Thursday, April 3, 2014

Colonial Wedding Practices

By Whitney Hassell
Gunston Hall Docent

Wedding season is coming. In fact, April 4, 2014, is Colonel Mason and Ann Eilbeck Mason’s 264th wedding anniversary! In the spirit of love and the colonial way, read on to learn more about colonial weddings and traditions.

The Season
Most 21st century brides plan their weddings for May through October, because those months are generally the most pleasant weather-wise. But the Colonists needed that time to plant, grow, and harvest their crops, as well as conduct business. November through April were better months for things like travel and significant celebrations… like weddings. Many weddings took place close to Christmas time, and particularly during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25-January 6). Instead of a matter of aesthetics, it was a matter of convenience.

A Reproduction of Sarah Fairfax Carlyle’s 
1747 Wedding Dress at Carlyle House Historic Park.

Colonists rarely wore beautiful white dresses to boast of their purity and chastity, as that tradition came later. So what did brides wear? Why, their Sunday best, of course! The typical colonial bride wore her best dress. If she had one made, it would likely be nicer than her others, but she would definitely be wearing it again, probably to church or a grand ball.

If you happened to be Sarah Fairfax marrying John Carlyle in 1747, you would have been wearing the dress pictured below:

Well, of course they wore gold wedding bands, just like
us, right? One for him, one for her, and a diamond engagement ring thrown in for good measure. Nope! Would you believe a thimble was the more likely option?

Thimble that could have been cut.
Yes, the colonists, particularly those of puritan leanings, shunned jewelry in general, thinking it vain and unnecessary. Thimbles, however, were very practical things, and were therefore acceptable. A woman would receive a thimble in exchange for her hand in marriage, and she would cut off the wide end to wear around her ring finger. Gentry could afford a thin metal band, of course, but usually only for the wife. Interestingly, men did not usually wear wedding bands until World War II, to remind them of their sweethearts back home.

Young Love
Everyone knows the colonists married very young. Most couples married at 14 for ladies, and 16 or so for men, right? Not at all! Here is something we 21st century folks have in common with our colonial ancestors: they married in their early-to-mid-twenties. Gentlemen were allowed to court ladies of 14 or 15, but they were certainly under no obligation to take the first offer they were given. Though our Colonel George Mason and the lovely Ann Eilbeck were 25 and 16, respectively, colonial ladies generally wed around age 22, gentlemen age 26.

The Cake
Made for Gunston Hall from and 18th century
receipt for Queen’s Cake.
Now onto the most important (or at least most delicious) portion of our colonial wedding: the cake. Yes, even when sugar and various other ingredients were quite the expensive commodities, Americans found a way to have not one, but two cakes. Believe it or not, groom’s cakes were included as part of the festivities even in the 17th and 18th centuries. The wedding cake was typically a dense spice cake, and the groom’s cake was usually a dark fruitcake.

Even earlier than the cakes, however, was the tradition of a bride’s pie. This was a mince pie, made of sweet bread, and a piece of nutmeg may be hidden inside. The young lady who found the nutmeg would be the next woman to marry. Similarly, unwed female attendees would break the cake or pie into small pieces that would fit through the bride’s wedding band (or thimble). Instead of eating this bite of cake, the young girls would take it home and place it under their pillow, which was rumored to make them dream of the man they would marry.

The Bouquet
Flowers? Nay! It’s herbs that colonial brides would hold on their wedding day. It was thought that strong-smelling herbs would ward off evil spirits that may sabotage the wedding or steal away the bride. In weddings even earlier than the 18th century, herbs like garlic and dill were thought to keep that pesky Plague at bay. Perhaps many of the herbs in our reproduction herb garden could have been used in Ann Eilbeck’s bouquet, or even one of the Mason daughters’ wedding bouquet.

These are just some of the traditions and contrasting versions of today’s wedding components. Let’s take a moment to remember George Mason and Ann Eilbeck Mason’s wedding day so many years ago. Next time you’re in the house, take a look at the wedding portraits in the Palladian room, and imagine their friends and families wishing them well. The next time you attend a 21st century wedding, appreciate the details and traditions that have been practiced in many forms through so many years. And take notes, one never knows what curiosities people will have 264 years in the future. Perhaps someone will be researching our wedding practices or re-enacting our weddings.


Basic, Amela and Dierdre Clancy Steer. Costume and Fashion: Colonial America. Woodlands Hove, England: Bailey Publishing Associates, Ltd.

The American Wedding, “The Wedding Ring: A Brief History.”, 20 April 2009

Charlton, Reno. (31 March 2005, orginial) "The History of Engagement Rings and Wedding Bands". Your Marriage Celebrant (from Retrieved 2 June 2013.

BHLDN, “A Brief History of the Wedding Band,” (date unknown).

Hammond Harwood House “18th Century Marriage.” (24 August 2012).

Food Timeline: history notes, About Colonial Wedding Cake, (27 December 2013).

Delicious History Blog, The Wedding Cake: A History, (6 August 2012).

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