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Jefferson Era Weddings: Not What You May Have Thought

As I write this blog, it's wedding season all around me. Hotels, churches, temples, multi-purpose centers and back yards populated with folding chair and gazebos are teeming with wedding party after wedding party.

And, while fashions, music and vows have changed over the decades, the basic wedding ceremony remains the same: Groom shows up, bride walks down the aisle, minister pronounces them husband and wife, they kiss and stay with each the other (hopefully) the rest of their lives.

This beloved ceremony, and all that goes with it, comes from well-established traditions dating back many centuries. Much has changed but, you'd be surprised to find, much has also stayed the same.

So, it's only appropriate in a blog series about Thomas Jefferson, that we take a look back at wedding ceremonies from his era and see how far we have come (or haven't) in two hundred and some years since the founding of our great country.

Let's start with the star of any wedding: The Bride. Contrary to popular myths, she was not barely a teenager as we may have heard. She usually between the ages of 19 and 26 years old. In Virginia, where Jefferson lived most of his life, the bride's average age was 23. She and the groom had to have a marriage license. If they were under 21, they had to have a license approved by a parent or legal guardian.

The groom's average age was 26 and he and his fiancé' had to have banns (public announcement in a Christian parish church of a coming marriage between two specific individuals) published allowing time for any objections to be heard. It also allowed time for family to prepare the wedding.

Speaking of the wedding, let's move to the clothing at a typical Colonial era wedding. White was the only color for the bride, right? On the contrary, brides wore a variety of colors. From blue to gray to black, each dress was different and often reflected the financial or social position of the bride. (Brides didn't begin wearing white until the Victorian era.)

In fact, the bride usually wore their very best gown or they bought the finest textiles and cloth and had a tailor create one for her. Tailors could be quite expensive, making the wedding gown too expensive of an investment to just pack away. So, she would wear the gown many times following the wedding to special events and even to other weddings.

And, while the spring and summer seasons are most popular for weddings now, most weddings of that era occurred during the months of January, February and December. The wedding ceremony finished by noon and was always performed by a minister.

Then there were the post-wedding feasts! For two or three days, the wedding party and guests sat at dinner tables filled with a potpourri of 18th Century foods. Displayed before each guest were stewed oysters, clam chowder, roasted pig, venison, duck, Indian cornbread and hard cider and that's just for starters.

There was a reason the bride was blushing. Her wedding cake was a heavy; spice riddled one spiked with alcohol and dried fruit. Tradition had it that whoever had a slice of cake with the nutmeg in it, was the next one to get married.

Believe it or not, I'm just touching the surface on this subject. Did you know about wedding ceremonies from this time period? I think I'll have to revisit this topic in a future blog.

You can read more about Thomas Jefferson and his courting and wedding to Martha are covered in my new book, Thomas Jefferson From Boy to Man (2013, Tate Publishing). You can also visit my website, My books can also be found on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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