrigeration, many of these foods had to be preserved in some way. Smoked ham or turkey, corned beef, pickled vegetables, plus dried fruits and grains were all popular foods, along with soups, fish, lamb, chicken, aspics, cakes and pies.
At a formal wedding banquet, many courses were prepared, offering – quite literally – everything from soup to nuts. If the food itself wasn't particularly fancy, the names of the dishes were sometimes changed to make them appear more special. It was particularly popular to give a simple food a French name: celery en branche, for example, was just a fancified name for plain old celery sticks.
In order to celebrate such a special event as a wedding, a special dessert was offered: the wedding cake. Until after the Civil War, when finely-ground white flour, baking soda and baking powder were more readily available, the white wedding cake was not common outside the upper classes. Instead, coarse stone-ground wheat flour, oat flour and even cornmeal were used, along with plenty of butter, eggs, dried fruit and spirits. In fact, early wedding cakes more closely resembled the fruitcake we make today at Christmas. After the 1860s, when the white Lady's Cake became the standard for brides, this heavier cake became known as the Groom's Cake. One 1880s groom's cake recipe called for:
The cook was advised to mix all the ingredients and "bake in a moderate oven for two hours or more. This will make eight loaves, which will keep for years."
Not all wedding dinners offered elaborate feasts, toothsome desserts or fancy decorations. Jessie Hill Rowland, who witnessed several weddings as the daughter of a justice of the peace, described a home wedding in a dugout on the Kansas prairie:
Soon after [the ceremony] we all sat down to the wedding supper. The sheet that hung across the corner of the room was taken down and spread over the table for a cloth. Mrs. Brown's efforts at the coffee mill had turned out some delicious coffee, made of dried carrots, seven different kinds of sauce, all made out of wild plums put up in seven different ways. The rest of the menu was quite simple and consisted of plain bread and butter, and fried pork.
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
August 1996 - December 1996
(SCHS & Kendrick collections, TESHS)
State Historic Site