Journal Opinion, July 1, 2020
"Shall we marry when we are young and poor, or wait until we get older and better off? And that is the real question in their minds when they inquire as to the 'right time to be married.'"
Bradford Opinion, Aug 16, 1876
The questions of whom and when to marry have perplexed young New Englanders for four centuries. This column explores marriage stories before the 1960s. Information is from online sources, local histories, and newspaper archives. I have also included insights gained from three books I have written on my wife's and my New England ancestors.
The Protestants who settled New England brought wedding traditions from Europe. Marriage contracts had both a religious and civil significance. While Puritan marriages were held in connection with religious services, many others were, by provincial law, performed by magistrates or justices of the peace. Later, the laws in both New Hampshire and Vermont added ministers to the list of those who could solemnize marriages.
The province or state usually demanded a small fee for a marriage license, as did the officiant. One poor Warren groom offered a bushel of beans as payment to the magistrate. In the end, he paid only half as his new wife kicked him out of bed.
Young men and women were expected to marry. Given the division of labor between men and women, it was difficult for single individuals to maintain a household. After one partner died, remarriage was often immediate. It was not unusual for a widower to married the sister of his deceased wife.
In the case of second marriages, a "smock wedding" was sometimes held. The bride, hidden in a closet and dressed only in a smock, would reach out a hand to accept her new husband. It was thought that this prevented the man from being responsible for her debts or those of her previous husband.
Premarital fornication was prohibited and could be cause for punishment. My 7th great grandfather was James Ross, a Scottish prisoner of war and an indentured servant in Groton, MA. In 1657, he received 39 stripes on his bare back for fornication with Mary Goodenow, daughter of his master. The punishment was for "shameful abuse and violence toward his master." Within the year, however, they were married and became prominent members of the community.
The diaries of 18th and 19th-century midwives reveal that many first-born children came less than nine months after the marriage of their parents. These early babies, however, suffered no stigma. Bundling was one way New Englanders dealt with the ardor of young lovers. In need of some privacy, but not too much, the couple was allowed to lie together, fully clothed, in the same bed, but with a board dividing their natural appetites.
Early New England marriages were as much about economics as romance. For many, marriage was like a business agreement between partners, one of whom might be the father of the bride. One was expected to marry within their class and economic situation and with the permission of the bride's parents. It was expected that wedding intensions would be published in advance. Sometimes youthful eagerness upset this expectation.
The following is an example involving other great grandparents. The wealthy parents of Mary Loker of Sudbury, MA rejected the suit of Jonas Prescott. Just a blacksmith, he was not considered suitable for their only daughter. The parents sent her away to a frontier town 22 miles away. Jonas sought her out and, despite her parents' refusal to provide a dowry, they were married in November 1672. For the first years, their household was sparse. But their fortunes changed. Mary lived to see 176 of their descendants.
Elopement such as this allowed a couple to escape from the boundaries placed on them. In 1898, a 15-year-old Fairlee girl ran away with a Newbury man to be married in Ryegate. A similar flight caused an Orford couple to trail their daughter and her lover to St. Johnsbury in 1920. When, in 1903, a prominent Bradford businessman eloped with a woman, not his wife, it made front-page news.
Sometimes a couple wished to keep their marriage secret. But it’s hard to keep secrets in a small town. In 1897, one of Orford's "young townsmen having decided to take unto himself a wife laid plans to circumvent everyone by bringing home a charming bride in the middle of the night." The couple was surprised at 12:45 am by friends, family and a band.
Cohabitation without a license was known as common law marriage and was recognized by early courts. But in the 1800s, states began to enact laws expressly to prohibit such legal arrangements. Vermont has never recognized them as legal. New Hampshire does for probate only, thus recognizing the rights of the survivor.
By the 1850s, young couples had greater choice in whom to marry. The Ladies Indispensable Assistant, published in 1852, suggested the following "preliminaries for marriage." "According to the urges of society, it is the custom of the man to propose marriage, and for the female to refuse or accept the offer as she may think fit. There ought to be perfect freedom of the will in both parties." It went on to suggest that the man should seek from her parents or guardians “permission to address her."
It was common in early marriages for couples to be from the same town or county. The couple was likely to have known each other for a time, gone to the same church or school. In our area, that extended across state lines to adjourning river communities. After the coming of the railroad in the mid-19th century, one of the two individuals might have come from as far away as New York, Ohio, or even Texas.
Still, long-distance travel was not common. As a result, marriage between cousins was not uncommon. Until the mid-19th century, cousin marriages were legal in most areas. My great grandparents, Ida Rice and Lyman Randall were married in Windsor, VT, in 1878. They were first cousins. That gives an example to the saying that sometimes a guy would "go to family reunions to pick up girls."
Even as laws were enacted to prevent this practice, they were not enforced. In 1867, a bill was introduced in the Vermont Legislature to prevent first cousin marriages. It did not pass. New Hampshire made such marriages illegal in 1902 but grandfathered in those that already existed.
Local marriage between couples of different religions or races was extremely unusual until the mid-20th century. A bride that broke that rule might be disowned by her family, a repudiation that might extend to her children. Growing up Catholic before the 1950s in predominantly Protestant Bradford meant that a young man had few choices for courting.
Marriages were usually held in the home of the bride or groom or in the home of the officiant. Those in attendance were only the most intimate friends and family members and limited by the size of the house. These weddings have been described as small, sober, and simple. No doubt, at some weddings, the self-restraint was washed away by a bit of whiskey or rum. Weddings could be a "season of excess."
Both bride and groom dressed in their finest. While white bridal gowns became more popular after Queen Victoria wore one in 1840, many brides continued to wear colorful dresses that could be used for later occasions. The groom might buy a new suit, expecting to wear it to church and perhaps even to the grave.
Increasingly, the couple was married in a church. Sometimes a wedding in an important family was “a principal social event." Among my New England ancestors, June weddings were the exception. In an agricultural community, there was more time during winter months for taking time off for a wedding.
But one extravagant June wedding took place in the Bradford Congregational Church in 1891. The bride was Florence Farnham, the daughter of ex-Governor Roswell Farnham. An extensive article described the bride who entered the church, "leaning on the arm of her father, who gave her away.” The reception was held a few doors down Main Street at the Farnham home. Both the wedding and reception sites were elaborately decorated with arches of flowers and evergreens.
One or more wedding cakes were standard for weddings in all classes. Many believed that sharing the cake showed hospitality and would lead to prosperity and fruitfulness.
Often slices of spiced cake were pre-boxed for the guests to take with them. For a time, local newspaper editors expected a slice in return for the inclusion of the wedding announcement. Sometimes, editors were not hesitant to remind readers that no cake had been presented.
Until the middle of the 19th century, there was little notice of a post-wedding trip.
Couples often just "went to housekeeping" in their new home. Among the Scottish residents of Ryegate, that short trip was accompanied by a crowd of well-wishers. Depending on the economic means of the groom, it was not uncommon for the bride to remain in her parents' or employer's home for a time until a new home could be provided.
By the 1880s, bridal tours to romantic locations were expected for middle-class couples. Newspaper accounts reported that the happy couples left by wagon to the local railroad station for a trip to Burlington or Manchester, or perhaps, even to Montreal or Boston.
After 1910, newspaper accounts sometimes mentioned that the couple left on their wedding trip by auto. There were several examples in local columns of trips of up to eight weeks. But most could not afford that time or the expense. The Groton column for Dec 7, 1912, reported, "The happy couple took a short wedding trip to Newbury."
The gifts that couples received, along with the bride's trousseau of linens and blankets, helped them to establish their home. A "wedding quilt" and a set of coin silver teaspoons from Bradford's Hardy Jewelry store were typical. Otherwise, new couples often had few possessions, to begin with.
During the Great Depression, the number of marriages dropped significantly as couples were unable to afford to establish a new home. During the first half of the 1940s, with so many in the service or working in war production, weddings were postponed. If men were going overseas, weddings might be hurried.
At that time, double rings ceremonies became more frequent, perhaps to serve as reminders of partnerships during long periods of absence. The increase in the number of weddings during the post-war years led to the baby boom. The post-war prosperity was reflected in more of the weddings of the period.
Following the tradition of posting wedding intension, the United Opinion printed the announcement along with the photo of the bride-to-be. A picture of the couple and a description of their wedding often followed.
While weddings took place year-round, the summer of 1956 brought many weddings to the area. Two stand out for their similarities. They involve sets of high school sweethearts, members of the Bradford Academy Classes of 1952 or 1953. The brides were from Piermont and the grooms from Bradford. Their romanceboth survived four years of college.
Their weddings took place at the Piermont Congregational Church before at least 100 guests. A common practice in that small town was for some to attend uninvited. Both brides and grooms were dressed in the expected outfits of the times, the brides in white, and the grooms in formal attire. The brides were presented by their fathers. Each ceremony was followed by a reception at Piermont’s Robbins Inn.
When asked, both brides mentioned that they feel their nuptial event was one of the social events of Piermont's summer that year and were representative of the many local weddings at the time. One added that most were "meant to last and did."
AS a Justice of the Peace, I have officiated scores of weddings. Those in attendance have ranged from just the couple alone to hundreds of guests. Some have been quick to meet an immediate need, whereas many have been elaborately planned. Virtually every couple had been living together before the ceremony.
As our definition of what constitutes a family has changed, so have those who asks to be married or choose to ignore the marriage ceremony altogether. If two individuals are willing to live their lives together, to actually go to housekeeping together, that’s what really counts.