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A Short History of Weddings


My father and I read two great books when we were building this website and our material. One is more of a journalist view of weddings and the other is more of a sociology/history view but both are great reads. Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding (Life Passages, 2) and All Dressed in White: 6 The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding. So I take those books and give them full credit for the very brief history I learned from those two books.


Way back in the day weddings were in the living room of the house with parents. The honeymoon was the time the couple spent going across the countryside visiting the relatives and introducing their spouse to the family. (Imagine that today??)


The upper class could afford more of a 'wedding' as we see them today. As immigrants came to America they started to transform weddings with their big, festive, music-filled, dancing events. The first wedding registry was invented in the 1920's by a department store owner who realized if the bride could tell her guests exactly what she wanted, she could avoid a lot of mismatched items and the hassel of returning unwanted items.


Around this time DeBeers invented the "tradition" of the diamond wedding ring through a massive marketing campaign. Other marketing campaigns were attempted, and failed, including the "tradition of the grooms engagement ring." The white wedding dress was fully embraced during world war two when all materials were needed for the war. The industry convinced the government that it was best for military morale to have "the traditional white wedding" and not reduce the supply of material to make wedding dresses.


So after world war two began "the traditional white wedding dress". Even then weddings were quite unique and simple. Cake and punch, relatives made the food. Photography was still very simple because of exposure times. As photography technology advanced so too did the wedding industry and the creation of a uniform event, from the cake sharing, the first dance, getting into the getaway car.


As American life met more prosperous times and immigration slowed down, the middle class began to adopt things like the first dance and were able to attain a "higher class" wedding in a hotel, restaurant, or other reception hall. This had the interesting impact of reducing the uniqueness of a wedding since you were outsourcing it to only a few people in your town and everyone else used the same service. Now the house-based wedding was opening up to a lot more guests. This is where the expansion from the family affair was opened up to the broader community. Because the middle class did not have the social etiquette knowledge, jewelers, invitation companies and others had to "teach" wedding etiquette to new brides, grooms and their parents. (Did you know guests are supposed to send a hand written note of RSVP? The upper class always knew this and were aghast at the "RSVP card" sent with wedding invitations.)


The 1970's saw a backlash to tradition. Wedding invitations, wedding music, and even location were up for grabs in the hippie generation. Some thing it was Princess Diana's wedding in 1980 that began the new mode of the Cinderella mythology of weddings. More people than ever were able to afford the wedding of their dreams as wedding dresses were made more cheaply abroad and incomes were rising. Even so weddings were planned in 3-6 months maximum.


As weddings became just like every other wedding in the same public settings, as more people were attending more weddings, the trend for UNIQUE wedding trends began and continues with ferocity today. Everyone wants to stand out to the 10-15 other weddings they will be attending in any given year and we have more choices today than ever. It has the often-ironic effect of making wedding less unique when everyone is chasing the same "unique wedding ideas!"


There are other informative books, such as All Dressed in White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding that talk about the history of weddings. They are often quite negative and the authors tend to avoid the wedding industry, elope, and claim their own fairytale ending, sans the $20,000 debt.


It can be helpful to know why we do certain things in wedding land and it can be useful to challenge our preconcieved notions of what a wedding is and isn't. We all have a unique percpective on what weddings are, what we envision, and how much we're willing to spend. The hard part is sorting through the wedding advice and not getting pulled into ideas that do not fit your values or wedding budget.




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Elizabeth Doherty Thomas, is a co-founder of The First Dance, along with Marriage and Family therapist father Bill Doherty. The First Dance is a 2007 Modern Bride Trendsetter award winner for taking on the complex family dynamics of wedding planning. See what engaged couples and wedding professionals are saying about our book Take Back Your wedding. Our entire website is dedicated to offering advice on working through the people stresses of wedding planning as a couple, with your families, and how to strengthen your upcoming marriage through this enormous first task of married life.