Inspirational Stories of Love, Faith & Family Set in 19th Century America

Category: British History

And the Bride Wore…Black?

My great-grandmother, Agnes Theresa Burger on her wedding day to John Porta, October, 22, 1907.

My great-grandmother, Agnes Theresa Burger on her wedding day to John Porta, October, 22, 1907.

Since June is a popular month for brides, I got to thinking about popular bridal fashions over the years. I remember the first time I saw this picture of my great-grandmother in this lovely dark gown. I asked mom if she was in mourning. I thought it odd she would have her picture taken if she was. I was shocked when mom replied that it was her wedding photo.

Intrigued, I researched the black wedding dress (and in those days it meant a trip to a library not surfing the web, LOL!)

But it actually makes sense. Throughout history, brides have dressed in a manner befitting their social status.  Weddings were usually more about political alliances and transfers of wealth than they were about romance, and so the wedding dress was just another excuse to show the wealth of the bride’s family. Brides in some parts of Renaissance Italy wore their dowry sewn onto their dress as jewels. Fabrics were also an important means to display wealth, and the more elaborate the weave of the material and the rarer the color, the better the demonstration of wealth.  Before the invention of effective bleaching techniques, white was a valued color: it was both difficult to achieve, and hard to maintain.

Blackweddingdress2You may be surprised to learn that it was common for brides from poorer families to wear everyday colors such as blue, green, brown, burgundy and, yes, even black, rather than white and ivory. Black was especially popular among brides with Scandinavian ancestry.

Prudent brides planned ahead – a wedding gown could be worn for many occasions, not just on their “special day.” The wedding gown was a lady’s “best dress” after the ceremony and it was much more reasonable to have a darker colored dress than a white or ivory dress. Light fabrics, were not practical for women from lower class families who could not afford to purchase garments that could soil too easily. Can you imagine the time and effort involved in keeping the hemline of a white gown clean? Laundering was a big consideration, unless, of course, the lady was from a prominent family who had servants available to handle the laundry.

So when did the white wedding dress come into fashion?

Queen Victoria on her wedding day, February 10, 1840.

Queen Victoria on her wedding day, February 10, 1840.

You can credit Queen Victoria for the trend that has lasted 176 years when she decided against wearing the traditional royal silver bridal gown during her marriage ceremony to her beloved Prince Albert. Instead, Queen Victoria chose a simple dress, made of white satin, trimmed with Honiton lace and a Hontion long veil. She chose a wreath of orange blossoms to represent purity instead of the more traditional royal crown.

Just a few years after her wedding, Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular lady’s monthly stated that white was “the most fitting hue” for a bride, “an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.” In the years that followed, white became the dominant, traditional choice, symbolizing purity and maidenhood.

 

 

Wedding Fashion, Did You Know…?

  • The first documented instance of a princess who wore a white wedding gown for a royal wedding ceremony is that of Philippa of England, who wore a tunic with a cloak in white silk bordered with grey squirrel and ermine in 1406.
  • White wedding garments were not originally intended to symbolize virginity. Blue was the color traditionally connected to purity. It was only at the beginning of the 1920’s, as white wedding fashions became popular among middle and lower classes, that white became equated with the purity of the bride
  • The lifting of the veil is an ancient wedding ritual symbolizing the groom taking possession of the wife or the revelation of the bride by her parents to the groom for his approval. An opulent veil was supposed to enwrap the bride like a precious present.
  • Hand made lace was extremely expensive and few brides could afford a veil. As the 19th century progressed and machine made laces became more readily available, the bridal veil became more prevalent at weddings.

Although brides today can choose from a myriad of colors and styles, the traditional white and ivory dresses are still most popular, as many today view white not so much as a symbol of wealth but rather one of purity and virtue.

Have you been to a wedding where the bride wore a color other than white or ivory?

 

 

Penny Dreadful’s Legacy

“To her and none other. Swear to give the girl to me to do with as I please, and I will agree that for every person now in yonder town, a death notch shall be made.”

“Red Hatchet agrees. When he can count the death notches of all his sworn enemies, and is free to go back to his once pretty village, he will deliver Siska to the Devil Dwarf to do with as he pleases.”

“Then call the girl. We will tap a vein in her arm, and seal this compact with a draught of her blood!” the avenger said.

~~Excerpt from Deadwood Dick’s Doom (or Calamity Jane’s Last Adventure)

Sweeney Todd, 1842

Sweeney Todd, 1842


If you love to read like I do, you may be surprised to learn that stories like Deadwood Dick’s Doom (above) paved the way for your favorite author today. These stories, originally known as Penny Dreadfuls, were the first successful mass market paperbacks. First popularized in Victorian Britain, Penny Dreadfuls, sometimes referred to as Penny Bloods, were lurid serial fiction stories published in weekly eight or sixteen page installments, with each part costing one penny. The term quickly became applied to any publication featuring sensational fiction such as story papers and booklet libraries.

Also known in Britain as Shilling Shockers, these stories could best be described in one word, melodramatic. Filled with what today’s editor’s would gleefully strike through as purple prose, these tintillating stories drew readers by romanticizing danger and hardship with larger-than-life heroes defeating villains and rescuing damsels in distress. Rambling plot lines emphasized heinous acts of poisoning, strangling, burglary and narrow escapes from sexual assault that by today’s standards would be considered racist and misogynistic.

Their authors, who might keep ten of these stories spinning simultaneously, were paid at the rate of a penny a line, which had a direct effect on the text. Skilled practitioners quickly learned that short staccato-like sentences not only were the most profitable but increased the dramatic effect as well.

Penny Dreadfuls were printed on cheap pulp paper and were aimed primarily at the working class who saw a sharp rise in literacy rates with new laws requiring mandatory education for all of Britain’s children through age nine. In addition, the proliferation of the railroad made the distribution of Penny Dreadfuls affordable to the masses at a time when traditional full-length novels by authors like Charles Dickens sold for a dollar each.

MalaeskaThe fad took hold on this side of the Atlantic as well when brothers Erastus and Irwin Beadle published Ann Stephens’ “Maleska the Indian Wife of the White Hunter” in 1860. Promoting the work as “a dollar book for a dime,” it was an instant success selling an estimated 300,000 copies in its first year. A feat any author today would would eagerly aspire to repeat.

Beadle’s early publications were printed in orange wrapper papers with no illustrations on the cover. Eventually cover art appeared enticing the curiosity of consumers with illustrations depicting scenes of mayhem and bloodshed.

Drawing on the Beadle’s success, other publishers quickly followed suit and it seemed the American reading public couldn’t get enough of their serialized fiction. Subjects in the early days were pioneer and revolutionary war stories but other adventure genres, such as pirate tales and trapper adventures, also appeared frequently. After the civil war, the focus of the novels turned to the wild west and the detective genres and remained popular through the 1950’s. In the twentieth century the genre became known as pulp fiction after the cheap paper they were printed on.

Early cover art for Beadle's Dime Novels

Early cover art for Beadle’s Dime Novels

Early full cover art for dime novels

Early full cover art for dime novels

1933 cover, still selling for ten cents

1933 cover, still selling for ten cents

Dime Westerns, as they became known in America, were often based on real people like Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, and Calamity Jane. Although purely fiction, these stories helped create a new national identity of patriotism and adventure. In addition, they helped level the playing field between the social classes as people began to judge the ideal man by his actions rather than his wallet.

Just like violent video games and movies today, dime novels were blamed for an upsurge in violence in American society. PennyDreadfulcrime-briefs1The New York Tribune published this article in June, 1884, blaming societal ills on the popularity of “cheap” literature, particularly dime novels. People complained that the deviant characters in novels influenced real people, particularly young men, to behave aggressively. “The work of the dime novel is being performed with even more than usual success. The other day three boys robbed their parents and started off for the boundless West. More recently a lad in a Philadelphia public school drew a revolver on his teacher, and examination showed that seven other boys present were armed with revolvers and bowie-knives […] The class of literature which is mainly responsible for all this folly is distributed all over the country in immense quantities, and it is distinctly evil in its teachings and tendencies.”

While penny dreadfuls and dime novels focused on fantastic, escapist fiction for the general masses, there is no denying they encouraged the working class to read and influenced generations of authors and publishers. British bookseller, C.A. Stonehill, noted in 1935 that “It is highly probably that in its day more people read Thomas Prest’s “First False Step” or “The Maniac Father” than had ever heard of a book published in the same decade, entitled Jane Eyre.”

Although I may prefer to read of Jane’s trouble with the enigmatic Mr. Rochester over “Keetsea, Queen of the Plains,” or “Crack Skull Bob,” I think it would be fun to write a character who is secretly hooked on the scintillating stories with the melodrama pouring over into her own life as she suspects something heinous has occurred to a missing neighbor. In her novella, “The Husband Maneuver,” With This Ring?: A Novella Collection of Proposals Gone Awry, Karen Witemeyer (one of my favorites) created a hero whose adventures as a bounty hunter were immortalized as Dead-Eye Dan in a series of dime westerns. Talk about a fun read!

How would you incorporate a Penny Dreadful into a novel’s plot line?

Peculiar Courting Customs

Long before the automobile, telephone and the Friday night football game defined modern dating, there was courtship. A serious, exclusive commitment usually sanctioned by both sets of parents, that often implied the couple was intending to marry. But in times when the opposite sex didn’t mingle in public unless chaperoned, how did perspective beaus let a lady know she had captured his affections? Here’s some fun and quite unusual customs from the past that helped pave the wave to romance for our ancestors.

Antique Welsh Love Spoons

Antique Welsh Love Spoons

Carved from the Heart

In Wales, when a young man wanted to court, he carved his special lady a love spoon. Intricate in detail, these love offerings took hours to craft thereby demonstrating his devotion to his intended. If the young woman accepted the spoon, they were considered courting. Although this ritual has faded in modern Wales, love spoons are still given as gifts for weddings, anniversaries and Valentine’s day.

FAN-tastic Flirting

With all their rules about the opposite sex mingling, those stodgy upper-class Victorians made the art of wooing a woman tricky indeed. Since a gentleman was not allowed to speak to a woman to whom he hadn’t been properly introduced, he needed some clue a lady was open to his attention. Thus the language of the fan was born.  When a lady caught a man staring from across the room, her swift moving fan indicated she was unattached while a slow flapping one signaled she was engaged. If she laid the fan against her right cheek, she was available and open to an introduction. However, if the lady rested the fan against her left cheek, the unlucky fellow learned of her disinterest and spared himself an awkward introduction.

Speak Up, I Can’t Hear You

Couple using a courting stick

Couple using a courting stick

In 17th century America, a young man had little opportunity to woo his love in private. How was he to convince the lady he fancied of his unending devotion when in cramped quarters with her father hovering closeby? The answer, the courting trumpet (also know as a whispering stick or courting tube). By placing one end of a hollow wooden tube in her ear while her beau whispered sweet nothings from the other side, the couple ensured their privacy no matter how many listening ears were nearby.

Seal the Deal with Fruit

If you thought a carved wooden spoon was practical, how about a slice of apple? In rural Austria, available young ladies would shove an apple wedge in their armpit during dances. At the conclusion of festivities, she offered it to the lucky young man she most admired. Now if you’re like me you’re already wrinkling your nose. But wait it gets even better. If he returns her affections, he eats the fruit!

If my hubby were required to eat this putrid offering, I can nearly guarantee I’d still be single! While this old-fashioned gal loves to keep old traditions alive, eating the apple wedge is one courting ritual that should stay buried in the past!

Another old-fashioned way lovers kept the romance alive in the not-so-distant past was letter writing. While living on opposite sides of the country, in the dark ages before email and texting, my hubby wooed me the old-fashioned way– hand-written letters. We kept the post office in business, often exchanging 3-5 letters every week. I still have them in a box in my mother’s hope chest at the foot of my bed.

How did your sweetie woo you?

Victorian Valentines

Although the celebration of Valentine’s Day can be traced back to ancient Rome, the trappings of the modern celebration–flowers, chocolates and gifts do not have such ancient lineage. As you troll the card section of your favorite super store agonizing over the perfect selection, you can thank those wonderful Victorians for popularizing the Valentine’s Day card.

Ornate Victorian Valentine circa 1850s

Ornate Victorian Valentine circa 1850s

Original Victorian Valentines were all about the bling, baby!

Victorians designed unique valentines on flat sheets of paper using such diverse embellishments as silk flowers, lace, seashells, ribbons, seeds, bows, and gold and silver foil appliqués. The sheets, when folded and sealed with wax, could be mailed. Some cards, like the one below, were so elaborate they had mechanical levers that made figures dance or bird wings flutter while others had dimensional pop-up features or unfolded like fans to impress their recipient.

However, the cost of postage made sending their undying affections very costly for the average British citizen, as much as a day’s wage for the working class. It wasn’t until the advent of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840 that Valentines flourished and a widespread tradition was born.

front of the card folds down to reveal details of the flowers and birds. Circa 1850s. Photograph by Michael Marx

Elaborate Mechanical Valentine circa 1850s Photograph by Michael Marx

Victorians overwhelmingly favored sending Valentine’s cards over Christmas cards. In fact, so many Valentine’s greetings were posted that letter carriers were given extra pay for the large sacks they hauled and delivered in the days preceding the holiday. The growing trend of sending Valentine’s is referenced in a popular poem of the time, by James Beaton.

The letters in St. Valentine so vastly will amount,
Postmen may judge them by the lot, they won’t have time to count;
They must bring round spades and measures, to poor love-sick souls
Deliver them by bushels, the same as they do coals.

Valentine cards were so fashionable that their production became a thriving business among London’s cheapjack printers. Clichéd verses like “Be Mine” and “Constant and True” were commonly printed inside. Despite their mass-production, commercially produced Valentines still typically featured dried flowers, bird feathers, ribbons and lace.

 

VinegarPoetOldMaid.jpg.CROP.article920-large

Vinegar Valentines

But the Victorians didn’t limit their Valentine’s Day felicitations to the objects of their affections. Through the mid-twentieth century, Vinegar Valentine’s were sent anonymously and ridiculed the recipient’s appearance, fashion sense, income or social status. Gender blind, the ill-wishes were as likely to mock a woman’s spinsterhood as a man’s occupation. Unlike their extravagant counterparts, these nasty tidings didn’t feature lavish ornamentation or elaborate trimmings, but rather were printed on very inexpensive paper and featured simple artwork and mean-spirited rhyming verses.

For the modern celebrant, exchanging Valentines is just one way to show your love and devotion to a spouse, sweetheart or infatuation.

What is your favorite Valentine’s tradition?

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