[W]hen you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. ~Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally
Last night my husband and I attended a wedding. We have been friends with the groom’s parents for about thirty-five years. The bride was beautiful, the groom was handsome, and the couple were clearly very happy and in love. At the reception, we ate and ate, and then we ate some more. We danced and danced. People got drunk. There was some behind-the-scenes drama. In short, it was in many ways a typical American wedding celebration, but for the couple and their families it was a unique and extraordinary event in their lives.
Our older daughter will be getting married in about a year. Recently, she and her fiancée moved to a new apartment, and purchased, as she said “grownup furniture.”
Our younger daughter is starting her first grownup job next month. She will be living at home—at least for the next several months. She said it doesn’t bother her living with us, her parents, but she is eager to have her own place, as many of her friends now have. I can certainly understand this.
It amuses me when people make assertions about marriage and marriage customs based upon some mythical past. They describe the virginal bride dressed in white who married in her late teens or very early twenties in a church ceremony and who then stayed at home while her husband worked. This is a fairly recent trope. And of course it was only ever typical of some middle and upper class couples. Women have always worked, especially poor women and farmwomen. And does it surprise anyone that many brides have not been virgins on their wedding day? Yes, even in Puritan New England, although a couple could get in trouble if a baby arrived too soon after the wedding. (See Else Hambleton’s Daughters of Eve )Incidentally, marriage in 17th century New England was deemed a civil union, not a religious one—and divorce was legal.
As young adults many men and women lived apart from their families because of choice, economic need, and enslavement. Some couples lived together without being married (and of course, slaves could not legally marry). Benjamin Franklin and Deborah Read lived as husband and wife for forty-four years without an actual marriage ceremony. Deborah had been previously married to a man who deserted her. The couple’s household in Philadelphia in the 1730s included Benjamin’s illegitimate son, William.
When couples married in previous centuries they did not always move into their own home. Neither did they always live with one of their families, although these things occurred. It depended on time, place, and a variety of factors. Age of first marriage has also fluctuated over the centuries. For the children of late eighteenth-century Maine midwife Martha Ballard, weddings were simple affairs. After one such wedding, the bride continued to live with her family, while her new husband visited occasionally for the next month or so. During that time, the women made quilts and collected items the couple would need. It was only after that that the couple moved into their own space and “went to housekeeping.”
A few weeks ago, my husband and I drove past a group of houses set back from the road in their own small court. I remarked how nice it would be to live in a setting like that—we would have one house, our daughters and their significant others could have other houses, and my sisters and their families could each have houses. We would all have privacy, but we could just walk out our doors to visit one another. My husband looked at me in horror. Different dreams, I suppose. Ha!
My sisters and I have sometimes talked about how fun it would be to live in a setting like the one the grandparents have in the TV show Parenthood. Of course, we do not have the year-round lovely weather they seem to have there for the dinners the extended family enjoys.
I know my daughters will move on to next phases of their lives—as they should. At the same time, I will cherish the moments when they are here, and enjoy every one of those fleeting family moments. But really that family compound would be nice.
There is too much to discuss on marriage and divorce here. I discuss these subjects in more detail in Breaking the Bonds: Marital Discord In Pennsylvania, 1730-1830, Women’s Roles in Seventeenth-Century America, and Women’s Roles in Eighteenth-Century America.