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Marriage, and all the conventions and traditions that surround it, has always been a constant factor shaping society. It has been the subject of countless movies and TV shows, entire industries have been built around it, and it still marks a rite of passage for many of us.

But what about the traditions which lead up to marriage, rather than the nuptials themselves? Particularly, how did those love-struck couples of the 18th century begin the process of their engagement, and have any of those traditions stood the test of time? Is the excitement compounded with today’s proposals a reflection of those from a few centuries past?

The Proposal

Engagement today is still considered a huge event — if you manage to scroll through your Instagram feed without coming across an image of a tearful engagement, you’re probably an outlier. But the event itself hasn’t always been quite as simple as inviting all of your friends, planning a surprise party, taking your spouse-to-be to a fancy dinner, or orchestrating an engagement party.

 

For a start, in the 18th century you couldn’t just get down on one knee and pop the question- and, despite what movies would have us believe, it was not enough to get the bride’s parents’ permission, either. For example, in the UK, if a couple wanted to get married, they would have to seek the approval of their entire town; which was not always guaranteed to receive a positive reception. Those whose engagement wasn’t supported by their community might run away to be married in so-called “anvil weddings” by blacksmiths, fishermen, weavers, or horse-saddlers.

 

Another significant aspect of the engagement process remains a standard today: the ring. While there have been many changes since the wedding traditions of the 18th century, the engagement ring was still a common feature of the 1700s betrothal. For those on a lower budget, Irish Claddagh rings — with two hands embracing a crowned heart — were popular. That is until the discovery of rare stones in Brazil during the early part of that century made diamonds a mainstay for more wealthy couples.

Making Plans

Marriage is big business, largely because we tend to harbor this image of the fairytale, luxurious occasion as a staple of marriage traditions. For many couples today, their period of engagement is spent making arrangements for their big day — which contemporary wedding planners recommend should take 12-18 months — including everything that comes with combining households, like familiarizing oneself with new family and budgeting for a growing family. But was this the case during the 18th century?

 

In the 1700s, it certainly wasn’t unusual for engagements between wealthier families to take years. For example, while spending this time planning the elaborate ceremony, doweries would often be exchanged — women would provide linens and any hard cash their fathers could spare, while the groom’s father was also expected to make a monetary contribution. Meanwhile, those who weren’t owners of property with huge swathes of disposable cash usually forwent the traditional planning entirely, preferring instead to spend what little money they had on alcohol for the celebrations.

 

For many couples today, the engagement period is also spent making plans for the honeymoon following the occasion. While the current post-wedding vacation is considered an opportunity for the couple to be alone, 18th-century couples were not quite that fortunate. During the 1790s, when the word “Honeymoon” became synonymous with the custom, they instead spent their engagement period making plans to visit those relatives who were unable to personally attend their wedding.

Gender Roles

While we’re not entirely at a place today where we can state that gender roles are equal for all, it’s difficult to argue against the fact that there are fewer restrictions today than there were even a couple of decades ago. This has extended to some of the previously traditional roles each gender has taken during the engagement process, especially as millennials are creating their own approach to shaping their relationships. In the 1700s, there were far more rigid expectations when it came to the roles the bride and groom would play in the run-up to their marriage. 

 

For women, their position in engagements was something of a break from their role in family life at the time. Generally speaking, women were trained from a young age to prepare for a life of domestic chores and raising children, however, during courtship they wielded power which was not usually attributed to them — to accept or reject potential suitors. Women often found this period leading to engagement to be enjoyable, with a relative amount of freedom, although some women chose to end this period quickly to avoid the possibility of being left with poor choices of husband.

 

For men, the state of being a bachelor was not one which held great esteem, and was even a source of embarrassment — so it was considered to be in a gentleman’s best interest to become engaged as soon as possible. With women wielding the power of accepting or rejecting proposals of marriage, men went to great lengths to craft elaborate and heartfelt love letters to woo their potential bride. Once successful, he would spend the period of engagement attending to administrative duties — for example, it was the groom’s responsibility to obtain a certificate from his local minister to show the wedding banns had been posted, and arrange the subsequent collection of the marriage license.

Conclusion

Our traditions may change, but people continue to get swept up in the celebrations and conventions surrounding marriage. How we approach aspects such as engagement, with a loosening of gender roles, and a consideration of what we want from our lives, reflects the changes in attitudes that have occurred across the centuries. While we may take inspiration from the past, it is in our power to shape the future in new ways, with positive intentions.

About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.