A Modest Proposal About English Wedding Presents: 1872

A representative specimen of English wedding gift horror http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/23462/lot/212/

ENGLISH WEDDINGS, AND WEDDING PRESENTS.

It is a matter of unquestionable notoriety, that all marriages are made in heaven; and it is equally certain that the beautiful descriptions of them, which we read, must be due to celestial correspondents. Such choice of words, such felicity of arrangement, such grace of epithets, could not emanate from any inferior source; and the future historian will best gather from these chronicles the condition of the English language in our day, and the manners and customs of those who spoke it. We shall not, perhaps, be accused of unnecessary repetition, if we call attention to the subject.

The sun is shining, and peculiar interest is excited. The bridegroom is accompanied by his friend, who is officiating as groomsman, and who is qualified by frequent service for the efficient discharge of the multifarious duties which are attached to the position. At precisely thirteen minutes and a half past eleven they alight at the church, saluted by the acclamations of the crowd, the excitement of the bystanders, and the symphony of bells. When the door is opened, four and twenty perpetual curates and prebendaries, deans and archdeacons, begin to assist one another. The scene increases in interest, until the climax is reached, when the bride enters, leaning on somebody’s arm, and supported by her bridesmaids, supplied with jewelry by a neighboring firm, which thus has the good fortune to secure eight advertisements of its goods.

The religious ceremony is performed with peculiar solemnity, unbroken, save by the fidgeting of the groomsman; the benediction is pronounced, and on repairing to the vestry, the formalities of registration are gone through, — a part of the ceremony which is often described in language worthy of Burke. After this, the party repair again to a mansion or residence, where a sumptuous dejeuner is prepared, and numerous covers are laid; a mysterious but interesting process. It is here that English oratory is displayed to its best advantage; and graceful tributes are paid on all sides, characterized by good taste, by brevity, and fluency. The peer forgets his pomposity, and the fact that nobody listens to him elsewhere; the groomsman feels that the lightest part of his duties has come, and all regret the close of his remarks. At precisely four minutes past two the bride and bridegroom take leave of their friends, and seek the seclusion of a country-seat.

Meantime, the “friends” separate, and the correspondent is enabled to furnish those advertisements which all read with interest, if not with excitement. The enumeration of the presents and of the names, both of their eminent manufacturers and of their donors, fills columns, and affords invaluable opportunities for fine writing. The “members of the domestic household,” called sometimes by profane and illiterate people servants, contribute something difficult to carry, and impossible to pack.

It is interesting to know that the flowers were not the production of nature, but were expressly supplied for the occasion by the floral manufacturer; nor is the name of the pastry-cook wanting, who made the indigestible compound termed a “bride-cake.” A few years more, and we shall be told the incomes of the guests, their ages, and the construction of the ladies’ petticoats. It may be that publicity is thus ostentatiously given to the names of those who contribute towards the future menage of the happy couple, in order that the standard may be raised, and that the donor of a water-bottle may shrink from appearing in the same list with the donor of a diamond bracelet. That aim, however, has not yet been realized, and the list of objects is as varied, and as free from all connection with each other, as the words which make up a page of Johnson’s Dictionary.

The company is a medley one; sugar-basins and aneroids, an antique pair of bellows, the Zoological Gardens faithfully represented in ormolu, a musical-box, a sketch mounted as a fan, fifty travelling articles to make locomotion impossible, a basket of snowdrops, and nine addresses on vellum, congratulating the bridegroom on the examples he has to imitate and on the wisdom of his choice, quite unreadable from the magnificent flourishes with which the initial letters abound, and signed by the schoolmaster and schoolmistress in behalf of the scholars.

Were the bride and bridegroom endowed with ostrich-like digestions, they might find some use for these articles. As it is, they often prove the most unmitigated nuisance, a misery alike to him who gives and to him or her who receives. It occasionally happens that the announcement of an engagement, instead of recalling the fact that two people are perfectly certain of being happy for life, that the cares of this world are over for them, and that a beautiful account of their marriage will appear in the newspapers and enrich the literature of the country, only suggests the painful thought that a present must be given, and, in order to be given, must be bought.

To explain the grounds for this impression would be impossible; a slight relationship exists between the victim and one or other of the engaged pair, and the persons about to marry are going to live in London, possibly in a large house; it may be that the intending giver received at some former period a perfectly useless and now blackened object, too dirty to make its appearance again in the world of rubbish, and that he feels bound to reciprocate the attention. “Human nature,” says a great authoress, “is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person who either marries or dies is sure of being kindly spoken of.” Whatever may be the cause, the dilemma remains the same. Much mental agony is undergone, increasing as the interval before the marriage becomes shorter. Some prudent persons have a stock of objects always on hand, one of which they forward upon receipt of the intelligence; and thus they may have the good fortune to send the first of the fifteen inkstands which follow.

She who hesitates is lost; now helplessly bemoaning her condition, now peering uneasily into shop-windows, and finding that every thing costs seven pounds, when she is prepared to spend only four. Her sense of her unfortunate position daily grows in intensity, and she may next be seen sitting in a shop, with a choice selection in front of her, amongst which are a blotting-book covered with excrescences of brass like a portmanteau, a miniature helmet, two shepherdesses of modern Meissen, a silver-gilt machine for brushing away crumbs after breakfasting in bed, a gentleman in ormolu looking into a windwill about the same size as himself and of the same material, both containing cavities in their insides for matches, the discovery of which would occupy a lifetime. What a choice is here! The biggest fool of her acquaintance has just ordered the silver-gilt machine, which costs thirty pounds, so she takes the windwill with a sigh of relief, and sends it as a little object to remind her friend of the happy hours they have spent together.

Her friend sends in return a little note, assuring her that she will always value it, reflecting that it is a just requital for the ormolu porcupine stuffed with pins which she had presented on a previous occasion. But the donor and the windmill are not destined to lose sight of one another just yet.

It is bad enough to see the rubbish in the shop, but there is some excuse for the production of these costly and worthless trifles. What the dogs are in the East to the streets, the givers of modern wedding presents are to the trade, — the scavengers of refuse; what is too dirty, too useless, too ugly for other purposes, they absorb; but it is too hard to be called upon to look at it again when exposed to view in the drawing-room of the unfortunate girl whose future life is to be spent, or supposed to be spent, in its contemplation. There are entertainments of divers kinds and degrees of dullness; but the entertainment which is given for the display of the objects we have described is without an equal.

Neatly arranged upon the tables in symmetrical order lie these specimens of English taste, “several hundreds in number,” slips of paper being attached to them recording the names of the givers. Here the lady and the windmill meet once more, regretfully perhaps, for some kind friend announces that she only gave two pounds for the candlesticks opposite; another has picked up something for thirty shillings, which produces a sublime effect, and the name of the shop where similar objects can be procured is whispered in secret. There is a pleasing equality evinced in the display; her Grace and the housemaid think the same thing ” beautiful,” and probably spend the same amount of money upon the object of their admiration.

The custom of giving wedding presents, as it now exists, is a social tax which, though paid by every one, is only paid grudgingly and on compulsion. It represents neither affection nor interest, and is not productive of the smallest profit to any save the tradesmen whose wares are sold for the purpose. Its counterpart can only be found in the custom which existed a short time ago of giving leaving-books at Eton. The fashion was exactly analogous; little boys give them to big boys, to whom they always had been, and to whom they continued in after life, complete strangers, subscribing themselves their “sincere friends on their leaving Eton.” The head-master submitted to the custom at a smaller cost; wise in his generation, and being an elegant classic, he had published, or privately printed, a quarto edition of some Latin author, which, it is needless to say, nobody ever wanted, and no one ever bought. This peculiarly useless volume was exchanged for the sum of ten pounds, deposited in some corner of the room by the boy who was bidding good-by, whence it was generally supposed that the head-master ultimately took it. This pleasant mode of escaping the tax was, unfortunately, not open to those who paid for the leaving-books presented by their sons to their sincere friends, and who not unnaturally considered that the annual expenditure of fifteen or twenty pounds was hardly compensated by the possession of some scores of soiled copies bound in yellow calf.

What these books are to the library, wedding presents are to the ordinary furniture of a house. What is to be done with the windmill? Should the first opportunity be seized for getting rid of it, there is the risk that its donor will tenderly inquire after it. It cannot be given away after the lapse of six months; for its color is gone, and it looks as if it might have been present at Hilpah’s wedding to Shalum. The poor thing eventually finds a shelter and a home in some spare bedroom of a country house, where damp and dust hasten its decay. Sometimes it is destined to a harder fate. One swallow does not make a summer, and the gift of a wedding present does not insure the celebration of a marriage; the engagement may very possibly be broken off, and one of the consequences is the return of the windmill to its unhappy and original possessor, whose feelings on its re-appearance we forbear from commenting on.

If the State would include wedding presents among the assessed taxes, and fix a definite sum to be paid at the beginning of each year, great relief would be experienced; the government would, of course, realize a profit, and a large sum would still remain to be distributed as marriage portions. The present inequality would be remedied; for, as it is, those who never marry at all (and their number is daily increasing) receive no return for their original outlay; but on the institution of the tax this need no longer be the case. Single women, on attaining the age of forty-five, might, on condition of subscribing a declaration setting forth the extreme improbability of their marrying, and their aversion to that condition, receive the sum to which they would have been entitled on marriage. Widows, on the other hand, would get nothing under any circumstances, being exhorted to remain contented with the ormolu of the first marriage.

During the interval before the adoption of this plan we have but one remedy to propose. Surely the old shoes which are now so lavishly thrown away at the departure of the bride and bridegroom, are capable of conversion into some valuable substance; which cannot be predicated of wedding presents. Let, therefore, the next “groomsman ” set a bright example, and deserve well of society and the oppressed; as the carriage starts, let a shower of aneroids, barometers, bellows, candlesticks, vases, mosaics, and antiques, gracefully fall and flutter around it. Thus we feel sure that a “peculiar interest would be excited,” while the struggles of the crowd to possess objects which to their inexperienced eyes might seem capable of being exchanged for a shilling would give additional animation to the scene. The prevalence of this custom might be expected to modify to some extent the present fashion, the chief compensation for which must be found in the advantages which result from a study of the pages of the Court Journal.

Every Saturday 27 April 1872: p. 449-51

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil fears that she has nothing to add to these really excellent proposals, except to note that the shower might result in shards of broken Dresden china and glass in the streets. That would annoy the horses, but crossing-sweepers might be delighted with the added employment and tips.

It is a bore, but one may also exchange or sell the horrors.

As for the loss of wedding gifts to the ladies who remain unmarried, this “bachelor-girl’s” father and friends were thoughtful enough to make up the deficit: 

One of the great bugbears of spinsterhood has been demolished by a Minnesota woman. Though she had had many suitors, of course, she was still unwedded at thirty, and one day, as she was sending off a gift to a girl friend who was about to be married, she bewailed the fact that the bachelor-girl never got wedding-presents or a trousseau. Her father promised that she herself should not be slighted in this respect, whether she married or not, and a few weeks ago, when she accepted the offer of a business position and decided to take up her bachelor residence in Chicago, the old gentleman was as good as his word. He gave her a handsome check to buy a complete outfit of clothes, from shoes to bonnets, and many of her friends took up the idea and gave her useful and ornamental articles for her bachelor apartment. And now it is announced — whether it be through the aid of her fine feathers or not is not stated — she is to marry the president of the company that employs her.

The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] March 21, 1898

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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