1931 vs. 2018: How Traditional is My Wedding?

19 July 2018

Cultural Studies | Gender and Sexuality | History

Wedding season is in full swing once again and in light of my own impending nuptials, I’ve decided to take a look back at a bridal etiquette leaflet from 1931 in Adam Matthew’s resource Trade Catalogues and the American Home to explore bridal traditions after months of being asked things like… “why aren’t you taking his name?”, “is it a church wedding?”, “YOU’RE giving a speech?!”, “there’s no dress code?”, “your mum and dad are both walking you down the aisle? …will you all fit?!”. These questions, which I promise did not all come from elderly relatives, show that when we think about weddings, tradition runs deep. So as someone who prides herself on not being overly traditional, I’m undertaking a comparison exercise:

1931 vs. 2018: How Traditional is My Wedding?

 
'Bridal Etiquette', 1931, by Traub Manufacturing Company. © Winterthur Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click on the image.

The Engagement

1931

“There are mercifully few formalities to be observed in connection with the engagement. The best rule for an engagement is… make it a short one! Four to six months before the wedding is about the right time to announce it. Three to five months would be even wiser, for it is much easier to wait when every one doesn’t know you’re waiting.”

“obligation falls upon the parents of the girl … that of formally announcing the engagement” … “After the formal announcement, the bride-to-be may wear her engagement ring in public”.

'Bridal Etiquette', 1931, by Traub Manufacturing Company. © Winterthur Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click on the image.

2018

As is usual for 2018, by the time we get married we’ll have been engaged for almost two years – we’re millennials after all and can’t afford to buy houses much less get married less than 6 months after becoming engaged! I can’t fathom keeping it a secret for a year and a half either, getting engaged is way too exciting and you need to start booking everything so far in advance these days.

Most people probably announce their engagement themselves on social media in 2018. We phoned our family and friends and then it got around by word of mouth… and social media. 

The Hen & Stag Do

1931

“It is customary for the bride to give a luncheon or dinner, a day or two before the wedding, for her bridesmaids. Then on the wedding day itself, she gives them each a personal remembrance … often some part of their wedding costumes, such as a dainty pin, jewelled clips or some other suitable gift of jewellery.”

“The Bachelor Dinner, given a day or two before the ceremony, may not be described in this book of etiquette … it is entirely a matter of personal taste. But on this occasion the groom customarily gives his presents to the ushers … cigarette lighters, dress sets, wallets, or some such personal gift from his jeweler.”

2018

I rarely hear of anyone leaving their hen or stag do until a couple of days before the wedding anymore, mainly because these celebrations have become a weekend or even week-long party or holiday. I just had my hen do which unlike the 1931 description, was very much thrown for me by my bridesmaids and friends. When it comes to the gifts I think this tradition is very much alive in 2018 and I plan to give my bridesmaids their gifts at my wedding. Although these celebrations of female and male friendship and of the happy couple are executed quite differently in 2018 than in 1931 I think the same principles remain!

As for the stag do, I’m going to agree with our etiquette leaflet writer – it may not be described on this blog…

'Bridal Etiquette', 1931, by Traub Manufacturing Company. © Winterthur Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click on the image.

The Ceremony

1931

“At the most lavish ceremony possible the procession includes the maid of honour, 6 bridesmaids, 2 flower girls, 2 pages, and 6 or more ushers. There is usually a background of elaborate decorations … flowers and palms, organ and choir music, an awning put up and a carpet laid down from the curb to the door of the church! The bride wears a marvellous gown – perhaps of satin and tulle, embroidered with pearls, and her veil is a coronet of priceless lace.”

'Bridal Etiquette', 1931, by Traub Manufacturing Company. © Winterthur Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click on the image.

2018

That 1931 description could easily be a 2018 wedding, but we've tried to keep things smaller and manageable but have still ended up with a maid of honour, 3 bridesmaids, 4 groomsmen and a best dog…

My decorations will be mainly sourced from Hobbycraft, so not very elaborate. The mention of palms sounds very 2018, however, and I’m going for lots of greenery… perhaps we are more traditional than we realise?

The 1931 wedding dress description could also be describing a wedding dress in 2018. Mine perhaps isn’t as decorative as that but I think its pretty marvellous! I was tempted by a veil but think I’m opting for the 2018 gypsophila trend instead.

The Cake

1931

“There is always, even at buffets … a large bridal cake in which the bride makes the first cut with the knife. Often a ring, a thimble and a coin are hidden in the bridal cake! The person who gets the ring is supposed to be the next to marry, while the thimble signifies bachelorhood or spinsterhood, and the coin, great riches! (there should be on the hall table a pile of “black fruit cake” wedding cake, in little white boxes with gold or silver initials. Each guest takes away one of these to put under his or her pillow to be wished on!)”

'Bridal Etiquette', 1931, by Traub Manufacturing Company. © Winterthur Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click on the image.

2018

We are having a three-tier cake, none of which will be a fruitcake. We are opting instead for three different flavours, including lemon elderflower. Straying from the classic fruitcake is probably one of the least traditional moves but if it’s good enough for a royal wedding…

I’d never heard of hiding a ring, thimble and coin or anything else in the cake and while I’d be a little worried about the choking/ broken teeth hazards involved, I must say I’m tempted by this tradition! It sounds like another fun way to engage guests. I won’t, however, be encouraging guests to pop their cake under their pillows – I don’t think the local hotels would appreciate that!

'Bridal Etiquette', 1931, by Traub Manufacturing Company. © Winterthur Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click on the image.

Overall, I think I’m more traditional than I first thought, and I might even incorporate some perhaps forgotten traditions after reading this leaflet. One of the most interesting things that can be noted about this etiquette leaflet, though, is the language used – ‘always’, ‘often’, ‘usually’, ‘customarily’, ‘correctness’ – all signifying that although there were choices around how you got married, there were also strong traditions and customs to adhere to. If you read the whole booklet, which is open access for the next month, it becomes clear that the main traditions are focused around the parents, in particular, the bride’s parents and their role in organising and funding the wedding. This document is one of many interesting insights into gender roles, everyday life, and advertising between 1850-1950 to be found in Trade Catalogues and the American Home.

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About the Author

Nikki Morgan

Nikki Morgan

Since joining Adam Matthew in February 2016 I have enjoyed working on a range of projects including Gender: Identity and Social Change, Service Newspapers of World War Two and East India Company. My academic background is in literature and philosophy and my main interest is 20th century American literature and culture, particularly Sylvia Plath.

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