A Colonial Wedding

An imagining of the “Wedding of George Washington and Martha Custis.” Lithograph from Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Paris: Lemercier, c1853.

A wedding is one of the most monumental moments in a person’s life.  The celebrations that accompany the ceremony might range from simple to lavish but they are always highly anticipated and joyous.  In this enthusiasm for weddings, we share much with our early American ancestors.  Although there are extremely important differences between past and present, many wedding traditions of the 18th century would be quite familiar to 21st century Americans.  What did a colonial-era wedding look like?

Today’s weddings can take place in any imaginable location – a church, dedicated wedding venue, cruise ship, beach resort, park, city hall, and on and on – but, in the 1700s, the large distances people often lived from an actual church building meant that the vast majority of weddings occurred at the brides’ home.[1]

In another inverse of modern preferences for spring, summer, and fall weddings, many colonial-era marriage celebrations took place in the winter months when there was less to do on the farm or plantation agriculturally.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t weddings outside the winter season.  Indeed, Fielding and Betty married on May 7, 1750.  We have no definitive evidence to say that their wedding occurred at the Washington family home on the land we now refer to as Ferry Farm.  Since Fielding and Betty lived relatively close to St. George’s Church in Fredericksburg, it is certainly possible that the ceremony took place there, though it would have been fairly unusual.

If the ceremony did occur at the Washington home, an Anglican minister, perhaps from St. George’s, would have still read the marriage ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer.  An edition published in 1750 contains language that remains immensely familiar even today.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony…”

“Wilt thou have this Man to thy wedded Husband, to live together after God’s Ordinance, in the holy Estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, serve him, love, honour and keep him in sickness and in health, and forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?”

“With this Ring, I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow…”

Along with these familiar words came familiar acts as well.  The father gave his daughter away, the couple exchanged vows, and the groom gave the bride a ring.  The bride, however, did not present a ring to the groom.

Just as it does today, a party began after the ceremony.  This celebration also took place at the home of the bride’s family.  “The family might decorate a table with white paper chains and lay out white foods for a collation. It included two white cakes. The guests consumed the groom’s cake, and sometimes left the bride’s cake untouched for the couple to save (in a tin of alcohol) to eat on each wedding anniversary.”[2]

There was much food, drink, and toasting along with games and plenty of dancing.  For Virginia’s gentry the party’s scale and length could be extremely lavish with the festivities continuing for days!

If you want to learn more about colonial-era weddings, you can witness a re-creation of the marriage ceremony of Fielding Lewis to Betty Washington on either Saturday, October 10 or Sunday, October 11 during Fielding’s Story: A Gentleman’s Sacrifice, a dramatic theater production taking place at both George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.  Fielding’s Story recounts important moments and milestones in Fielding’s life as a member of Virginia’s gentry, a wealthy merchant and leading citizen of Fredericksburg, the builder of Kenmore, a supporter of the American Revolution, and the husband of Betty.  Reservations are required. Please call 540-340-0732 ext 24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.

[1] Jane Carson, Colonial Virginians at Play, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1989: 5-9.

[2] Elizabeth Maurer, “Courtship and Marriage in the Eighteen Century,” http://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume7/mar09/courtship.cfm

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History’s Paper Trail: What Handwriting & Spelling Reveal about Early America

One of the aspects of a historian’s job is dealing with primary sources, the paper trail of history.  The archives here at The George Washington Foundation contain primary sources that include letters, wills, land grants, court orders, military orders, bills and receipts.  These hand-written documents are largely related to the Fielding and Betty Lewis family and provide us with a wealth of information on all facets of their lives from how much rum they bought to how much they paid in yearly taxes.  At the same time, they and other written historical records provide a glimpse into some fascinating dynamics of early American society and culture.

However, sometimes these documents can be difficult to read because, in the 18th century, writing style and spelling were still not completely standardized.

Students in early America usually learned to write by copying different styles of writing known as ‘hands’ in a copybook that showed alphabets and phrases in the ‘hand’ to be learned.  Students copied the alphabets and phrases exactly, for practice and for reference, and business forms.  For example, while attending school in Fredericksburg, young George Washington copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior to learn handwriting as well as proper behavior in polite society.

Above: Examples of ‘hands’ (Flourishing Alphabet, Italian Hand, German Text, Round Hand) from The Instructor, or American Young Man’s Best Companion Containing Spelling, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetick by George Fisher and published by Isaiah Thomas, Worcester, 1786

In the 1700s, writing was a skill reserved for select groups of people, mainly professionals and upper class males.  Women, artisans, lower classes, and the enslaved were not formally taught handwriting because it was viewed as unnecessary to their everyday life.  A lack of formal education did not stop people from writing.  Instead, they just developed their own system of penmanship and style.

Spelling

Colonial-era writers could choose from a number of dictionaries to assist with spelling.  Many of these books, however, focused only on difficult, obscure, or archaic words.  It wasn’t until 1755 that Samuel Johnson published the influential A Dictionary of the English Language, which offered a more comprehensive lexicon of contemporary English of the time.  By the colonial period, much English spelling was recognizably modern due to the beginning movements of standardization in education and print. Dictionaries also assisted in the development of a more uniform writing style.

What if you had not been to school or had never seen a dictionary?  Well, you simply spelled a word the best you could by sounding it out phonetically.  So, ‘school’ became ‘skool’ or ‘laugh’ became ‘laff.’ A word might be spelled a dozen different ways by a dozen different people.  When read aloud, these words sound fine but, when silently reading a primary source document, the written phonetic spelling can take a few seconds to process.

An account statement from 1766 between James Winn and Fielding Lewis that includes two examples of phonetic spelling: “brest” buckle and “soop” spoon.

The Long ‘s’

The long ‘s’ was a style of spelling that generally fell out of use in print by the end of the 18th century.  It persisted in handwriting until the mid-19th century.  The long ‘s’ was an elongated version of a lowercase ‘s’.  It was often seen at the beginning of a word, in the middle of a word, and in words containing a double ‘s’.   A notable example is the spelling of Congress in the Bill of Rights.

Understandably, when we read primary sources today, the long ‘s’ is often mistaken for an ‘f’ or ‘p’ and it takes some practice to get the context of what is being said.

The word ‘Witnes’ in this document includes an excellent example of the long ‘s’ in the word and it’s close resemblance to an ‘f.’  This is a bond dated 14 September 1747 that requires George Lewis, who lives in Frederick County, to pay 3 pounds of Pennsylvania Currency to Charles Dunnahie by 1 May 1749.

Abbreviations/Subscript

Abbreviations and subscript often come up in colonial-era handwritten documents, particularly on bills, invoices and receipts. Shortening words or phrases like can’t for cannot or asap for as soon as possible is something we are familiar with today.  Commonly, abbreviations in the 18th century were indicated by beginning the word in regular-sized letters and ending with superscript letters like Recd for received.  Superscript or subscript letters are most frequently seen today in chemical compounds (H₂O) or in mathematical expressions.

This receipt, dated 25 September 1780, from Henry Rutter to George Lewis for 48 1/2 bushels of tax oats and 40 Bushels of Rye from George Lewis per Thomas Smither.  The “Recd” at the beginning of the receipt is an excellent example of both an abbreviation and superscript.

All the quirks in 18th century writing present many challenges for the historian.  Creating a system of deciphering can take time and plenty of practice.  At times, it can be more than a little frustrating.  Once the documents’ particular meanings are deciphered, the writing itself can reveal many different dynamics about early American society and culture.

One of the biggest of these dynamics is that very few people received enough education to develop a professional level of literacy.  Professional level of literacy, at the time, would mean having enough skill to conduct business.  Such a level was reserved, usually, for white middle to upper class males.

Selective education provided a powerful form of social control and a framework for society to judge and instantly understand a person’s social status, education, and occupation.  At this time, it was not thought important for women, slaves, or the lower classes to know how to write.  Some even thought that teaching these groups to write would encourage them to aspire above their allotted station in life.  Writing gives people the freedom to express themselves and their ideas in a concrete way which can easily be transmitted to others, an uncomfortable prospect for a society based on a selective hierarchy.

Though a woman, George Washington’s mother Mary Ball Washington could write.  Her spelling was extremely phonetic as seen in this letter transcription and reflects a lack of formal schooling but not necessarily a lack of intelligence as some historians have argued.  Indeed, primary sources like Mary’s letters supported by “new archaeological data has yielded a decidedly more complex picture of this influential matron than is possible using the historical record alone.” Laura Galke, an archaeologist here at The George Washington Foundation, argues (PDF) that artifacts discovered at George Washington’s boyhood home at Ferry Farm demonstrate that Mary “enjoyed the personal agency that widowhood allowed her; she was responsible for the management decisions of the Washington household and the surrounding farm. Mary’s choices reflect an ambitious woman determined to participate in the genteel society her family had enjoyed before Augustine’s death.”  This required much intelligence.

Interestingly, Mary’s daughter Betty Washington Lewis also knew how to write.  Mary ensured Betty knew how to run a household and keep in touch with family, which numerous letters written by Betty show she did effectively.

Betty Washington Lewis

Portrait of Betty Washington Lewis painted by John Wollaston in the 1750s

Her phonetic spelling in this letter transcription is an improvement over her mother’s.  The improvement in Betty’s spelling when compared to Mary’s further illustrates the increasing standardization during the 18th century and can also be seen as an example of changing beliefs in education for women at the end of the 1700s.  A movement was growing late in the century to teach writing to women.  This movement, however, did not come from a revolutionary drive for equality but, rather, from an expanded idea regarding the duties of Motherhood.  If women could not read and write, it was thought, how would they teach their sons, the future generation of leaders, to do the same?

Though difficult, at times, to decipher, the simple act of writing gives us a glimpse into the minds of people who thought about and experienced a life quite different from ours.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

Photos: “Twelfth Night at Kenmore”

Today – January 6 – marks the end of Christmas or, at least, it did two centuries ago.   If we lived in the days of George Washington, Betty Washington Lewis, and Fielding Lewis and moved within their social circle, we would all be preparing for the grandest celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which began on December 25.  This grand event, known as Twelfth Night, was celebrated much in the same way that many of us mark New Year’s Eve with family and friends gathered together for food, drink, sweets, music, dancing, games, and conversation.

This past weekend, Historic Kenmore hosted just such a celebration in the form of a theatrical presentation titled “Twelfth Night at Kenmore.”  Set in January 1776, as Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis end their first Christmas in their newly built home, “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” depicted an unusual seasonal celebration, as the growing American Revolution brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family, their friends, and members of the enslaved community.