What Every Girl Dreams Of: A Cultural History of the Sacred in American White Weddings, 1840-1970 Open Access

Shrout, Catherine Elizabeth (2010)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/gb19f595b?locale=en


What Every Girl Dreams Of: A Cultural History of the Sacred in American White Weddings, 1840-1970

By Catherine E. Shrout

In the mid-nineteenth century, middle-class Americans began celebrating marriages with a set of rituals that were sentimental, female-centered, and expensive: the "white wedding." The white wedding became understood to be a marriage conducted in a formal style, with some degree of decorum and pageantry, in which the bride was distinctively costumed in white.

This dissertation, a cultural history of the white wedding from 1840 until 1970, demonstrates how the ritual offered middle-class Anglo-American women sacred experiences. Drawing upon diaries, advice books, advertisements, novels, church materials, films, photographs and material artifacts, the dissertation uses a cultural studies approach to clarify how the experience of what was sacred about a wedding changed over time, how weddings became more symbolically central within American Christianity as marriage was perceived as being under siege, how twentieth-century marketers drew upon sacred associations with the wedding day to appeal to women, and how churches and the marketplace accordingly interacted and shaped wedding practices.

The white wedding has been viewed as a family ritual ordaining nineteenth-century "priestesses of the home;" as a performance that raised questions about its own authenticity; as a serious Christian rite which, if understood properly, prevented divorce; and as a thrilling opportunity to enact the story of Cinderella. As it became a more elaborate religious practice, it developed into a ritualization of women's consumer agency, a conscious and unconscious recognition of the marketplace's transformative power. This dissertation views wedding practices as sacred practices, placing attitudes towards white weddings in an account of the history of American Christianity, and, in doing so, examines one way how consumer culture in the United States has competed with, fed upon and sustained American religious experiences.

Table of Contents



Introduction: Looking for the sacred in American wedding practices .....1

About the sacred, consumer culture and women , 10

Methods and organization , 23


The invention of the white wedding: creating priestesses of the home, 1840-1880 .....30

Wedding practices before 1840, 31

Here comes the bride: the Victorian white wedding , 39

The domestic altar: women's significance in the sacred family , 45

"Give all to love": romantic love as sacred actor , 55

Just like your great-grandmother: history, memory, and death as sacred themes , 66


Performing the wedding day, 1880-1920 .....73

Mock marriages and Tom Thumb weddings: white weddings as entertainments , 76

So long as ye both shall live: shifting notions of family , 82

"Big weddings are such terrors:" continued elaboration and commercialization , 92

Giving meaningful wedding gifts: pretty sentiments or vulgar display? , 99

Something old and something new , 106


"Marriage is quite as serious a matter as death": American Christians and the danger

of divorce, 1880-1920 .....117

The indissoluble bond: making Christian marriages last, 120

The changing moral meaning of the "modest" wedding , 131


Wonderful dream come true: the mass market fairy-tale wedding, 1920-1970 .....140

The expensive wedding day in 1950s Hollywood film, 140

Tradition and the rise of the wedding industry , 146

Haloes, tiaras and glass slippers: the mass market and the sacred feminine , 151

Every American girl loves a wedding , 168


Inviting God into your marriage: American Christians and the "worshipful" wedding,

1920-1970 .....180

Go and sin no more: the importance of church weddings , 183

Anything that adds to the reverence: churches and popular wedding practices , 189

Making an individual of myself: changing currents , 202


Conclusion: The persistence of glass slippers and other mysteries about American white

weddings .....205 Images .....221 Bibliography .....227

Primary Sources , 227

Secondary Sources, 239

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