The etiquette of marriage: The engagement, wedding ceremony & after (1850)

Couple getting engaged around 1850

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Here’s a guide for men who want to marry, from popping the question to the wedding reception — well, if you lived before the Civil War, that is.

If you’ve ever wondered what courtship, engagement and marriage were like many years ago, these details from the 1850s may offer some fascinating insight.

Along with some beautiful illustrations from the mid-19th century, on this page, you will find out a lot about the era’s etiquette and expectations.

While the details of before and after the wedding ceremony were illuminating, we thought that one of the most unusual aspects came after the marriage.

That’s when both parties were to drop all their former friends — including members of the wedding party! — unless they specifically chose to “renew their acquaintance.”

Popping the question: Advice from 1850

There is nothing more appalling to a modest and sensitive young man than asking the girl he loves to marry him, and there are few who do not find their moral courage tasked to the utmost.

Many a man who would lead a forlorn hope, mount a breach, and seek the bubble reputation e’en in the cannon’s mouth,” trembles at the idea of asking a woman the question which is to decide his fate. Ladies may congratulate themselves that nature and custom have made them the responding party.

In a matter which men have always found so terrible, yet which, in one way or other, they have always contrived in some awkward way to accomplish; it is not easy to give instructions suited to every emergency.

A man naturally conforms to the disposition of the woman he admires. If she be serious, he will approach the awful subject with due solemnity — if gay and lively, he will make it an excellent joke — if softly sentimental, he must woo her in a strain of high-wrought romance — if severely practical, he relies upon straight-forward common sense.

There is one maxim of universal application: Never lose an opportunity. What can a woman think of a lover who neglects one? Women cannot make direct advances, but they use infinite tact in giving men occasions to make them.

In every case, it is fair to presume that when a woman gives a man an opportunity, she expects him to improve it; and though he may tremble, and feel his pulses throbbing and tingling through every limb; though his heart is filling up his throat, and his tongue cleaves to the roof of his mouth, yet the awful question must be asked — the fearful task accomplished.

Couple dancing around the 1840s

A romantic walk in the moonlight

In the country, the lover is taking a romantic walk by moonlight, with the lady of his love — talks of the beauties of the scenery, the harmony of nature, and exclaims, “Ah! Julia, how happy would existence prove, if I always had such a companion!”

She sighs, and leans more fondly on the arm that tremblingly supports her.

“My dearest Julia, be mine forever!” This is a settler, and the answer, ever so inaudible, “makes or undoes him quite.”

“Take pity on a forlorn bachelor,” says another, in a manner which may be either jest or earnest, “marry me at once and put me out of my misery.”

“With all my heart, whenever you are ready,” replies the laughing fair. A joke carried thus far is easily made earnest.

A point is often carried by taking a thing for granted. A gentleman who has been paying attentions to a lady, says, “Well, Mary, when is the happy day?” ” What day, pray?” she asks, with a conscious blush.

“Why, everybody knows that we are going to get married, and it might as well be one time as another; so, when shall it be?”

Cornered in this fashion, there is no retreat.

“Jane, I love you! Will you marry me?” would be somewhat abrupt, and a simple, frankly given, “Yes!” would be short and sweet, for an answer.

“Ellen, one word from you would make me the happiest man in the universe!”

“I should be cruel not to speak it then, unless it is a very hard one.”

“It is a word of three letters, and answers the question. Will you have me?”

The lady, of course says Yes, unless she happen to prefer a word of only two letters, and answers No.

And so this interesting and terrible process in practice, simple as it is in theory, is varied in a hundred ways, according to circumstances and the various dispositions-

One timid gentleman asks, “Have you any objection to change your name?” and follows this up with another which clenches its significance, “How would mine suit you?”

Another asks, “Will you tell me what I most wish to know?”

“Yes, if can.”

“The happy day when we shall be married?”

Another says, “My Eliza, we must do what all the world evidently expects we shall.”

“All the world is very impertinent.”

“I know it — but it can’t be helped. When shall I tell the parson to be ready?”

As a general rule, a gentleman never need be refused. Every woman, except a heartless coquette, finds the means of discouraging a man whom she does not intend to have, before the matter comes to the point of a declaration.

ALSO SEE: 71 old wedding superstitions, traditions & marriage myths that range from sweet to silly to sad

Two Victorian wedding dresses from 1862

The marriage ceremony

Weddings are everywhere accompanied with some degree of ceremony, and are usually considered as occasions of festivity. The preliminaries having been arranged by the contracting parties, and the lady having named the happy day, preparations are made for the wedding.

Those who belong to the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches are usually married at Church, in the morning, and by the prescribed forms. In some cases, there is a wedding party given in the evening; in others, the happy couple make a short wedding tour, and issue cards of invitation on their return.

Among other denominations, the parties are married by a clergyman or magistrate; and in the state of New York, marriage being considered by the law only a civil contract, it may be witnessed by any person.

Where a wedding is celebrated in the usual forms, cards of invitation are issued, at least a week beforehand. The hour selected is usually 8 o’clock, P. M. Wedding cake, wines, and other refreshments, are provided by the bride and her friends for the occasion.

The bride is usually dressed in pure white — she wears a white veil, and her head is crowned with a wreath of white flowers, usually artificial; and orange blossoms are preferred. She should wear no ornaments but such as her intended husband or her father may present her for the occasion — certainly no gift, if any such were retained, of any former sweetheart.

The bridesmaid or bridesmaids, if there be two, are generally younger than the bride, and should also be dressed in white, but more simply.

The bridegroom must be in full dress — that is, he must wear a dress coat, which, if he pleases, may be laced with white satin; a white vest, black pantaloons, and dress boots or pumps, with black silk stockings, and white kid gloves, and a white cravat. The bridegroom is attended by one or two groomsmen, who should be dressed in a similar manner.

MORE: Tips for a happy marriage: Advice for newlyweds, from the 1900s

The marriage - Illustration from the mid-1800s of a couple being wed

The bridesmaids and groomsmen

It is the duty of the bridesmaids to assist in dressing the bride, and making the necessary preparations for the entertainment of the guests. The chief groomsman engages the clergyman or magistrate, and upon his arrival introduces him to the bride and bridegroom, and the friends of the parties.

The invited guests, upon their arrival, are received as at other parties, and after visiting the dressing rooms and arranging their toilets, they proceed to the room where the ceremony is to be performed.

In some cases, the marriage is performed before the arrival of the guests. When the hour for the ceremony has arrived, and all things are ready, the wedding party, consisting of the happy couple, with the bridesmaids and groomsmen, walk into the room arm in arm.

The groomsmen each attend the bridesmaids, preceding the bride and bridegroom, and take their position at the head of the room, which is usually the end farthest from the entrance; the bride standing facing the assembly on the right of the bridegroom — the bridesmaids taking their position at her right, and the groomsmen at the left of the bridegroom.

The principal groomsman now formally introduces the clergyman or magistrate to the bride and bridegroom, and he proceeds to perform the marriage ceremony: if a ring is to be used, the bridegroom procures a plain gold one previously, taking some means to have it of the proper size.

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Wedding and bridal fashions from Godey's Lady's Book (1861)

After the ceremony

As soon as the ceremony is over, and the bridegroom has kissed the bride, the clergyman or magistrate shakes hands with the bride, saluting her by her newly-acquired name, as Mrs. _____ , and wishes them joy, prosperity and happiness: the groomsmen and bridesmaids then do the same; and then the principal groomsman brings to them the other persons in the room, commencing with the parents and relatives of the parties, the brides relatives having precedence, and ladies being accompanied by gentlemen.

In this manner all present are expected to make their salutations and congratulations, first to the newly married couple, and then to their parents and friends. And where the wedding ceremony has been performed before the arrival of the guests, they are received near the door, having of course first visited the dressing rooms, and introduced in the same manner.

The groomsman takes occasion before the clergyman or magistrate leaves, to privately thank him for his attendance, at the same time placing in his hand the marriage fee, which is wrapped up nicely in paper, and if more than the legal sum, as is frequently the case where the parties are wealthy, it is usually in gold. The bridegroom, of course, takes an early opportunity to reimburse his groomsman for necessary expenses.

When the presentations and congratulations are over, that is, when the guests have arrived, the bridal party, which till now has kept its position, mingles with the rest of the company, and joins in the dating or other amusements.

Fashionable women of 1854

The bridal chamber

The festivities should not be kept up too late; and at the hour of retiring, the bride is to be conducted to the bridal chamber by the bridesmaids, who assist her in her night toilet. The bridegroom upon receiving notice will retire, without farther attendance or ceremony.

The practice of kissing the bride is not so common as formerly, and in regard to this, the taste of the bridegroom may be consulted, as the rest of the company follow the example of the groomsman; but the parents and very near relatives of the parties, of course act as affection prompts them.

The chamber frolics, such as the whole company visiting the bride and bridegroom after they are in bed, which was done some years ago, even at the marriage of monarchs, and the custom of throwing the stocking, etc., are almost universally dispensed with.

Wedding from 1860

The honeymoon & after marriage

After marriage, the bridal party usually travels for a week or two: upon their return, it is customary for the bride to be “at home” for a few days to receive visits. The first four weeks after marriage constitute the honeymoon.

You need not retain the whole of your previous acquaintance; those only to whom you send cards are, after marriage, considered in the circle of your visiting acquaintance.

The parents or friends of the bride usually send the cards to her connections; the bridegroom selects those persons among his former associates whom he wishes to retain as such. The cards are sometimes united by a silken cord, or white ribbon, to distinguish those of a newly married pair from ordinary visitors ; but it is doubtful whether it be in good taste.

A married lady may leave her own or her husband’s card in returning a visit; the latter only would be adopted as a resource in the event of her not having her own with her.

A lady will not say, “My husband,” except among intimates, in every other case she should address him by his Christian name, calling him Mr. It is equally good ton, when alone with him, to designate him by his Christian name.

1850s travel to boston - Trained seals

Cobbett, in his “Advice to a Husband,” says,

“I never could see the sense of its being a piece of etiquette, a sort of mark of good breeding, to make it a rule that man and wife are not to sit side by side in a mixed company; that if a party walk out, the wife is to give her arm to some other than her husband; that if there be any other hand near, his is not to help to a seat or into a carriage.

I never could see the sense of this; but I have always seen the nonsense of it plainly enough; it is, in short, a piece of false refinementIt, being interpreted, means that so free are the parties from a liability to suspicion, that each man can safely trust his wife with another man, and each woman her husband with another woman.

But this piece of false refinement, like all others, overshoots its mark; it says too much; for it says that the parties have lewd thoughts in their minds.”

This is the sensible view taken of part of the etiquette of marriage, by a man of extreme practical sense.

ALSO SEE: How to have a proper Victorian garden party (1899)


Acquaintances after marriage

When a man marries, it is understood that all former acquaintanceship ends, unless he intimates a desire to renew it, by sending you his own and his wife’s card, if near, or by letter, if distant. If this be neglected, be sure no further intercourse is desired.

In the first place — A bachelor is seldom very particular in the choice of his companions. So long as he is amused, he will associate freely enough with those whose morals and habits would point them out as highly dangerous persons to introduce into the sanctity of domestic life.

Secondly — A married man has the tastes of another to consult; and the friend of the husband may not be equally acceptable to the wife.

Besides — Newly-married people may wish to limit the circle of their friends, from praiseworthy motives of economy.

When a man first “sets up” in the world, the burden of an extensive and indiscriminate acquaintance may be felt in various ways. Many have had cause to regret the weakness of mind which allowed them to plunge into a vortex of gaiety and expense they could ill afford, from which they have found it difficult to extricate themselves, and the effects of which have proved a serious evil to them in after-life.

When a man is about to be married, he usually gives a dinner to his bachelor friends; which is understood to be their congé, unless he chooses to renew their acquaintance.

NOW SEE THIS: 19 important marriage tips for the ladies – most of which would just not fly today (1838)

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