Prairie Village Museum hosts ‘Courting Trouble’
Imagine attending a wedding where the bride walks to the altar in a black gown and pledges to honor and obey a husband chosen for her by her parents. At the wedding feast, guests eat pie, not cake, made from sweetbreads from thymus glands, oysters, fruit and egg yolks.
And above all else, the day marks the beginning of an alliance between two families to strengthen political power.
Not very romantic, but then again, for thousands of years, weddings were not about love.
Stephanie Coontz detailed wedding customs throughout history from cake to dress styles and more Sunday in the Tilman Hovland auditorium at Rugby High School.
Coontz, who has a doctorate degree, is an author of several books exploring the history of marriage. She teaches history at Evergreen State College in Washington and serves as Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families at the University of Texas at Austin.
Coontz’s presentation, “Courting Trouble and the History of Marriage” was the second of a three-part series titled “Exploring the American Dream in Central North Dakota,” sponsored by the Prairie Village Museum in Rugby.
A collection of wedding dresses dating from 1888 to 1940 provided a backdrop on the stage behind Coontz.
“Most of us think of a white wedding dress as a symbol of purity, but you’ll notice the older wedding dresses here are black,” Coontz told the audience.
“Throughout history it was very rare, up until 1940, to wear a white wedding dress.
Light colors weren’t favored, and in Scandinavia, where many North Dakotans were from, black was the favored color,” Coontz noted.
Coontz explained the reason white came into favor: “When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, she wore a white-ish dress with a fifteen-foot train behind her. And pictures of this and drawings of this were circulated in newspapers and it just created a sensation. Every middle class and upwardly-mobile woman wanted to wear a white dress with a train.”
Coontz said the difficulty working with white material in sooty sewing rooms and towns paved with dirt paths also added to the color’s allure. “It was an extremely expensive color to work with.”
“Another tradition we think of is the wedding cake. Three tiered wedding cakes were actually introduced at the wedding of Victoria’s daughters,” Coontz noted. “A more traditional approach was a wedding pie.”
Coontz read an unappetizing list of ingredients from a fourteenth century wedding pie recipe, which elicited a chorus of “eewws” and “yucks” from the audience.
Coontz talked about the central purpose of marriage throughout human history a purpose that shattered myths about love and romance.
Coontz described Old Testament traditions where many wives married one husband and societies where one wife had many husbands.
“Marriage was not about finding someone that you loved and you could choose; marriage was about getting in-laws,” Coontz said of marriages in years gone by.
“Nowadays, we think of in-laws as a threat to marital stability, but they were the reason for marital stability in the past.”
Coontz added, “Marriage was the way you made alliances with other groups; that you developed trading partnerships; that you made sure, when you ran into another group, that you had relatives in the group,” Coontz said.
“For thousands of years, marriage was not about love. Love was considered to be an antisocial belief. It was a suggestion that you wanted to choose on your own and not obey your parents.”
Coontz also discussed the political, not romantic motivations behind the classic story of Anthony and Cleopatra. She also outlined economic reasons for marriage among people who were not in the political class.
The Age of Enlightenment in the late 18th century “turned the tide” toward marriage for love, according to Coontz.
“It can perhaps be expressed in Declaration of Independence that people have the right to pursue happiness, and parents shouldn’t stop them from having a right to pursue happiness.”
Economic changes brought about opportunities for women to earn money for dowries, and both women and men found ways to choose love in marriage, Coontz said.
Some changes proved surprising, Coontz added, including roles of breadwinner and domestic duties in marriages.
“I defy you to find a reference to a male breadwinner before the 18th century,” Coontz said to the audience.
The breadwinner/stay-at-home role division became more prevalent in the early 20th century, Coontz said.
Laws governing marriage and divorce changed slowly as well.
“The structure of marriage was such that it did not encourage people to have egalitarian marriages,” Coontz noted, adding, “I’ve read enough diaries and letters from the past to know that many men and women developed them anyway. Many men and women did love each other and treat each other with respect, but there was nothing to force them to.”
Coontz attributed the state of modern marriage to changes in laws giving women more economic freedom and protections within marriage.
Roles continue to change and determine the success of marriage as well, according to Coontz, who cited studies showing a higher rate of stability among couples with equal educational levels and marrying at an older age than in the past.
“When a marriage works today, it’s more intimate, more fulfilling, more fair, more loving, more respectful and more mutually beneficial for all family members than people in the past would ever have dared to dream,” Coontz said of modern marriage.
“But when it doesn’t, it’s more unbearable for people. And it’s also more tricky to make it work because both parties have more options and choices than ever before. So, everything is up for grabs. You have to negotiate much more than in the past.”
Coontz cited research predicting marriage successes based on responsiveness to each spouse’s attempts to begin conversations.
“It’s not a trick you can learn. It has to come from real interest in your (spouse).”
PVM’s “Exploring the American Dream in Central North Dakota” will feature its third lecture of the series with “American Farmer” on Sunday, April 19 next year.
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