Admittedly, the Nerds might have had one beer too many during a recent visit to Brewery Silvaticus as we started talking about unusual wedding customs in 18th and early 19th Century New England. Here’s what we found.
In Newburyport and other Massachusetts seaport communities, there was the tame tradition of the bridal party walking in procession through the town following the marriage ceremony. (The bride was commonly referred to as the "walking-out bride".) In other New England communities, an elaborately dressed bride and groom would occupy a prominent seat in the gallery of the meetinghouse on the Sabbath after their wedding. At some point, they would be called upon by the minister to stand up and model every side of their wedding finery. Often the bride would be allowed to select the text of the sermon preached. In 1764, Abigail Smith Adams, with the help of her father, selected the biblical text, "John came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and ye say he hath a devil."
Of course, not all wedding traditions were so mild. In Londonderry, New Hampshire, residents took the celebration of marriage one step further and introduced the British sport of "riding for the kail” or "riding for the ribbon". Period accounts suggest the wedding festivities began when the groom's friends would gather at his home, arm themselves with muskets and march towards the bride’s residence. Along the way, the party would discharge their guns at every house they passed. Eventually, they would meet up with a party of the bride’s male friends. Each group would then choose a champion to "run for the bottle" at the bride's home.
The event typically involved a horse race at breakneck speed through half-cleared roads to the home of the bride. The first to arrive would secure a beribboned bottle of whisky and race back to his companions with the prize.
Following the race, both groups, as well as the bridal party, would then proceed to the wedding venue. As they passed through certain neighborhoods, hidden groups of men would discharge blank cartridges at the party. In other neighborhoods, trees were felled or grapevines stretched across the roadway to delay the bridal festivities.
Upon reaching the wedding venue, the bridegroom and his party of friends entered a room and remained there until the best man escorted the bride to the gathering. The best man and a male bridesmaid would then station themselves behind the bridal couple. Afterwards, the ceremony would start.
And yes - at the end of the ceremony, the beribboned bottle of whiskey was usually consumed.
In other New England towns, a common custom was to kidnap the bride in the midst of the wedding ceremony. Typically, a group of young men who had not been invited to the ceremony would crash the party and drag away the bride. In turn, the groom and his companions would pursue the kidnappers and rescue the bride by providing dinner to the culprits. In the town of Charlestown, Rhode Island, one account describes how a group of young men went to the home of a bride in the middle of the night, pulled her out of bed, and carried her downstairs. When the raiders found the front door locked, they beat it down with an axe and disappeared into the night with her.
A similar custom existed in Connecticut but involved the groom trying to escape from the wedding. According to a 1704 account by Sarah Kemble Knights, “They generally marry very young; the males oftener, as I am told, under twenty than above, they generally make public Weddings, and have a way something Singular (as they say) in some of them, viz., just before joining hands the Bridegroom quits the place, who is soon followed by the Bridesmen, and, as it were, dragged back to duty - being the reverse to the former practice among us to steal Mistress Bride.”
Yet another unique New England wedding custom was the “smock marriage”. Colonial legal scholars often argued that if a widow only wore a shift at her wedding, then her new husband would escape liability for any debts owed by her or by her deceased husband.
In 1724, the Town of Westerly, Rhode Island recorded several smock weddings. In 1789, Moses Joy married the widow Hannah Ward in Newfane, Vermont. According to one witness, the bride stood inside a closet naked and extended her hand to her husband through a hole in the door. An early 19th-century account from Westminster, Vermont, noted that the “widow Lovejoy married Asa Averill” while nude and standing in a chimney recess behind a curtain. In York, Maine the widow Mary Bradley met the bridegroom on the highway, “halfway from her home in February while only clad only in a shift”. When the minister arrived, he quickly threw his coat over the shivering bride and performed the ceremony.
We’ll keep our eyes open for any other period accounts of unusual wedding practices. If we come across any additional information, we’ll be sure to post it here.
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