Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Bride with Wedding Night Jitters, c. 1750

Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Susan reporting:

Doubtless fueled by pictures of primly dressed cardboard Thanksgiving Pilgrims, many modern Americans believe that their forefathers & mothers were chaste and modest, too busy creating a new country to give way to impure thoughts, let alone actions.

Not so. The years directly before the American Revolution showed a record number of premarital pregnancies and babies born soon after marriages - records that in some cases weren't equaled until the 1960s. Despite the warnings of the colonial church, sex was not only practiced outside of marriage, but freely discussed and joked about, too. This bawdy story comes from the diary of John Adams, and while it might have been embellished a bit for the audience, it shows that even in supposedly straight-laced New England, a good jest with double-entendres was considered an excellent way "to raise the spirits" - and it also seems that the new Mistress Bicknal enjoyed herself, too.

"Last Thursday Night, at Cranach's Wedding, Dr. Tufts, in the Room where the Gentlemen were, said We used to have on these Occasions, some good Matrimonial stories, to raise our spirits. The story of B. Bicknal's Wife is a very clever one. She said, when she was married she was very anxious, she feared, she trembled, she could not go to Bed. But she recollected she had put her Hand to the Plow and could not look back, so she mustered her Spirits, committed her soul to God, and her Body to B. Bicknal and into Bed she leaped and in the Morning she was amazed, she could not think for her Life what it was that had scared her so."

Many thanks to John Bell for reminding us of this passage - and please check out his excellent Boston 1775, a blog devoted to history, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in Massachusetts.

Above: Detail from Illustration for 'Wedding Proposals', print by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki (1726-1801), 1780, Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Stanley Talpis, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


YONKS said...

Mistress Bicknal,
Dirty little minx methinks!

MrsC (Maryanne) said...

A refreshingly earthy, pre-Victorian, outlook!

Anonymous said...

I don't see anything naughty about that story. It is one for robust laughter instead of titters.
Also, all the premarital pregnancies do not necessarily mean that people were promiscuous or that everyone had shot gun weddings. Common law marriages were quite usual in much of the world. Also, when a betrothal was as good as a marriage the couple would often live as married before they had the ceremony at the church door, It wasn't so much that they got married because she was pregnant, but that she got pregnant because they considered themselves married. The type of marriage available in Scotland was common in much of the world, though many also had the words said by a priest or parson before the baby was born as a sort of double assurance.
England didn't pass the Hardwicke marriage act until 1753 to take effect in 1754.England pretty much preferred to have people married by an ordained man, but that wasn't true of all societies, nor of all levels of societies.
The Puritans allowed marriages by magistrates.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the rise in pre-Rev War premarital pregnancies has anything to do with a lack of access to becoming legally wed (ie lack of nearby magistrate or minister) so much as an active choice. Nor does the Scottish model apply in New England, which was settled largely by the English. Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich notes in relation to these figures that "external controls of sexual behavior imposed by church, courts, and parents were breaking down, while the new internalized morality which would become characteristic of the nineteenth century had not yet developed." ("Good Wives", p 122) In other words, people, particularly women, weren't intimidated into not having sex by patriarchal or religious authorities. Like the Mrs. Bicknal (who had made the choice to wed first) in this story, they leaped into bed, and had a good time, too.

KuriosityKat said...

The illustration of the gentleman proposing to his lady is so charming. He really wants her to say yes!

Heather Carroll said...

@Anon, I don't think Susan was implying that Colonial America was brimming with promiscuous people, just merely sharing the interesting facts in the abbreviated style akin to blog posts.

Love the Bicknal story! But was the new Mrs Bicknal pleased with what went on, or sorely disappointed by all the hype? One of those interpretive questions lost in history(I'd like to think the latter)!

Barb Bockrath said...

Would you be interested to know that in the
West Augusta District of Virginia 1775-1780 (general Pittsburgh area), the fine for bastardy was 50 shillings to be paid by the mother (and/or mother's family) "Commonwealth v Elizabeth Deckart, v Sarah Jacobs, v Mary Boyd,v Catharin (sic) Develin v Ann Walker for bearing a base born child. Aug 28, 1780."

Some of the 'gentleman justices' private papers show that the fine was sometimes excused if the young woman was "of good character and previously handfasted to a man who went for a soldier and never returned".

Source: Virginia Court Records in SW Pennsylvania, Boyd Crumrine, PGH 1902-1905 p. 358

Quite a bit of money. 12 p to the S, 20 S to the L. a crippling fine for a subsistence farmer/early settler. Pittsburgh did not officially become part of Penna until after the War. I have seen a Virginia map at U VA dated into the first decade of the 1800's which still shows the Pittsburgh region shaded as part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Some people never give up.

Barb Bockrath, who posts as Auntie B in the [Pitts]burgh

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