Courtship and Marriage Customs

in the Victorian Era

By: Gabrielle Mould


The Victorian Era was all about proper etiquette and manners. The behaviors in the Victorian Era were linked back to these qualities, especially courtship. Courtship began at a young age for both men and women. They were trained, refined, and groomed to be proper in the eyes of society. There were very specific rules for how men and women could meet and act in public, especially if they were unmarried to one another.

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From the time she was very young to the day she came of age, she has been trained to be a dutiful wife and mother. If the young woman was properly schooled, she would have learned to sing, dance, speak French, practice the rules of etiquette, play piano or guitar. She would have also been well versed about light literature of the day. A young woman was typically around the age of seventeen or eighteen when she completed her education, however, under certain circumstances it could be pushed back or brought forward. Once a woman completed her education, she would have been introduced into society through a “coming out” ball or dance. This marked the time that the woman could be swept up by a suitor to be his wife. To celebrate and mark the occasion, a woman often bought a new wardrobe for that season. A season is from April to July and included military reviews, dinner parties, charity events, and balls. These events were meant to put eligible ladies out in the world to hopefully catch the eye of a potential suitor.

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Due to the extensive rules of the time, men and women found new ways to show their affection for each other. A few of these ways consisted of the art of the fans, parasols, handkerchiefs, and gloves. Little demonstrations of these arts were given meaning. Gentlemen also gave gifts to their lady. These gifts were known as “love tokens” and could be anything from painted miniatures to flowers and jewelry. Flowers also had their secret meanings that society would not condone publicly. For example, red roses signified the blood of Christ and the intensity of love while yellow signified friendship.

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There were very specific rules for how men and women could meet and act in public especially if they were unmarried to each other. Some examples of etiquette rules include:

*A proper women never rode alone in a closed carriage with a gentleman who was unrelated to her.

* When introduced to a man, a lady should never offer her hand, she should merely bow politely and say, “I am happy to make your acquaintance.”

*A gentleman may lightly kiss a lady’s hand, the forehead, or at most, her cheek.

*A gentleman tips their hat to greet a lady, opens doors, and always walks on the outside.

* When walking together, the gentleman and lady may not touch. A gentleman may offer his hand or arm over rough spots however that was the only contact allowed with the woman who was not his fiancée.

*A single woman never addressed a gentleman without an introduction.

*A single woman never walked out alone, she was always accompanied by a chaperone who was required to be older and was preferably married.

*A lady could not receive a man at home if she was alone.

There are several more restrictions that were stricter and some that were less strict.

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After the courtship and announcement of the engagement, a wedding day is set. Brides were very superstitious about the day of the week and month of their wedding date. June was the most popular month for it is named after the Roman goddess of marriage, Juno. April, November and December were also popular, as they would not conflict with the peak of the farm work months. October was quite popular as well for it signified a bountiful harvest. May, however, was considered unlucky. As the old proverb goes, "Marry in May and rue the day. But marry in September's shine, your living will be rich and fine." The saying that most brides know to associate with the superstitions of the days of the week is:

Marry on Monday for health,

Tuesday for wealth,

Wednesday the best day of all,

Thursday for crosses,

Friday for losses, and

Saturday for no luck at all.

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The choice of color for the gown also held superstitions. The color was thought to predict one’s future life. They had a saying for this as well.

White--chosen right

Blue--love will be true

Yellow--ashamed of her fellow

Red--wish herself dead

Black--wish herself back

Grey--travel far away

Pink--of you he'll always think

Green-ashamed to be seen

Ever since Queen Victoria was wed in 1840, white has been the traditional color for gowns and bouquets.

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Children were a very important part of the ceremony. Girls could be flower girls, ring bearers, jr. bridesmaids, or maids of honor depending on their age. The bridesmaids helped the bride into her wedding attire. The girls were dressed in white while the boys were dressed as court pages in velvet jackets, short trousers, and round linen collars with large bows. Boys had a special job in the wedding process, holding the bride’s train. Towards the middle of the Victorian era, trains had made a full appearance.

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The ceremony was either in the home or the church. The wedding rings were usually plain gold engraved with the initials of the couple and the date of the marriage. After the ceremony, the bride and groom signed their name in the parish register in the vestry. They were then carted away to the reception in the wedding carriage drawn by four white horses.

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At the reception, guests were served standing while the wedding party was served sitting. In Early Victorian times there were three cakes; one was an elaborate cake that was cut and boxed to be given to the guests as they left. The other two cakes were the groom's cake and the bride’s cake.

After the reception, the bridesmaids helped the bride change into a traveling dress which she would wear as she and her groom traveled to their honeymoon destination. At this time the bride would give each of the bridesmaids a flower from her bouquet. The best man then saw the couple to the train station as he was the only one who knew where the honeymoon destination was and he was sworn into secrecy. Once the couple returned from the honeymoon, a custom was for the groom to carry the bride across the threshold of their home. This tradition began because if the bride stumbled as she crossed the threshold it was said to bring bad luck.
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