Weddings and Spectacle

In the early and mid 19th century, wedding guests used to shower the newlywed couple with rice and shoes as they departed on their honeymoon, or as it was often called at the time, wedding journey. That’s right, shoes.

This practice fell out of popularity in the late 19th century, partially due to restrictions from railways. An article in the September 1897 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal praised a New York City railroad company for banning the throwing of rice and shoes at its terminal. One would assume the reason for the ban was the mess of rice littered all over the platform, but the author focused on the disturbing undercurrent of overwrought emotions and threat of violence as a reason to restrict the practice. The author laments the devolution of what was once a sweet, sentimental and elegant practice:

We have not been able to keep these graceful customs within their bounds. The little papers of rice have become large handfuls… hurled with force into the faces of the bride and groom… The sentiment of the customs has been lost. (“Rice and Shoes at Weddings,” 14)

The author continues on about the dangers of this excessive fervor, recalling one incident in which a bride suffered permanent damage to her eyes as the result of overly rambunctious rice-throwing. This article is just one of many from the time expressing disapproval of the presence of spectacle in weddings, which threatens to lure out malicious, invidious emotions among the guests. The wedding ceremony is supposed to be a celebration of unity and community, but the “Rice and Shoes at Weddings” article suggests that the modern guest has introduced discord and violence, resulting in a rupture with tradition.

Similar arguments were used in the early 19th century against public executions; many feared that overwrought emotions would override the rational thinking individual and transform the gathered spectators into a passionately violent mob. The presence of strangers in the gatherings that formed around railroad platforms, spectators hoping to get a glimpse of the bride in her travelling costume, also added to the anxiety. In William Dean Howells’ first novel Their Wedding Journey, the newlywed couple discusses their embarrassment at being recognized as “bridal,” and they create a sort of game in which they try to act like a long-married couple on an anniversary trip, rather than their wedding journey. Howells deliberately avoids any discussion of the wedding in order to focus on the marriage; the novel ends with the couple’s happiness to return home and settle into the normalcy of marriage, free of the excessive sentiment and spectacle of the wedding.

In the early 19th century, the wedding was a fairly low-key, community-based event, but around the 1870s, more elements of the wedding were on public display; the bride’s trousseau was often available for semi-public viewing, the rising standard of formality required a special white wedding dress, and rings were a newly incorporated tradition. All of these symbolical elements were also objects of public attention and fascination. These elements also introduced the market, and the accompanying skepticism of capitalism as irrational, into the wedding. Pecuniary display is part of the aesthetic of the wedding, and cause for moral discomfort. Other articles attempt to conceal the monetary aspect of weddings by overcompensating with the sentimental components; the anxiety of “Rice and Shoes at Weddings,” then, is that, if sentiment is
lost, the commercial aspect will dominate the wedding and threaten marriage and the family-based society. The conspicuous, glamorous bride threatens to supplant the wife, and the ephemeral, picturesque ideal of the wedding displaces the stability of marriage.

In another article, published in 1895 in The Ladies’ Home Journal, Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst insists that “the meaning and sanctity of marriage is badly enfeebled by being brought into the market and made a matter of trade and dicker” (Parkhurst 15). Thorstein Veblen describes marriage as a financial transaction in The Theory of the Leisure Class. For Veblen, the wife herself is a symbol of conspicuous consumption; women are, traditionally, charged with displaying the economic prosperity of their husbands by refraining from labor. The bride is even more impractical and a sign of conspicuous consumption, in her white dress, her jewels, her flowers.

The public and domestic spheres blur in the commodification and spectacle of weddings, which recall other points of contact more overtly threatening such as women’s entry into the public sphere as voters. Blaming the wedding ceremony for the failures of marriage is a way to avoid the very real Marriage Question of the 1890s, which, as Sarah Grand explains in “The New Aspect of the Woman Question,” was inextricably bound to the Woman Question. Women’s possible rejection of wifehood and motherhood as oppressive and unsatisfying threatens the core of the social structure; resultantly, the wedding ceremony grows increasingly sentimentalized, elaborate, and extravagant to reinforce the centrality of marriage and the family. These changes in the wedding ceremony, however, make marriage’s contamination by the market even more overt, thus provoking further anxiety over the survival of marriage and the effectiveness of weddings as community events.

Similar anxieties over excess in weddings (both material and emotional) persist today, especially the undertones of materialism and spectacle. The wedding industry has exploded and the average cost of a wedding has grown exponentially (and so have divorce rates). TV shows like Bridezillas, Four Weddings, and Who’s Wedding is it Anyway? inundate the wedding with drama, material expectation, performance and competition. I think that the concerns and criticisms surrounding weddings in the late 19th century and those surrounding weddings today reflect a general anxiety about the state of marriage at both points in history. In the late 19th century, it was the Woman Question and fears over an emasculated, effete western culture. Now, the high rate of divorce, the fact that fewer Americans are choosing to marry, and the push for gay marriage rights have raised anxieties over the relevance of marriage as an institution and departure from established traditions. As a result, the wedding ceremony is again saturated with spectacle to allay those fears and instead fixate on creating an image of perfection.

Works Cited:

Parkhurst, Rev. Charles H. “Marriage and its Safeguards.” The Ladies’ Home Journal 12.8 (July 1895).

“Rice and Shoes at Weddings.” The Ladies’ Home Journal 14.10 (September 1897).

Theatrical Adaptions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Two of the most popular forms of 19th century entertainment were reading novels and attending the theater, so it is no surprise that best-selling novels were often adapted to stage plays. In an earlier post on domestic dramas, I mentioned the theater’s bad reputation in the early 19th century, but the stigma attached to the playhouse dissipated over time. Theater attendance gradually became more socially acceptable and even fashionable among the middle class by the 1840s and ’50s, partly due to  theater managers and playwrights’s deliberate efforts to appeal to middle class values and moral standards, and partly due to the Victorian era reverence for Shakespeare, which resulted in higher regard for the theater. By the 1850s, theaters were central to the developing culture of American cities.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the best-selling novels of the century and spawned many stage adaptations. As popular as the novel was, many Americans were first exposed to the story at the playhouse. Copyright laws did not prevent dramatizations of novels and other printed fiction, so the first stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin actually debuted before the final installation of the novel was published. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is remembered as an important text in turning northern sentiments more toward abolitionism, and one would expect that the theatrical productions would have served the same purpose, moving audiences to oppose slavery as immoral and inhuman. However, the dramatizations differed significantly from each other and from the original novel, often resulting in completely divergent political messages and tones. Some productions made their own additions to “finish the story”; manager G.C. Howard and actor George Aiken’s 6-act production ended with Uncle Tom’s death and ascension to heaven (Frick). Other adaptations changed the tone of Stowe’s text, undermined Stowe’s overtly abolitionist politics to promote compromise between the North and South, and, worst of all, some of the most popular adaptations reinforced racial stereotypes and the dehumanization of slaves.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is notable as an instigating force in tensions between the North and South over slavery; Abraham Lincoln referred to Stowe as the “little woman who started this war.” Stowe’s story moved some sympathetic viewers and readers to support the abolitionist movement and view slavery as an immoral instution. However, the theatrical productions were deeply problematic with regard to representing race on the stage. It was relatively easy for white readers to sympathize with the Black characters; Stowe heavily emphasized the morality of Eliza and Tom as humans and Christians in spite of their race, and there is the fact of Eliza’s light skin and her ability to “pass” as white. Scholarship on the problems of racial stereotypes and representation in Stowe’s novel is extensive, so I will not analyze that here. On the stage, audiences were confronted with the characters’ physicality in a more direct way, and many productions fell back on the established stereotypes of Black characters. This was especially true of the “Tom Show” adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, short comedic pieces that were loosely based on the novel, but which often resembled blackface minstrels. For example, C.W. Taylor’s production was presented as an afterpiece, so he cut several key episodes, two major characters, and added several musical numbers; the result was a play mocking the South and side-stepping many of the controversial and overtly abolitionist material in Stowe’s novel. Other Tom Shows were sensationalized melodramas that greatly expanded the roles of white characters and eliminated secondary Black characters like Topsy. Tom Shows often reduced the characters to racist caricatures and often turned the text into slapstick comedy.  Unfortunately, the Tom Shows were exceedingly popular throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century (with most references to slavery erased from the text after the Civil War), and perpetuated the racist genre of the minstrel show.

Even among the dramatizations that stayed close to the original novel’s text, racial representation on stage was still a problem. Nineteenth century productions typically had all-white casts, so there is the significant issue of the erasure of Black characters by virtue of their representation by white actors. As mentioned earlier, Eliza’s race is ambiguous, and Stowe emphasizes the lightness of her skin, the fact that she didn’t “look like a slave,” so one may expect a white actress to fill this role. However, Tom and his family are clearly described with dark skin, a fact that no production could avoid. Although the theater often attracted individuals from more marginalized sectors of society, including immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and individuals with Gypsy and Jewish heritage, the vast majority of actors in major theaters were white. Resultantly, actors used make-up to play characters of different races. Acting manuals from the era include detailed instructions for playing characters of different races, especially Native Americans and African Americans, because these were popular stock characters in American plays. These instructions are rife with racial stereotypes that were typical in dehumanizing minstrel shows, and likely informed the way actors played the minor characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even in the more faithful adaptations of Stowe’s text. The audience expected particular portrayals of minority characters and theater managers and star actors were all too willing to cater to those expectations.

Works Cited

Frick, John. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Antebellum Stage.” http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/interpret/exhibits/frick/frick.html

http://www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/utc/american_culture.shtml

Inventing Tradition: Valentine’s Day

For most of the 19th century, Americans did not celebrate Valentine’s Day; it was a saint’s day that was marked by some folk traditions that were largely left behind in the Old World. However, by 1849, Valentine’s Day was enormously popular and uniquely American. Medieval (or rather, 19th century imaginings of medieval) traditions mingled with new commodities, fashions, and Victorian sentimentalism to create a new cultural ritual.

In the early church and medieval period, Saint Valentine was only renowned as a martyr and had no connection with lovers or romance. The source of this legend is poetry, not church doctrine; Geoffrey Chaucer and other 14th century poets mention Saint Valentine as the divine overseer of lovers, matchmaking, and courtship; presumably, this was not the martyr Valentine celebrated on February 14, but a lesser-known saint from Genoa, whose feast day is celebrated in early May, thus explaining the link to themes of blossoming romance and spring. By the 15th century, the connection between Valentine and love was an established literary convention, and the two Valentines were conflated, so that February 14 became a celebration of love and Saint Valentine an intermediary between lovers. The popular story of lovers sending valentines to one another in homage to the saint, supposedly renowned as an example of Christian love, attempted to join the two narratives of Christian martyrdom and romance, but the emphasis on matchmaking eventually overshadowed the austere religious narrative. In 17th century England, valentines were chosen by chance at parties, following a tradition of nuptial prediction games. The lovelorn Ophelia mentions St. Valentine’s Day in Hamlet, just before she commits suicide, evincing the established associations between the holiday and lovers. She sings, “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s Day, / All in the morning betime, / And I a maid at your window, / To be your Valentine. / Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes, / And dupp’d the chamber door; / Let in the maid, that out a maid / Never departed more.”

In the mid-19th century, valentines were so popular that many paper companies began selling pre-made valentines. The first mass-produced, lace-embossed valentines were made in Worcester, MA in 1847, and a new industry was born, the greeting card business. These pre-made, mass-produced valentines quickly replaced the earlier hand-written versions. The holiday also became more elaborate and highly sentimentalized through the late 19th century.

In the 19th century there was a lot of hand-wringing over emotional excess, public crazes and spectacle, and Valentine’s Day was an object of criticism. Some newspapers described Valentine’s Day as a “social disease,” and saw it as an indicator of moral deterioration and loss of sincerity, especially in matters of love (Schmidt). The excessive sentimentlity of the Victorian era coupled with increased commercialism caused many people to worry that love was eroding into frivolity and courtship was morphing into a flirtacious and ephemeral game. Victorian-era Americans were concerned that society was becoming disingenuous, and Valentine’s Day with all its associations with commercialism, the focus on fashion, and the loss of religious fervor, was an apt symbol of the falseness that threatened to break down social bonds.

The February 1856 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine includes a full-page comic of “Valentines Delievered in Our Street,” which lampoons the sentimentalism that surrounded the holiday by exposing the crass, self-indulgent undertones.

valentine 1856

This comic exaggerates the breakdown of propriety in Valentine’s Day through brutally honest, occasionally crass, letters. For instance, the fourth cell depicts Peter Squeezum, Esq.’s peculiar valentine of a devil with the text “How are you old boy.” While Squeezum wonders “What can it mean?” the reader would easily recognize the insinuation of greed and dishonesty. Similarly, Doctor Pergeum’s valentine is an accusation of quackery and Rev. Narcissus Violet receives a $500 check from his parishioners, suggesting his greed and hypocrisy. Miss Wigsby’s valentine is rude and hints at the criticisms of Valentine’s Day that the holiday disrupts the usual restraints on courtship and standards of propriety between the sexes.

The commercialization of mass-produced cards with pre-written messages, elaborate gift-giving of jewelry in the late 19th century (as the jewelry industry expanded due to mining of precious gems in Africa), and advertisements meant to hype up the holiday and expectations led to criticism of the holiday for its insincerity and exaggerated sentimentality and sensualism. Although Valentine’s Day is not exactly a “Hallmark holiday” when we examine its beginnings, in the 19th century, it became the occasion for Hallmark to even exist.

References:

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 12.69 (February 1856)

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day 1840-1870.” Winterthur Portfolio 28.4 (1993): 209-2445