Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Courtship and Marriage in the Colonies

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Courtship and Marriage in the Colonies

By Edward Eggleston (1837–1902)

[Social Life in the Colonies.—The Century Magazine. 1885.]

THE TRAVELLER Josselyn gives us a glimpse of seventeenth-century “gallants,” promenading with their sweethearts, on Boston Common, from a little before sunset till the nine o’clock bell gave warning of the lawfully established bed-time. This picture of twilight and love lends a touch of human feeling to the severely regulated life of the Puritan country. But even love-making in that time was made to keep to the path appointed by those in authority. Fines, imprisonments, and corporal punishment were the penalties denounced in New England against him who should inveigle the affections of any “maide, or maide servant,” unless her parents or guardians should “give way and allowance in that respect.” Nor were such laws dead letters. In all the colonies sentiment was less regarded than it is now. The worldly estate of the parties was weighed in even balances, and there were sometimes conditional marriage treaties between the parents, before the young people were consulted. Judge Sewall’s daughter Betty hid herself in her father’s coach for hours one night, to avoid meeting an unwelcome suitor approved by her father. Sometimes marriage agreements between the parents of the betrothed extended even to arrangements for bequests to be left to the young people, as “incorridgement for a livelihood.” The newspapers of the later period, following English examples, not only praised the bride, but did not hesitate to mention her “large fortune,” that people might know the elements of the bridegroom’s happiness.

But if passion was under more constraint from self-interest among people of the upper class, it was less restrained by refinement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than it is in our time….

The mode of courtship known as bundling or tarrying—the very name of which one hesitates to write to-day—was prevalent in certain regions of New England, especially in the Connecticut Valley. The practice existed in many parts of Europe, and is said still to linger in Wales. It was no doubt brought from England by early immigrants. That it could flourish throughout the whole colonial age, alongside a system of doctrine and practice so austere as that enforced by New England divines and magistrates, is but one of many instances of the failure of law and restraining precept to work a refinement of manners. That during much more than a century after the settlement this practice found none to challenge it on grounds of modesty and moral tendency, goes to show how powerful is the sanction of traditional custom. Even when it was attacked by Jonathan Edwards and other innovators, the attempt to abolish it was met by violent opposition and no end of ridicule. Edwards seems to think that as “among people who pretend to uphold their credit,” it was peculiar to New England; and there appears to be no evidence that it was practised elsewhere in America, except in parts of Pennsylvania, where the custom is a matter of court record so late as 1845, and where it probably still lingers in out-of-the-way places among people both of English and of German extraction.

A certain grossness in the relations of the sexes was a trait of eighteenth-century life, not confined to rustics and people in humble stations. In the “Journal of a Young Lady of Virginia,” the writer complains more than once of the freedoms of certain married gentlemen of her acquaintance, “who seized me and kissed me a dozen times in spite of all the resistance I could make.” Miss Sarah Eve, of Philadelphia, has likewise recorded in a private journal her objections to the affectionate salutations bestowed on her in company by a Dr. S. “One hates to be always kissed,” she says, “especially as it is attended with so many inconveniences: it decomposes the œconomy of one’s handkerchief, it disorders one’s high Roll, and it ruffles the serenity of one’s countenance.” Perhaps it was the partial default of refined feeling that made stately and ceremonious manners seem so proper to the upper class of that day; such usages were a fence by which society protected itself from itself. But eighteenth-century proprieties were rather thin and external; they had an educational value, no doubt, but conventional hypocrisies scantly served to hide the rudeness of the Englishmen of the time.

Marriage ceremonies and festivities in America differed but little from those which prevailed in the mother country. The widest divergence was in New England, where the Puritans, abhorring the Catholic classification which put marriage among the sacraments, were repelled to the other extreme, and forbade ministers to lend any ecclesiastical sanction to a wedding. But the earliest New Englanders celebrated a public betrothal, or, as they styled it, “a contraction,” and on this occasion a minister sometimes preached a sermon. A merely civil marriage could hardly continue long in a community where the benedictions of religion were sought on so many other occasions; where the birth of a child, the illness and the recovery of the sick, birthday anniversaries, the entrance into a new house, and even the planning of a bridge, gave occasion for prayer and psalm-singing. Indeed, a marriage performed as at first by a magistrate was accompanied by psalms sung by the guests and by prayers; and as the seventeenth century drew to its close, the Puritan minister resumed the function of solemnizing marriages.

The Quakers, of course, were married without intervention of parson or magistrate, by “passing the meeting.” Even in the colonies in which the Church of England was established, marriages usually took place in private houses—a divergence from English usage growing out of the circumstances of people in a new country. But it was everywhere enacted that the banns should be published. This was in some places done at church service, as in England, or by putting a notice on the court-house door. In New England the publication was sometimes made at the week-day lecture, at town-meeting, or by affixing a notice to the door or in the vestibule of the meeting-house, or to a post set up for this express purpose. Publication seems to have been sometimes evaded by ingenuity. The Friends in Pennsylvania took care to enjoin that the notice should be posted at a meeting-house, “with the fair publication side outward.” The better sort of people in some of the colonies were accustomed to buy exemption from publishing the banns, by paying a fee to the governor for a license, and the governor’s revenue from this source was very considerable. Ministers in remote places sometimes purchased a supply of licenses signed in blank and issued them at a profit.

English colonists in the hardest pioneer surroundings took a patriotic pride in celebrating what was called “a merry English wedding.” The festivities in different places varied only in detail; in all the colonies a genteel wedding was a distressingly expensive and protracted affair. There was no end of eating, and drinking, and dancing, of dinners, teas, and suppers. The guests were often supplied with one meal before the marriage, and then feasted without stint afterward. These festivities, on one ground or another, were in some places kept up two or three days, and sometimes even much longer. The minister finished the service by kissing the bride; then all the gentlemen present followed his example; and in some regions the bridegroom meanwhile went about the room kissing each of the ladies in turn. There were brides who received the salutations of a hundred and fifty gentlemen in a day. As if this were not enough, the gentlemen called on the bride afterward, and this call was colloquially known as “going to kiss the bride.” In some parts of the Puritan country kissing at weddings was discountenanced, but there were other regions of New England in which it was practised with the greatest latitude and fervor. In Philadelphia the Quaker bride, having to “pass the meeting” twice, had to submit to a double ordeal of the sort, and the wedding expenses, despite the strenuous injunctions of yearly meetings, were greatly increased by the twofold festivity.

I have seen no direct evidence that the colonial gentry followed the yet ruder English wedding customs of the time. But provincials loyally follow the customs of a metropolis, and I doubt not a colonial wedding in good society was attended by observances as indecorous as those of a nobleman of the same period. Certainly stocking-throwing and other such customs long lingered among the backwoodsmen of the colonies, as did many other ancient wedding usages. Among the German immigrants, the bride did not throw her shoe for the guests to scramble for as she entered her chamber, after the manner of the noble ladies of Germany in other times; but at a “Pennsylvania Dutch” wedding the guests strove by dexterity or craft to steal a shoe from the bride’s foot during the day. If the groomsmen failed to prevent this, they were obliged to redeem the shoe from the bosom of the lucky thief with a bottle of wine. The ancient wedding sport known in parts of the British Islands as “riding for the kail,” or “for the broose”—that is, a pot of spiced broth—and elsewhere called “riding for the ribbon,” took the form among the Scotch-Irish in America of a dare-devil race over perilous roads to secure a bottle of whiskey with a ribbon about its neck, which awaited the swiftest and most reckless horseman on his arrival at the house of the bride’s father. There were yet other practices—far-reaching shadows of the usages of more barbarous ages, when brides were carried off by force. A wedding party in the backwoods as it approached the bride’s house would sometimes find its progress arrested by wild grape-vines tied across the way, or great trees felled in the road in sport or malice by the neighbors. Sometimes, indeed, they would be startled by a sudden volley with blank cartridges fired by men in ambuscade. This old Irish practice, and other such horse-play, was most congenial to woodsmen and Indian-fighters, in whom physical life overflowed all bounds.

A custom, no doubt of very ancient origin, prevailed in some Massachusetts villages, by which a group of the non-invited would now and then seize the bride and gently lead her off to an inn or other suitable place of detention until the bridegroom consented to redeem her by providing entertainment for the captors. But in the staidest parts of New England, puritanism succeeded in suppressing or modifying some of the more brutal wedding customs of the time. Sack-posset was eaten, perhaps even in the bridal chamber, but it was taken solemnly with the singing of a psalm before and a grace afterward. The health and toasts to posterity, which had been, according to immemorial usage, drunk in the wedding chamber after the bedding of the bride and groom, were omitted, and in their place prayers were offered that the children of the newly married might prove worthy of a godly ancestry. Old English blood and rude traditions would now and then break forth; it was necessary in 1651 to forbid all dancing in taverns on the occasion of weddings, such dancing having produced many “abuses and disorders.”

Where church-going was practised, as in New England, the “coming out groom and bride” on the Sunday after the wedding was a notable part of the solemnities. In Sewall’s diary one may see the bride’s family escorting the newly married pair to church, marching in double file, six couples in all, conscious that they were the spectacle of the little street, and the observed of all in the church.

The eccentric custom, known in England, of a widow’s wearing no garment at her second marriage but a shift, from a belief that by her surrendering before marriage all her property but this, her new husband would escape liability for any debts contracted by her or her former husband, was followed in a few instances in the middle colonies. One Pennsylvania bridegroom saved appearances by meeting the slightly clad bride half-way from her own house to his, and announcing in the presence of witnesses that the wedding clothes which he proceeded to put on her with his own hands were only lent to the widow for the occasion.