Monday, October 31, 2011

The Activities and Expectations of a Bride in 1914

What might have been the activities and expectations of a young woman in the summer of 1914 as she was planning and preparing for her September wedding and future married life to a young barber? My grandmother, Emma Bickerstaff, was a young woman in this circumstance. Was her heart aflutter? Did she agonize over her wedding dress or suit? Did her fingers fly as she pinned and stitched? Did her ankle become sore as she treadled her mother's sewing machine? Did she struggle to balance shopping, sewing, responsibilities at home, and time with her soon-to-be-husband?

In her 1914 book, Why Women Are So, Mary Roberts Coolidge gives some insights into the activities and emotions of a bride, as well as the preparations that would have taken place, during the days and months leading up to a wedding in 1914.
For months before the wedding-day [the bride] cut and fitted and sewed; crocheted and tatted and embroidered; in order that she might be able to exhibit to her female friends and, incidentally, to the bewildered lover, so many dozens of elaborate, hand-made chemises, nightgowns, petticoats; tablecloths, napkins, and towels. (p. 25)

...For the domestic woman the wedding-day was not only the first, but the sole time that she would ever be a person of public interest.... For a day of such importance nothing was quite good enough. The trousseau was... essential to the prospective bride...., it was like the equipment of a traveler who sets out for an unknown Oriental country--for who knew what might be needed and yet unattainable in the great adventure upon which she was about to embark! ...The trousseau, at the end of the first year, might be quite useless in view of prospective motherhood; and might be laid away in lavender, never to be resurrected, perhaps, except for some old-folks masquerade devised by her grown-up daughter. (p.26)

As the great day drew near the bride and her family were usually engaged in a whirl of feverish preparations; the house must be prepared for a wedding breakfast, supper, or reception, the church decorated for the ceremony.... Even for a "simple" wedding the fatigue and the expense were invariably greater than had been anticipated, and the higher emotions of all concerned were drowned in the effort to make as much 'splurge' as possible, and in anxiety about petty, material details. Thus the parents and the household went to bed on the bridal eve utterly exhausted, and with last admonitions to the young girl to sleep that her beauty might not be dimmed on the morrow. (p. 28)
Emma was the oldest daughter and second child in her family. Her father was a carpenter and contractor; her mother, a homemaker. Emma was the second of nine children in the family and the second to be married: her older brother, John, had married five years earlier.

As a bride on Tuesday, September 8, 1914, Emma's experience may, or may not, have mirrored the descriptions above; but I assume there would have been much activity to buy or make linens to start a new home and at least one piece of new clothing for the wedding day. There are no photographs of Emma in a wedding gown nor of her husband, William Carl Robert Meinzen, in a tuxedo. There are no written or oral memories handed down to record the day, nor even a newspaper clipping announcing their marriage. Nothing of her trousseau has survived.

All that remains is a civil marriage record and a few photographs that were probably taken around the time they were married. Carolyn Trowbridge Radnor-Lewis, in an article in the May, 1912, issue of Good Housekeeping, p. 658, "Her Wardrobe: The Trousseau," stated that "[some] brides prefer to be married in a good-looking traveling costume, with a stylish hat." I believe that may have been my grandmother's choice.

We don't know whether the transition to marriage was an easy adjustment or not. We do know that the couple's first child was born within a year of their marriage. Was it a happy marriage? Did all of Emma's hopes and dreams as a young bride come to pass? Unanswered questions, all. What we know is that Emma and her husband had 4 daughters, lived self-reliant lives, and that their marriage survived nearly 59 years, until Emma's death in 1973.

When I was a child my grandmother had an old trunk deep in her bedroom closet. In the trunk were some dark-colored clothes that seemed to me very old. Once or twice I saw her lift the lid and remove them. One of those times was when a cousin and I were looking for clothes for Halloween costumes. Perhaps what Coolridge said was true for my grandmother, that by the end of the first year of marriage, "the trousseau . . . might be laid away in lavender, never to be resurrected, perhaps, except for some old-folks masquerade devised by her grown-up daughter [or not-yet-grown-up granddaughters]."

This post is a contribution to the 111th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Autumn Weddings! which is hosted by Jasia at Creative Gene. Thank you, Jasia.


  1. I really enjoyed this post. I found the research and background information really interesting--and enjoyed the way you told the story about your grandmother's trunk to tie it all together.

  2. Really nice post, Nancy. Isn't interesting that as much as things change, they stay the same.

  3. Loved this post.

    It really is interesting that however separated we are from our grandmothers by space and time, there are some parts of their lives that are just like ours.

  4. Thank you, Sheryl, for your comments. It was strange that the memory of my grandmother's trunk didn't come to me until I was actually typing this post.

    Heather and Kerry --
    My daughter's wedding was less than a month ago. So much of what Coolidge wrote was almost identical to the events leading up to my daughter's wedding. I hope she reads the post because I know she'll identify with it.

    Thanks for visiting and for your comments. I appreciate them.

  5. A very enjoyable post. So sad that there are no records , but on the other hand, here she is being remembered by you, and her story shared in a way she could never have dreamed of.

  6. Nicely done! You very creatively set the scene of a bride's pre-wedding activities and allowed us to imagine your grandmother in that situation. Bravo!

  7. The historical background you present really puts the brides' wedding preparations of that era into a clear focus. I recall even my mother talking about women building a "trousseau" - and she was the next generation. I only met one gal of my generation do such a thing -- and it seemed very odd to me--so pre-women's lib. A lovely record and thanks also to Jasia!

  8. Love the historical information about the bride's trousseau. Enjoyed your entry to the COG. Thanks for sharing so beautifully!

  9. This is a lovely tribute to your grandparents and a wonderful gift to your daughter as she starts her own married life.

  10. This is very, very similar to planning a wedding now! I like the photo of g-grandma- she doesn't look too happy but I wonder if that's because people didn't really smile for photos back then. I like her traveling suit.
    I also like the last sentance which reads: "Thus the parents and the household went to bed on the bridal eve utterly exhausted..." Yes, utterly exhausted is right.

  11. I don't know how it took me so long to get around to reading the wedding posts! Your grandmother does look rather wistful or sad in the photo. I think that my grandmother married in her traveling suit too.


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