To Have and to Hold – Wedding Giftgiving in the Nineteenth Century

Love is always in the air on Valentine’s Day, no matter what century you are celebrating in. Nineteenth-century couples surely enjoyed romance on this day, some even set aside February 14th for their wedding. These beloved celebrations have seen great changes since the early days of America, but the giving personalized, practical gifts is certainly a tradition that has stayed.

By the mid-1800s, homes had grown from cramped cabins to multi-room Federalist-style houses. Sitting rooms begged for colorful furnishings to be enjoyed by families and their guests. The Industrial Revolution added enough extra money in the family collection to splurge on luxury home goods, such as furniture, tableware, and textiles. Coverlets became a fashionable staple of middle class American households. With bright colors, endless variety of patterns, and special customization, coverlets also made wonderful gifts, especially for brides-to-be who would soon have their own house to fill.

John Lewis Krimmel (German-born American artist, 1786-1821) Country Wedding 1820 (1)

Pennsylvania artist John Lewis Krimmel’s “Country Wedding,” 1820

In the colonial period, wedding celebrations were simple, private events, shared between the bride and groom’s families, who bestowed gifts upon the newlyweds. Because many middle and upper class families up graded to more spacious homes in the mid-1800s, they were also able to accommodate larger festivities in their homes, allowing weddings to bloom into fun social events. Gift-giving continued to be a wedding hallmark. While upper class women were gifted with fancier, personal items, such as jewelry and perfumes, the more modest bride appreciated quality gifts that would serve her future family. One of these beloved gifts is the coverlet.

Coverlets were practical gifts for middle class couples to bring into their new home, being both stylish and usable in parlors and bedrooms. Over twenty coverlets in the McCarl Collection are confirmed bridal gifts. These coverlets feature the bride’s maiden name rather than her married name. This reasoning is not simply because the wedding had not occurred yet and her name had not legally changed. Instead, Victorian superstitions warned against preemptively inscribing her future surname on any type of linen, including coverlets. Using anything but her maiden name was considered bad luck.

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The white coverlet in the McCarl Collection

These wedding coverlets came in all colors and designs, yet the McCarl Gallery is lucky to have one white coverlet in our collection. Donning the color white on a wedding day began with Queen Victoria, certainly the most significant trendsetter of her era. When she wed Prince Albert in 1840, Queen Victoria wore a white gown as a sign of her frugal nature, because white fabric, lacking colored dyes, was less expensive. The middle and upper classes of the Western world quickly adopted Victoria’s style, and white has remained the classic color of weddings ever since. The white coverlet in our collection is an example of how strongly this color influenced wedding gifts of the 1800s.

Queen_Victoria_wedding_dressQueen Victoria in her white wedding gown

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