I recently discovered this interesting wedding photograph in a box of family keepsakes. Unfortunately, the bride and groom are not identified, so I have no idea who they are.
The photo is actually a “cabinet card” – a thin 4½ x 6½ inch photo mounted on cardboard. Cabinet cards were popular in the late 1800’s, but they quickly went out of style with the introduction of the affordable, easy-to-use Kodak “Brownie” camera in 1900.
The nice thing about cabinet cards is that they usually identify the photographer on the back, which can help us place the photo historically in a time and place. The back of this cabinet card identifies the photographer as “Zutterling,” located at 503 Vine Street in Cincinnati.
I began researching this photo by searching for “Zutterling Cincinnati” on Google Books, and I got extremely lucky – the photographer, Peter Zutterling, was included in Diane VanSkiver Gagel’s book, Ohio Photographers: 1839-1900. The listing for Peter Zutterling specifies that he operated the 503 Vine Street studio from 1873-1894.
Now that I have placed this photo in a fairly narrow time period, I will be looking for a wedding that took place during those years in or near Cincinnati as I continue my family research.
Once I figured out the time period, I moved on to researching the dark wedding dress. I thought the white wedding dress tradition started after Queen Victoria wore white to marry Prince Albert in 1840. So, I was surprised that this late-1800’s bride was not wearing white. Didn’t she get the memo?
As it turns out, most 19th century brides did not wear a white wedding dress. A dark dress was more practical, because she could wear it again for other special occasions. Even Queen Victoria had her white wedding gown re-styled for another use. After all, what reasonable woman buys a dress that she knows she will only wear once?
Of course, when it comes to weddings in the 21st century, practicality and reason are usually in short supply. These days, some brides spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars on extravagant white gowns that are worn for only a few hours, and a bride will go to great lengths to walk down the aisle in her “dream dress,” even if it is obscenely out of her budget.
However, back in the 1800’s, before credit cards, brides had to live within their means. So even though she may have wanted a white dress à la Queen Victoria, she settled for a sensible frock in a dark shade. Only the wealthiest brides were able to pull off a white gown. A wealthy bride might also drag a long, expensive piece of fabric around behind her on the floor.
Those who were not part of the elite continued wearing dresses, sometimes even suits, of various colors. My grandmother, Sara Layton, wore a black velvet skirt and satin jacket when she married my grandfather in 1947. Not long after that, the white dress became standard. Less than ten years after my grandmother got married in her sensible black velvet skirt, my mother was playing dress-up in a white wedding gown when she was only five years old.
Today, the term “white wedding” is used to sum up the entire Western Christian wedding tradition that most of us take for granted. Within this tradition, some people have chosen to label the white dress as a symbol of a bride’s “purity,” a sign that she has saved herself for her groom, who, by the way, typically does not wear white. Women are expected to be perfect, angelic virgins on their wedding day, and men are expected to… show up.
Back in simpler times, before I earned my bitter feminist worldview, I had my own wedding dress picked out of an issue of Bride Magazine years before I had my first kiss. I spent hours studying the way the gown fell in flawless, clean lines around the bride’s perfect shape. I dreamed that one day, I would look so perfect. In these bridal fantasies, I looked a lot like the bride in the magazine picture, who was standing alone, in a field. Because the fantasy wasn’t about the actual marriage or the commitment that it entails. I really just wanted that dress. Which isn’t surprising since every Disney movie I watched and loved as a child seemed to end with a princess in a white gown walking down the aisle to her fairy tale happy ending. As a young girl, I didn’t doubt that my own life would have a similar outcome.
Now that I am a little older, and a little wiser, I would prefer it if weddings looked a little more like my cabinet card. The unidentified bride-in-dark-dress looks like she knows what she’s in for. She has no fairy tale illusions. Nothing about her is perfect. Her dress is wrinkled at the waist and elbows. After all, this is just her wedding day. This is just the man she has chosen to build a life with. Her face says it all: Hopefully I’ll get along with this guy until one of us dies, but I really don’t expect any more from this union than a nice dress that, with any luck, I will wear again.