Ornamental Separator

A Wedding Season

With feasts and festivities planned from Advent to Epiphany, what a perfect opportunity for another celebration

Perhaps no season offered a better occasion for a wedding in colonial Virginia than winter.

Though Christmas Day was spent in worship at church or in reflection at home, more raucous celebrations occurred throughout the four weeks of Advent all the way to the Epiphany on Jan. 6. The end of harvest season in Virginia lightened the farming obligations, creating more time for folks to gather, feast and dance with family and friends.

“Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, and the good fellowship, which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas,” Philip Vickers Fithian, a Virginia tutor, wrote in his diary in December 1773.

Weddings became a natural extension of this festive season. Even some famous couplings occurred during winter: Col. George Washington and Martha Dandridge Custis married on the Epiphany in 1759, and Thomas Jefferson and Martha Wayles Skelton held their nuptials on New Year’s Day in 1772, reportedly departing the ceremony in a snowstorm en route to Monticello.

Regardless of the time of year, weddings among the Virginia gentry had many of the same elements as an elegant party with lavish spreads of food, drinking and dancing. Those of middling status likely celebrated similarly but with a scaled-down version to fit their time and budget. Little is known of the wedding customs for the free and enslaved blacks beyond the tradition of “jumping the broom” as part of the ceremony, which likely included Christian elements. Their marriages, however, were not legally recognized.


The Ceremony

The parlor room of the bride’s home, rather than a church, was often the place where couples exchanged vows. The Jeffersons, for example, married at the Forest, the Wayles estate just outside of Williamsburg. It is believed the Washingtons married at the White House, the New Kent plantation Martha inherited after her first husband’s death.

Though colonial Virginians quite regularly flouted the Church of England’s decree that weddings be held in a church, the couple and their families worked closely with an Anglican minister leading up to the ceremony and were, of course, ultimately married by him.

The banns, or declaration of the intention to marry, were announced in both the bride’s church and the groom’s church for three weeks unless the couple obtained a marriage license from the county clerk instead. Either way, the minister presided over the ceremony as outlined in the Book of Common Prayer.


The feast

After the ceremony, the wedding guests enjoyed a lavish supper. The amount of food depended on the family’s means. Gentry hosts often placed a wedding cake at the center of the table, surrounded by pastries, meats, fruits and other delicacies.

William Wirt, an author, educator and eventual attorney general of the United States under James Monroe, described the sumptuous supper served at an 1806 Williamsburg wedding: The center cake display stood 4 feet high, he said, “more simply elegant than any thing of the kind I remember to have seen”; two “lofty pyramids of jellies, syllabubs, ice-creams, etc.” were arranged at either end of the table; a large cake sat between each pyramid and the center cake; and “a profusion of meats, cheese-cakes, fruits, etc., etc.” filled the table setting.


The Dress

Ladies and gentlemen alike dressed in their best to attend a wedding. Fashion also played a part in the wedding favors offered to guests. Popular favors included fans and gloves.

No social expectation for a bride to dress in white existed at the time, the tradition not coming into vogue until after Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840. Martha Washington wore yellow brocade and lace with purple sequined shoes, according to her granddaughters who preserved the shoes and remnants of the dress.

“Maybe they had new clothes made for the wedding, maybe not,” said Neal Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s associate curator of costumes and textiles. “What we do know is a wedding gown would become part of the wardrobe. It was not seen as a single-use garment like it is today.”


The Festivities

Eighteenth-century wedding celebrations in Virginia often started days before the ceremony and continued for days after, with family and friends dropping in for tea, supper, games and conversation. Robert Hunter, an Englishman visiting Virginia, described reveling for three days in the extravagant food, elegant dress and persistent dancing at the wedding of Maria Beverley and Richard Randolph at Blandfield in early December 1785.

“We were all extremely happy in each other’s company, the ladies being perfectly free and easy and at the same [time] elegant in their manners,” he wrote. “They would grace any country whatever. The manner in which this affair has been managed does honor to Mr. Beverley.”

The Honour of Your Presence

Everard House exhibition illustrates the preparation for a wedding

Janea Whitacre, mistress of the Margaret Hunter Shop, works on a reproduction of an 18th-century wedding gown that is in Colonial Williamsburg’s collections. (Tom Green/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

The Everards are throwing a party. Martha “Patsy” Everard is to wed Dr. Isaac Hall.

The families have agreed on a contract, and the marriage license has been issued. The wedding gown has been stitched and trimmed. The wedding cake baked and on display. The guests will soon arrive.

The Thomas Everard House, at the end of Palace Green near the Governor’s Palace, has been curated to show this upper middle-class home getting ready for the wedding, which likely took place in 1772. An Occasion to Celebrate: A Wedding in Williamsburg opened in November, just in time to show a wedding during the holiday season, a favored time of year to get married in the 18th century.

Guests will encounter objects strategically placed throughout the home: a wedding contract in the study; a feast in the dining room; gowns and suits draped on furniture; trunks of the guests who would have stayed with the Everards, as well as Patsy’s luggage to take to her new home. The open parlor room would have been used first for the nuptials, during which the bridal party and guests would stand, and later for music and dancing.

“You will see a bustling household,” said Amanda Keller, Colonial Williamsburg’s associate curator of historic interiors and household accessories. “This event would have turned the house upside down and inside out.”

Though details of the Everard-Hall wedding are unknown — no extant documents specify when they married, where they married or what the wedding ceremony looked like — curators have drawn from what is known about gentry weddings to re-create what a household would have done to prepare for the dayslong celebration.

Much of the work fell on the enslaved men and women. As they worked to create a special day for the bride and groom, they faced an uncertain future for themselves: Wedding contracts often separated them from their own families and friends in order to staff the new couple’s household.

To make a wedding feel imminent, Keller wanted to display a cake and a wedding gown — both of which had to be reproduced specifically for this installation.

Janea Whitacre, mistress of the Margaret Hunter Shop, and the milliners and mantua-makers reproduced a wedding gown in Colonial Williamsburg’s collections. The gown, which Frances Norton is said to have worn when she wed John Baylor IV, dates to 1778. Though plain, the gown is well-made and elegant with a bustle effect.

“This gown is definitely the height of fashion for 1778,” said Neal Hurst, associate curator of costumes and textiles. “Both of those families came from very, very good means.”

From a pattern that Hurst took from the original garment, Whitacre reproduced the gown in silk taffeta, like the original. It features a pinking technique to the trim that gives a scalloped look to the edges. The shade is a bit more yellow than the cream of the original, though it is difficult to know how time has affected the color.

Hurst chose the dress because it was the first gown to come into the collection, acquired in 1946, known to have been worn at a wedding with ties to a Virginia family. Though the couple wed in London, their extended family lived and conducted business in Williamsburg and Yorktown, where they returned in the early 1780s. It seems the dress made the voyage back to America as well.

The reproduction dress is displayed on a mannequin in Patsy’s bedchamber, which also features a wig woven for this exhibition by master wigmaker Betty Myers.

The process to create a fake cake started with a real one. The Historic Foodways staff baked a pound cake, frosted with royal icing and decorated with candied flowers. The Historic Interiors Collections Care staff photographed, measured and studied the cake before building a look-alike out of nonorganic materials, such as polyethylene foam for the cake layers and paper for the flowers.

It was a process of trial and error.

Jennifer Thornton, the senior historic interiors technician who built the featured dessert, tried several concoctions to give the “frosting” just the right amount of froth before landing on the perfect combination of materials.

The faux cake is displayed in the center of the dining room table with sweetmeats and desserts surrounding it, as well as a dessert dish on each of the four corners.

Special installations such as this wedding involve dozens of people from around The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, such as the Historic Foodways staff.

“Many historic house museums do not have these resources, and I am lucky to be able to work with so many talented and knowledgeable people,” Keller said. “It really is a joy to see the interiors transform to feel so much more lived in.”

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