To enter her proper role in society - as a mother and wife in the domestic sphere - a woman needed to get married. Many women came to Canada for this express purpose, as it was apparently the land of eligible bachelors. Upon finding such an eligible bachelor and going through the motions of a courtship, it was expected that a woman would be wed and would then begin her primary life's work as a wife and mother. The wedding day, therefore, was perceived as one of the significant events in a woman's life as it signified her inception in the world of domesticity.
It was often the bride and her family that planned out all the details of the ceremony, including which guests to invite, where it would be held and what everyone would be fed. Much of the symbolism within the wedding day concerns the bride: the act of the father giving away the bride, the throwing of the bouquet and the white wedding dress and veil. Especially this latter element - what the bride wears - occupied and still occupies a very important role, often establishing the tone and style of the ceremony. Wedding dresses were also often designed and made by women, sometimes the bride herself or, in the case of many small rural areas, local women.
The sociologist, Kathryn Church, has done a detailed study on a local woman designer in a museum project entitled Fabrications. She looks at the work of her mother, Lorraine Church, who as designer and seamstress, created many of the wedding dresses in Red Deer. She also interviews many of her mother's clients, asking why they chose a particular design, what it meant to them and their wedding.
Weddings were not, however, just a major event for the bride, but also for the entire community, especially in smaller communities, where everyone contributed and attended a wedding. It could mean a day off work and chance to socialize and catch-up with distant friends and relatives. Women's community organizations often became heavily involved in weddings. For a reasonable price, organizations like Vonin Ladies' Aid in Markerville and the Rebekah Lodge in Alix, help with the cooking, decorating and setting up. Also local newspapers would often write a feature article on community, going to great lengths to record every detail, as is evident in a 1916 article in The Red Deer Advocate:
"The ceremony was performed by Rev. Principal Woodsworth in the presence of the staff and pupils of the school, taking place in the schoolroom which had been beautifully decorated for the occasion by Mr. Dodson and his wife with the assistance of some of the boys.
Immediately after the ceremony, the bridal pair received congratulations in the staff reception room while the children were at breakfast and enjoying a treat of oranges and peanuts provided by the bridegroom. Then followed the wedding breakfast proper in the staff in the staff dining room to which all the grown-ups were invited. The room presented a very festive appearance. The colour scheme here was white and gold.
A 50 pound three storey cake - made and decorated by the bride who is an artist in this line - graced the centre of the table and, as a finish to a sumptuous meal, was cut by the bride, assisted by her maid, and each of the family of staff and children received a generous slice. Then came the toasts, the speeches a pleasant mingling of grave and gay and showing the high esteem in which the happy couple are held. Mr. and Mrs. Bills left amid showers of rice and good wishes for a honeymoon trip to Calgary and Lethbridge, after which they will resume their duties at the school." 1
The bride and groom in this case were both teachers at the Red Deer Residential School and, as evident from the article, an attempt was made to incorporate many aspects of the community life of the school into the wedding, including the holding of the wedding at the school and a breakfast in the staff room. Therefore, weddings were important events in lives of women and their communities in central Alberta.
Sources and Suggested Readings:
Cavanaugh, Catherine. "Irene Marryat Parlby: An 'Imperial Daughter' in the Canadian West, 1896-1934." Telling Tales. Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne. Vancouver: Unversity of British Columbia Press, 2000.
Jackel, Susan. Flannel Shirt and Liberty: British Emigrant Gentlewomen in the Canadian West, 1880-1914. Vancouver: Unversity of British Columbia Press, 1982.
Millar, Nancy. Once Upon a Wedding. Calgary: Bayeux Arts, 2000.
Silverman, Elaine Leslau. The Last Best West: Women on the Alberta Frontier 1880-1930. Montreal: Eden Press, 1984.