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Courtship and Marriage in the Eighteenth Century

"You know what to expect from me, as you have seen my character of a good wife. Suppose I tell you now, what I, in my turn, expect, and how you may best please me and make me happy.—Thus then I begin—Let me ever have the sweet consiousness of knowing myself the best beloved of your heart—I do not always require a lover’s attention—that wou’d be impossible, but let it never appear by your conduct that I am indifferent to you."

Margaret Davenport Coulter to John Coulter, May 10, 1795.

In November 1776, Benjamin and Annabelle Powell of Williamsburg married their elder daughter, Hannah, to William Drew of Isle of Wight County. The wedding was the culmination of years of planning, preparation, and effort. Benjamin and Annabelle raised their daughter to be a good housewife and respected member of society; to fulfill her destiny, Hannah did her best to find the most eligible young man to marry. This process was called courting. It was Hannah Powell’s first step into adulthood.

Courting allowed young men and women to meet and socialize largely unchaperoned, at a variety of entertainments. Although William Drew and Hannah Powell were of different social stations (he of the gentry class and she of the upper-middling sort), they still met often at church, balls, parties, public entertainments, and neighbors’ homes. They were part of a small group of well-off, unmarried, young people living in the small city of Williamsburg. When men and women did meet, they obviously enjoyed each other’s company.

“After an agreeable ride we at length reached the house about two o’clock, just about the time when Miss J’s beauty was in its meridian splendor. We found her doing the honors of the table with ineffable sweetness and grace. . . . After dinner we assemble in the hall where the sweet Judah favored us with a good deal of her incomparable music.” (Peter S. Randolph to [?] Carr, July 28, 1787.)
Detail from "The Courtship," by John Collet, London, England, ca. 1764. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.Young white men began courting in their late teens. The average man in Virginia married in his mid-twenties. When he began courting Hannah Powell, William Drew was in his twenties and already established as the Berkeley County clerk of the court. In doing so, he was similar to most men of his time who waited until they had completed their education and attained some financial security before proposing marriage. Marriage was the next logical step in life as they sought marriage partners who could support their economic efforts while running their households and raising their children.

Young white women approached courtship and marriage differently. After completing their domestic training, they enjoyed late adolescence as a special phase of life. Since were not yet responsible for running a household or raising children, women had more freedom during these years than they would ever have again. Courting gave women power; it was their decision whether to accept or reject a suitor. Some wielded it ruthlessly.

“You know I have never with all my faults betrayed one symptom of vanity, but now if you should discover a little spice of it can you Wonder—just at this moment are at my entire disposal two of the Very Smartest Beaux this country can boast of—what think you of G & B both at my feet at one. There is much speculation going on as to the preference I shall give & tho I do not intend to practice one Coquettish air as you are pleased to call my little innocent gaieties yet for my own amusement do I intend to leave these speculating geniuss to their own conjectures for some time at least till I have made up my mind as to the time—for you must know I know I mean make one Surprize do for all by being married off hand—believe me it is impossible for me to think too long on the subject lest I should in truth be whimsical.” (Eliza Ambler to Mildred Smith, February 1785.)

While women might begin courting as early as fifteen or sixteen years of age, most—like Hannah Powell—deferred marriage until their early twenties.

“It has ever been my wish to keep my Daughters single ‘till they were old enough to form a proper judgment of Mankind; well knowing that a Woman’s happiness depends entirely on the Husband she is united to; it is a step that requires more deliberation than girls generally take, or even Mothers seem to think necessary; the risk tho always great, is doubled when they marry very young; it is impossible for them to know each others disposition; for at sixteen and nineteen we think everybody perfect that we take a fancy to . . .” (Mrs. Anne Randolph to St. George Tucker, 1788.)

Others married quickly for fear that waiting too long might eliminate the availability or choice of husbands. The choice of a husband was very important since, once made, only death could undo a marriage. Marriage for women was a complete life change. It meant leaving childhood behind, taking on adult responsibilities, and forming a new family.

With the rise of the affectionate family, arranged marriages became a thing of the past. While parents expected to be consulted and offered advice or criticism freely, men and women chose their own marriage partners, and parents usually accepted their children’s choices. Parents could control their children’s ability to marry before the age of twenty-one. Those who disliked their children’s choices might withhold permission or, if the children were of age, leave them out of a will. This did not happen often. Young people rarely courted far from their social class, and respected parental opinions most of the time.“The Story of Pamela,” plate 9, engraved by L. Truchy after a painting by Joseph Highmore, London, England, 1745. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

“On Thursday last Mr. W[illiam] C[olston] came here and Communicated his intention of waiting on my daughter Lucy. I told him I had long entertained such a Suspicion and really with Pleasure for his Virture and unexceptionable behaviour had long attached my good wishes to him. But as a parent I never took any Liberty with a child but to dissuade where I thought I had reason to do so; but in no instance Whatever to persuade. Therefore her approbation must Proceed from his own conduct and her good liking.” (Landon Carter, Sunday, September 10, 1775.)

The choice of a marriage partner was very important, however, as marriage was a combination of families and should strengthen the family’s social position.

Couples made many preparations for their wedding day. Many exchanged gifts of affection. Women’s dowries consisted of linens and household goods they had accumulated and any money or property their fathers could afford to give to the couple. The groom’s father also was expected to contribute something. Settling the question of where a couple would live and what they would take with them affected others, especially if slaves were part of the dowry.

Like the courtship, the wedding preparations followed rules that were designed to involve the community, both for the public record and communal memory. After they became betrothed, the couple met with the minister to discuss the ceremony and their religious obligations to one another. Three weeks before the wedding, the banns (the declaration of the intention to marry) at were posted at the churches in both home parishes. The man secured a certificate from his minister to show that the banns had been announced. A marriage license could be obtained from the county clerk instead of posting banns, but this was rarely done.

The time and place of a wedding were largely determined by convenience. November, December, and January were the most popular months in which to marry. (Hannah Powell married William Drew in November 1776.)  Farm obligations were less pressing than during the summer. A couple issued verbal invitations to family and friends, who gathered in the morning at the minister’s home or in the bride’s parlor; few weddings occurred in churches. Although the Bishop of London ordered that weddings be held in churches, traveling to them could be difficult for rural families and parishioners. Hannah Powell may have been married at Bruton Parish due to its proximity to her home. Whatever the location or time, however, the ceremony was the same. The ceremony was a ritualized affirmation of family. Everyone had an obligation to support and nurture the new family unit.

The ceremony began with a procession. The minister led the group down the aisle of the church or family parlor, followed by the bride and groom in their finest clothes, the parents, and the bridesmaids and bridesmen. Favors, like gloves, fans, or hat bands, were sometimes given to the attendants.

“Soon after we got there saw Miss Lucy Robertson married to Mr J W Semple & Doct[or] Williamson to Miss P Temple, I was honour’d with a favour and wait’d on the bride.” (Fanny Baylor Hill, March 1797.)

Detail from "The Stages of Man," artist unknown, America, ca. 1815-1835. From the collections of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.The guests witnessed the father give his daughter away, the groom pledge himself with a ring, the couple exchange vows, and the bride promise to obey her husband in all things. The ceremony bound the couple forever in the eyes of the community as well as in the eyes of God.

After the ceremony, the wedding party celebrated at the home of the bride’s parents. (In middling and lower middling circles, the male guests would often race each other to the house where the winner received a bottle of alcohol.)  The family might decorate a table with white paper chains and lay out white foods for a collation. It included two white cakes. The guests consumed the groom’s cake, and sometimes left the bride’s cake untouched for the couple to save (in a tin of alcohol) to eat on each wedding anniversary. The party could last a few hours or several days.

The wedding festivities often began with eating, drinking, and toasting, continued with games and dancing, and ended with the couple’s exit from the bride’s house.

“After dinner we danced cotillions, minuets, Virginia and Scotch reels, country dances, jigs, etc. till ten o’clock. I had the pleasure of Miss McCall for a partner. She is a fine, sensible, accomplished young girl, and by far the best dancer in the room . . . The bride and bridegroom led off the different country dances . . . After supper, which was as elegant as the dinner . . . we continued dancing till twelve.” (Robert Hunter, Jr., December 1, 1785.)

Anyone who slipped away from the dancing to rest could be hunted down and forced to return. Various wedding customs might have taken place during the party. Young men might try to steal the bride’s slipper from her foot. If one was successful, he could ransom it back to its owner for the forfeit of a kiss. When the couple retired, their friends followed them to bed to throw the stocking. Each woman threw a balled-up stocking over her shoulder at the bride. Each man did the same to the groom. Whoever hit the target would be the next to marry. When the bride and groom left her parents’ house, they traveled in a carriage perhaps with a boot tied to the back, a symbol of a long and happy marriage. They began their married by life visiting relatives and friends before settling down in their new home.

Courtship and marriage were among the ritualized customs that white eighteenth-century Virginians practiced and adapted from their European roots. Courtship taught young people about social interaction; the parties and visits ensured that they met many eligible partners. Some young women even lived with distant relatives in order to meet a larger number of eligible young men. Weddings were joyously celebrated as occasions that affirmed the young couple’s affection and the binding of family ties, but they could also be a time of painful separation as young women left their parents’ homes forever. Courtship and marriage, life passages common to most white Virginians, were important milestones in the formation of community, consciousness, and culture in eighteenth-century Virginia.

Colonial Courtship Slideshow

This article, which originally appeared in the Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter (Winter 1997), was written by Elizabeth Maurer. Elizabeth is a former member of the department of Group Interpretations.