Photo: My grandma and grandpa at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago
My heart always sinks when I’m reading along through uncharted but promising fiction waters and the heroine of the book suddenly finds her grandmother’s diary. Forward momentum of the plot (and my progress through the book) inevitably slows. Have you been there?
A few months ago my father walked in my door and handed me a small white box. “I’m giving you this for safekeeping,” he said. He didn’t look a bit like Gandalf as he said it, but I still heard an echo “Keep it secret; keep it safe!” in my mind.
Inside the box was a thick red book with “Five Year Diary” printed in gold across the front cover. It was my grandmother’s diary from 1933 and unlike all those fictional grandmothers’ diaries it was rather cryptic and surprisingly fascinating. Her entry from October 13, 1933 is a good example of her style. “Went to Don’s De Luxe French Frolic with Johnny. Good music, good crowd, good time. Got in at 10 to 3.” (Who is Don? What is a “De Luxe French Frolic”?)
“Johnny,” of course, is my grandfather. At first I found his name interspersed among mentions of Gordon, Forrest and Alfred, but after half a year or so she stopped mentioning the other guys.
Shortly thereafter Grandpa started proposing. Not just once, twice, or three times, but four times in the space of three months! (Her answer the third time I found amusing: “Sometime. Maybe.”)
I had never thought about my grandmother’s wedding before. Now, reading as their courtship progressed, I waiting impatiently to discover the middle of my grandma’s love story. I read through parties and dances and quilt squares, gallons of mustard pickles, popcorn and ice cream, and the occasional sip of home brew.
And then out of the blue – “Esther, Elmer and I went to Sioux Falls. Esther got her wedding dress. We [my grandma and grandpa] got diamond engagement rings.” (Nov 18th, 1933)
What did a 30’s wedding look like? The word “vintage” – powerful in its ability to conjure images of lace, pearls, and dresses – came to mind and I got excited to read all the juicy details of who her bridesmaids were, where the wedding was going to be, what her dress looked like, and all those features that go into planning such a big occasion. Instead she continued to write about quilting, 4-H meetings, and going to shows. Then I remembered – this was the Great Depression.
June 15th, 1934 she wrote, “We went to Pipestone in afternoon. I got my wedding dress. It is light blue with a white collar.” And five days later: “Johnny and I went to Luverne in afternoon – got a wedding ring and license.” My aunt remembers Grandma saying later that the ring had cost something like $25.
Imagine just going to the store and buying a dress and wedding veil to get married in: how simple, how easy and economical. You’d even be able to wear that dress again.
Though you might picture adorable fine-lined invitations and pearls when I mention a 30’s wedding, the real distinguishing features of a 30’s wedding were probably Economy and Pragmatism. (Anyone hear a title for the seventh Jane Austen novel in there?) As a professional harpist I work in the wedding “industry”, and yet I can’t help but feel like 21st century America could learn something from our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ depression-era weddings.
On June 28th, 1934, my grandma and grandpa got married at 1:30pm. They were in the car and on their way to the Chicago World’s Fair by 4pm. It took them three days to get there, stopping to see various relatives en route. Grandma’s Aunt Myrtle and Uncle George threw a picnic so Johnny could meet everyone.
What do you know about your grandmother’s wedding? Do you know what her dress looked like? Did she have eighty people at her bridal shower like mine did? I almost choked when I read that particular journal entry. Making 80 cupcakes is hard enough. Frosting 80 cupcakes would take hours. Making 80 cupcakes look as pretty as you’d want them to look for a bridal shower? I don’t even want to think about it.
Ask your grandmother about her wedding, or read her diary. She might just provide some nice old-fashioned perspective to balance out all those envy-inducing fairy-tale wedding magazines. But I won’t go so far as to say that you should spend your honeymoon with relatives – and certainly not that you wear a wedding dress with a collar – any kind of collar.
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy reading Etiquette According to a Renaissance Musician.
Stephanie Claussen has served the wedding industry in Minneapolis & St. Paul since 2000. Lovely harp music could be available for your ceremony–consider hiring Stephanie!