Tales from the Archives: Love and Marriage in the Americana Collection

Written by: Tracy Robinson, DAR Director of Archives and History
February 14, 2019

The Americana Collection is home to hundreds of documents concerning family life in America before 1830. The collection includes marriage licenses, legal agreements, last wills and testaments, and family correspondence. Societal changes that occurred in America during the 1700s impacted ideas and customs surrounding courtship and marriage.

At the beginning of the American Revolution, the structure of marriage and family was equal to that of a dictatorship and comparable to the relationship between the American colonists and the British crown. King George III was viewed as the domineering husband and parent and the colonies were the abused wife or offspring given no choice but to rebel.

Also, the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement popular in the 17th and 18th centuries that emphasized reason and individualism more than tradition, influenced ways in which marriage was popularly viewed. The partnership was seen more and more as a private agreement between two people rather than an arranged contract made by the couple’s families. When courting, couples looked for mutual obligation, love, and companionship.

Correspondence was an important part of 18th-century courtship. A young man did not write to a young lady without her father’s permission, and likewise she did not reply without her father’s permission. Consequently, the first letter to one’s potential father-in-law was very important. There were so many rules for courtship correspondence that “letter writers” which served as instructional guides were published by the dozens. A popular letter writer was Samuel Johnson’s The New London Letter Writer. During this period, love letters became more affectionate than in previous eras and were often signed “your obedient humble servant” or “affectionately yours.” 

This love letter is dated August 4, 1778, from White Plains, NY. It was written by Ezekiel Palmer, a Revolutionary War soldier. The letter may have prefaced a marriage proposal as Palmer begs the lady to continue correspondence with him and writes that she “may take this for a certainty that my affections are steadfast fixed and my mind nothing altered—permit me farther to say madam that you alone are the keeper of my heart the source of my affections—who alone can make me happy.”  (Americana Collection, acc. 3457)

Similar to today, wedding ceremonies of the Revolutionary War and the Early National periods varied depending on the couple’s class and religious background. Overall, though, ceremonies were much simpler than today’s weddings. Often the ceremony was a small, private event held at the home of either the bride’s or groom’s parents.

The bride wore her best dress or, if she could afford it, a new dress. The groom also wore his best attire. In the early 1800s, light colors and white were in fashion for women’s clothing. It was not until after Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert in 1840 that the color white became the dominant color of wedding dresses.

This 1835 notice announces an intended marriage between a Mr. Baker and a Miss Dyer at Wellfleet (Mass.) (Americana Collection, acc. 141)

Communication became more important to a successful marriage than it had been before the Revolution. Marriage was equated with friendship. Husbands and wives confided thoughts and feelings and sought each other’s advice. Spouses separated by physical distance because of the war wrote newsy letters to each other and often expressed undying love and devotion as well.

An excerpt from a March 14, 1777, letter from Samuel Dorrance to his wife, Anne, reads: “We live pretty well for soldiers and I am favored from hardships by serving as a clerk for our company. No news is worth your notice. So [I] shall subscribe myself your loving husband until death.” (Americana Collection, acc. 3565 (d))

Happy Valentine's Day!

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