Wedding Presents-the Trousseau

A bride may spend a lifetime assembling her trousseau — the linens, clothing and household goods which she brings to the marriage, which were once seen as partial compensation for the brideprice. The word derives from the French trousse, or bundle. In pioneer America, Wales, Holland, Scandinavia, Normandy and elsewhere, these goods were stored in the marriage chest, often an object of great beauty, represented today by the far simpler 'hope chest'. When Katharine Van Burgh married Philip Livingston in Manhattan about 1700, she provided a complete set of china from Delft, which was stored in a Dutch oak chest, twelve feet high, broad in proportion, compartmented for linen and silver and filled with secret drawers, its keyhole concealed among carvings. Comparable furniture was found in Yorkshire. In 'Fifty Years in a Moorland Parish', Canon J. C. Atkinson wrote of Danby-in-Cleveland:

When I first came into residence here about 1850 there were few farmhouses in which there was not one of those fine old black cabinets or wardrobes with carved panels, folding-doors and knobby feet . . . And not once or twice only but many times, I have heard the name 'bridewain' attributed to them. This seems to have been regarded as a usual part of the wedding presents.

A Pennsylvania Dutch bridegroom presented his bride with the traditional 'bride's box', oval and about eighteen inches long, of a size to hold the smaller trousseau items such as handkerchiefs. Stiffly conventional brides and bridegrooms whose stolid expressions belied emotional inscriptions such as 'Ich lebe dich mit Lust' with pomegranates of fertility and doves of happiness, were favourite painted decorations.

Household linen has always been a staple trousseau item. When about 1930 Llewelyn Powys visited a Swiss bride-to-be near Glarus, he found her and her sisters industriously embroidering the wedding sheet with emblems of love. A lifetime's supply of trousseau tablecloths, napkins, towels and counterpanes was stacked nearby. In the nineteenth century a Turkish Osmanli bride departed for her new life with a great assortment of mattresses, pillows, quilts, sheets, copper kitchen utensils, furniture, a brazier and small items such as silver-mounted dustpans and trays elegantly inlaid with mother-of- pearl. The trousseau dominated the thoughts of Italian girls from infancy. Petticoats, nightdresses, underwear of all kinds, embroidered and trimmed with rich lace, were counted in sixes of dozens if the bride were well-to-do and the peasant girl who could not count articles for her corredo in dozens was poor indeed.

Fortunately is not quite the same these days. One of the things that sometimes delays the start of a ceilidh or barn dance for an evening reception, is to find that the table which should have been reserved for the band to put its mixing desk and other equipment on, has been used as the table for the last minute wedding gifts. What you do with them? You can't dump them on the floor. You can't start setting up the band until the table is in place on the stage or at side of the dancefloor. You're stuck. You have to find a best man, and one who is sober, and persuade him to get the presents moved somewhere else, but somewhere safe.

Wedding gifts needed careful thought or they might do more ill than good. In pioneer America a bread peel, redolent of harvest, was a lucky present. Everywhere sharp or pointed objects were banned lest they 'sever' the romance, although this stigma could be dealt with. The Worcester Herald for 1858 reported that villagers had presented a squire's daughter upon her marriage with a silver cake basket and knife. But before the spokesman would hand over the knife he demanded a penny from the bride to offset ill-luck. This she smilingly produced and the recipient said he would have it engraved and keep it as a memento. Dutch brides received wafer irons with the bridegroom's coat of arms, initials and the wedding date; English brides brass warming-pans, inscribed 'Love and Live in Peace'; Austrian girls, painted wooden tubs enjoining 'Be Happy and Industrious'. The tub would carry small possessions to the new home. A girl marrying a Yorkshire farmer expected a bright new 'butter penny' which, laid on the scale with the 'pundstan', a natural stone weighing exactly one pound, ensured that no customer at the farm dairy could complain of short weight.

Traditional gifts such as these survived until relatively recent years. When about 1910 a Herefordshire (see Herefordshire string quartets) blacksmith's daughter married, she wore a 'gown', held a reception in a marquee, and left for the honeymoon by car. It could have been a society wedding, but for one touch: the bridegroom's father gave the couple a pig. The bride afterwards commended the pig as by far the most valuable of their wedding presents; within a year it had produced no fewer than twenty-eight piglets. (But surely, it required 2 peaks as a gift to achieve that feat?)

In modern Japan, the groom's family at the yuino, or betrothal party, gives the bride her wedding kimono embroidered with the groom's crest, and in addition a dress kimono, silk, shoes, hair ornaments, sake and fish, and receives a banquet in return. Everything must be in even numbers; two measures of tea, two pairs of toe thongs, two fish: her family reciprocates precisely the groom's gifts and even the basket which carried the groom's fish is packed with the bride's fish for the return journey.

A century ago Finnish brides collected their own wedding gifts, armed with a pillowcase and escorted by an old married man with tophat and umbrella symbolising his 'sheltering' role. Each household gave the faithful follower a drop to help him in his onerous task and by evening his appearance was tragi-comic in the extreme. To omit this bridal-collecting was considered snobbish.

Wedding presents have reflected varied needs. Alice Roosevelt's White House gifts in 1906 included a Boston terrier with a complete wardrobe of suits, shoes, furs and petticoats and its regimen engraved upon a silver plate. But whenjairus A. Potter, carpenter, married Elizabeth Allen, maid of all work, at the Pack Log Tavern, Madison, Wisconsin, in April 1838 'the presents were not costly nor numerous, but they were unique and useful to a young family in a new country . . .milking stool, empty champagne basket with rockers . . . fishhook and line . . .

At the American ritual of the 'bridal shower' — sometimes specifically a 'kitchen shower' (pots, pans, cooking implements), a 'bar shower' (glasses, coasters, cocktail shakers), a 'closet shower' (shoe tree's and brushes, coat-hangers and garment-bags) — friends present the bride with small gifts. A popular bride receives several showers, usually following luncheon or bridge parties in her honour. In theory, at least, the gifts surprise her. The bridegroom may receive a 'honey do' shower in anticipation of his future household duties ('honey, do this, honey, do that'), with gifts of aprons, dustpans, brushes and other useful tools. Now, in 2017, this tradition has been imported into the UK, probably by Marks & Spencer's and John Lewis partnership to keep their wedding gift websites going.

At the 'trousseau tea', about a week before the wedding, the bride's slips, panties and nightdresses are displayed. (This is something that is not a UK tradition nowadays, but is this a business opportunity? If it could be made tradition, like the bridal shower now is, we could hire one of our string quartets to play at the trousseau tea, and if they booked that and the wedding ceremony itself i.e. a double booking, we could give them a reduction. If Marks & Spencer's and John Lewis can market traditions, why can't Midsummer music?

It is, of course, unlucky to show the wedding-dress itself and every garment must have been tried on before showing: one girl, about to display her pink wedding slippers just arrived by mail, was saved by a concerted outcry from her family, who shuddered at calamity so nearly averted. The wedding presents, perhaps specially arranged on white satin-covered tables by decorators from a local store, are similarly shown to admiring friends and neighbours, but the value of modern gifts has created new problems. Brought to a recent shower at Bridgeport, Connecticut, were a king-sized bed, two vacuum cleaners and three colour television sets; today it is not unusual for an armed security guard to stand over the treasures. Such exhibitions are far from new: in Turkey a century ago, trousseau items, furred under-garments, linens and prayer carpet, were hung on cords along the walls of the bridegroom's house; furniture was shown in another room and garlands of artificial flowers dressed the 'bride's corner' where her jewellery glittered under glass.

A solemn passage rite moved the bride's goods to her new home. In rural Germany she must arrange her spinning wheel in the dowry cart with distaff facing the house, or she would die in childbirth; she must weep bitterly as she followed the cart, or marriage would be tearful. In the Black Forest a handheld crucifix offset 'crosses' later and the bridegroom sprinkled the goods with holy water and crossed them with consecrated chalk for extra safety. Among Scottish fisher folk it was unlucky for the 'kist' or bride's chest to be moved on a Friday, the day of the crucifixion, ill-omened for new enterprises of any kind, from marriage to sowing a field or killing a pig. The bride locked her kist, the best man laid the key over his heart and the procession moved off to the bridegroom's house. There the kist was set upon the doorstep and unlocked by the bride, who lifted its lid three times to an incantation marking her entry into married life. Chinese brides passed their clothes ceremonially over a purifying, fertilizing fire, before sending them to the bridegroom's home.

In Italy in 1880 the bride's friends transported her property: the more the goods the greater the envy. The contents of each drawer, removed from its chest, were meticulously arranged to stand public inspection which they would certainly receive. One girl carried the pillow, another the looking-glass; behind came the donkey with the mattress. In Normandy everything was crammed on to a decorated waggon; on top was hoisted the finely carved chest or babut, central ornament of the new home. The seamstress of the linen rode on the cart, handing pins to any single girls the procession met, wishing them speedy marriage.