By Diane Euston
Anyone who has attended or hosted a large wedding knows the intense planning required to hold the affair. After the groom picks a diamond engagement ring and musters the courage to mutter the words, “Will you marry me?” – the marathon of planning commences.
Picking a white wedding dress, asking friends and family to be in the wedding, professional engagement photos, numerous bridal showers, registering for gifts, picking a location, hiring a caterer and florist. . . the list goes on and on.
According to The Knot, the average cost of hosting a wedding and reception in 2022 was $30,000.
Weddings weren’t always so fancy and wallet-draining, and many of the “traditional” wedding customs are much newer than you may even realize. In antebellum Kansas City and into the Victorian era, a wedding celebration was a community event but looked very different from the festivities we attend today. Over time, however, the current-day traditions we covet emerged.
The Roots of Today’s Traditions
Some of our most prized wedding traditions have history that goes back to ancient Greece and Rome. For example, wearing a ring on your left-hand dates back thousands of years; they thought a vein in the left hand finger led directly to the heart. Simple gold bands were traded on a couple’s wedding day.
Other traditions such as wearing a veil trace back to ancient Rome; they thought that it would protect a bride from any evil spirits out to curse the wedding. Bridal attendants would often wear the same color as the bride in order to distract the evil spirits away from the betrothed. And, the custom of a groom not seeing the bride before she walked down the aisle can be traced to the days of arranged marriages. People believed that if a couple laid eyes on one another too soon, they would change their minds and not go through the nuptials.
Ancient Greeks and Roman brides often carried herbs such as garlic and oregano in their hands in order to ward off those evil spirits out to ruin a union.
“Giving away” a bride at the altar, a tradition fathers especially cherish, has its roots in the days of a dowry. The elite class and royalty wouldn’t just meddle in who would marry who – they also would require the father of the blushing bride to pay a groom a dowry (sometimes in the form of property), thus “giving away” his daughter for a price. The higher the dowry, the higher the status of the groom.
Victorian Era Influences
Numerous traditions we see today have their roots in one influential woman: Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and Great Britain (1819-1901). Her reign from 1837 to 1901 was the start of so much change and progress in fashion and architecture that it became, literally, an era – the Victorian era.
In 1840 at the age of 20, Victoria married her cousin, Prince Albert of Germany. Her bridal gown was white, a color she specifically chose because it accented the intricate lace on it. She wore a wedding veil and a crown of orange blossoms and carried a bouquet of her favorite flowers: snowdrops.
At the large feast held after the wedding, a mini-sculpture of Queen Victoria and her husband was placed on top of her tiered wedding cake.
After newspapers reported the royal affair, the British elite who could afford it began to mimic many of these details of Queen Victoria’s wedding. It would take many years for Americans – and Kansas Citians – to adopt these now-common details of a wedding day.
An “Old Fashioned” Wedding
Eleanor “Nellie” McCoy Harris (1840-1926), daughter of Westport and Kansas City founder John Calvin McCoy, was one of Kansas City’s earliest historians and eloquently recorded many interesting stories of her life and childhood that were published in Kansas City’s newspapers. Several of her accounts included the weddings she attended as a child.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, country weddings were community centered. By the 19th century, couples in larger cities created intimate wedding affairs often with printed invitations. However, Kansas City was slow to grow into a metropolis. In fact, Jackson County’s population in 1840 – the same year Nellie was born – was only 7,612 inhabitants. By 1850, 14,000 people called Jackson County home.
The isolation of Jackson County meant that in many cases your closest neighbor was over a half mile away. Most of these early settlers hailed from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, relocating and starting over with very little money. Neighbors helped neighbors. They spent holidays with neighbors. They also celebrated marriages with them.
Nellie wrote, “Numerous weddings were celebrated, and when I say celebrated, I mean it. These were momentous occasions; everybody, his wife, children and guests were invited, expected and attended.”
Dresses worn by brides were not yet white; a bride would buy a dress in colors that they planned to wear for years after the wedding to important events. Some older gowns were designed to be worn with a corset that would shrink a waistline to 18 to 21 inches. In Jackson County, it was more common in the antebellum era to wear a bonnet in lieu of a veil.
In 1845, Nellie witnessed a parade of people celebrating a country wedding at the Methodist Episcopal church in current-day Wyandotte County, Kan. Her five-year-old eyes looked on in wonder at a handsome man riding on a horse, Hiram Northup, dressed in the latest suit style complete with a vest and a tall hat made of silk. Trailing a few feet behind him was his Wyandot Indian bride, Margaret Clark, daughter of Thomas Clark, one of the chiefs of the Canada branch of the Wyandot Nation.
Hiram’s marriage to Margaret allowed him to trade goods in Indian Territory, and he was the first person to sell wholesale goods at Kansas City. He partnered with Joseph Chick in the firm Northup & Chick, controlling a large portion of the Santa Fe trade.
The Porter Infair
Most early pioneer weddings didn’t take place in a church. Instead, a couple stood in the parlor, oftentimes in front of a fireplace, inside the bride’s father’s home. Weddings did not occur on weekends, as it was impossible to find a preacher able to make it near Sunday services. So, most weddings happened in the middle of the week in the afternoon to guarantee a preacher or priest was available.
An 1852 wedding celebration at one of the largest homes in Jackson County was a monumental occasion for the area’s pioneers. Jesse Porter (1827-1868), the son of Methodist preacher James Porter, was to be married to 19-year-old Clay County resident Lucy Stark.
Rev. Porter settled his family in 1834 on 365 acres of land on current-day Troost Ave. The house, built of walnut logs covered with weatherboarding, was located on the northeast corner of current-day 28th and Tracy, and was the location chosen for this large wedding reception attended by the community in 1852.
Antebellum weddings often occurred on one day, and the following day, an “infair” – now called a reception – would be attended by everyone. It was custom to invite the entire family and neighbors to an infair, and on this memorable day, Nellie stood at a gate 50 yards northeast of the house awaiting the arrival of the bridal party as the women prepped the wedding feast.
Wedding clothes included a “second-day dress” that was as beautiful as a colorful wedding gown but was usually colored silk. Nellie distinctly remembered when Lucy Stark Porter and her groom, Jesse arrived in a carriage bound for the infair. Lucy wore a pale green and pink silk dress with wide, puffy sleeves. Her dark hair was brushed back behind her bonnet.
The infair included cakes and calf food jelly, salads, ice cream, turkey, ham, bread, coffee, pickles, sugar plums and countless other goodies. In order to ensure a family had enough food for an infair, preparations were made months in advance.
Most infairs included dancing until the early hours, but because Rev. Porter was a Methodist minister, dancing was forbidden. “But the gayest of games were played, sentimental songs sung and other pleasant pastimes indulged in after the feast,” Nellie recalled. When wedding infairs were in houses permitting dancing, “many of the dancers were barefoot.”
In houses where alcohol was permitted, the drink offered was often whiskey “unadulterated by rectifiers and untaxed by government.”
Westport Weddings in the 1880s
The Harris family was one of the most well-known Westport families. John “Jack” Harris and his wife, Henrietta, built a large two-story brick home on five acres at current-day Westport Rd. and Main St. in 1855. There, Henrietta planted honeysuckle, lilacs and magnolias.
After Jack Harris passed away in 1873, the house passed to their daughter, Josephine and her husband, Charles E. Kearney, a wealthy former freighter-turned-railroad president.
On Dec. 23, 1885, the home was host to a beautiful wedding when Charles and Josephine’s daughter, Elizabeth, married her school sweetheart, Joseph Nofsinger. The wedding occurred in the east parlor, and the dinner was served in the dining room. Nellie was invited to the reception, and she wrote, “The wedding was a quiet one, marked by elegance and good taste.”
Just shy of four years later the eve of Thanksgiving, Julia Kearney married Frank C. Wornall in a quiet ceremony at First Baptist Church. It became more common by the end of the 19th century for weddings to occur in churches, especially in a growing city.
Formerly enslaved Hattie, “the devoted and faithful cook” of the Kearney family cooked the reception food served inside the two-story mansion in Westport.
Charles Kearney purchased Hattie Drisdom in 1855, and two years later when she was 13 years old, he gave Hattie her freedom. Hattie stayed with the family the remainder of her life, working as a housekeeper and nursemaid to the Kearney children. When she passed away in 1927 at Elizabeth Hofsinger’s home at 64th and Baltimore, she was buried at Union Cemetery – the first African American to be buried in the “white portion” of the cemetery.
The house where these two weddings were celebrated, now known as the Harris-Kearney House in Westport, is a museum run by the Westport Historical Society and is carefully preserved.
Into the 20th Century and Beyond
It was the eve of the 20th century before many of the traditions picked up from Queen Victoria became popular in Kansas City. White gowns grew in favor by the late 1880s, and in 1897, the orange blossoms Victoria wore as a crown almost a half-century earlier were all the rage in Kansas City. The Kansas City Star reported, “A tiara of orange blossoms has superseded the old time wedding wreath and the veil should be of tulle, full length and in voluminous folds. Sprays of orange blossoms should be intertwined with the artificial, the latter being depended upon to preserve the general fresh appearance of the flowers.”
By the 1920s and 1930s, couples began to rely on planners and professionals to help plan larger weddings, and the traditional gold band was adorned with a diamond. In 1947, De Beers, a British company that mined diamonds in South Africa, launched a successful ad campaign that transformed the engagement ring forever. Using the slogan, “A diamond is forever,” De Beers’ campaign captured the world and is one of the most recognizable slogans today.
Couples over time moved from weddings inside the home to weddings in churches. But, the 1970s saw the birth of the destination wedding – even if that meant you stayed close to home. Weddings outside in natural settings or inside fashionable hotels became more commonplace.
Over the years, the age of the bride and groom has grown. In 1890, the median age of marriage for men was 26 and for women was 22. In 2021, men were on average 30 years old and women 29.
Even with all of these changes over time, the customs attached to saying “I do” live on. No matter the differences in dress, receptions and words spoken, every couple hopes for a happy, successful marriage. In 1900 when recalling old pioneer weddings, Nellie wrote, “Love made the word go round then just as it does now.”
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.com