Tuesday, July 13, 2010

An Unaccountable Wedding Fad

Shortly after the Fenno family moved to New York in June 1800, Harriet Fenno, Rachel Gratz's best friend, met or renewed an acquaintanceship with John Rodman, a young lawyer with literary interests. As his name started appearing regularly in letters, Rachel, who had been so desperate at the loss of her friends, made a quick trip to New York in August and was able to report that Harriet was in love. There was much suspense among the Gratz sisters which was heightened by a peculiar fad of the time (it seems to have lasted several years) for secret engagements and surprise weddings. (More accurately, these engagements were "private," known and approved by the families involved, but not formally announced and even denied to everyone else until the couple appeared as husband and wife.) Washington Irving commented on the phenomenon in 1802:

"There is nothing that seems more strange and preposterous to me than the manner in which modern marriages are conducted. The parties keep the matter as secret as if there was something disgraceful about the connexion...they sneak into matrimony as quietly as possible, and seem to pride themselves on the cunning and ingenuity they have displayed in their maneuvers."

Rachel returned to the Fenno's in November, eager to find out what was going on. Rebecca in Philadelphia had to wait for the mail, not knowing if she would be taken into the small circle who were to be told of the engagement once it was a fact. Since the Fenno's wanted Rachel to remain in New York for the wedding, Maria conveyed the good news to Rebecca, vowing her to secrecy, but permitting her to tell her mother so that Rachel might be given permission to extend her visit till the first of the year.

Meanwhile, Harriet Fenno's other friends in Philadelphia had heard rumors of a possible engagement and asked about it. Rebecca felt awkward dodging their questions, but fortunately did not have to keep them at bay for too long. Short engagements were the norm at this period. John Rodman and Harriet Fenno were married before the end of the year and Rebecca was free to announce the marriage.

(Irving's remarks appeared in The Morning Chronicle (New York City), November 20, 1802.)


  1. hmmmm, interesting. Perhaps so that other suitors would not be discouraged in case such a planned marriage somehow did not work out?

  2. The only thing I can conclude from this weird fad is that the bride and groom did not have to rely on the gifts of the wedding guests to set up their household.


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