Research and Publications

Selected Publications:

“To Comfort the Heart”: Women in Seventeenth Century America. New York: Twayne Publishing Company, 1996.

To order a copy of my book visit the Allegheny College Bookstore or call 814.332.5369.


“‘The Empire of my Heart’: The Marriage of William Byrd II and Lucy Parke ByrdThe Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 105 (Spring 1997): 125-156.

“Breastfeeding and Maternal Sexuality in Colonial America,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 20 (Summer 1989): 25-51.

“Eliza Lucas Pinckney: `Dutiful, Affectionate and Obedient Daughter,’” in Developing Dixie: Modernization in a Traditional Society. ed. Winfred B. Moore, Jr. and Joseph F. Tripp, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988).

Current Research Interests:

“’Dearly Beloved’: The Romance and Ritual of American Weddings”

As a teacher of women’s history, I have found that an illuminating way to begin discussion of women’s role in American society is having my students describe a wedding. Regardless of their background, nearly everyone has been to a wedding and witnessed the drama of the ceremony, rich in ritual and celebration. Students’ familiarity with the traditional wedding provides us with a place to begin our analysis of the changing social, economic and legal status of women in America life. By looking at specific aspects of the marriage ritual–from courtship to engagement, and then the ceremony, itself–and exploring its symbolism, I am able to construct a basic foundation upon which to build students’ understanding of women’s past.

Over the past several years I have collected information about weddings in American history and the origins of certain wedding customs: the gift of the engagement ring, the bride’s white gown, the wedding reception, gift giving, the origins of the honeymoon, the evolution of the traditional Protestant ceremony, changes in wedding foods and fashions, and bridal etiquette. Much of the ritual we associate with the “traditional” wedding is a construction of post-industrial nineteenth century middle class Protestant America. In earlier times, when community members played a much larger role in a couple’s courtship, the marriage ceremony was usually a private, family affair. But, as community participation in mate selection diminished with urbanization and industrialization the marriage ceremony became cause for public celebration. Weddings provided an opportunity for friends and family to unite and express their common values, affirming tradition during an era of tremendous change. At the same time, wedding celebrations became opportunities for “conspicuous consumption”–public demonstrations of the bride’s family’s prosperity during a period of social mobility and change. Thus, the wedding gown, the flowers embellishing the church, the music, and the food and drink served at the reception reflected the bride’s taste as well as her family’s wealth and social aspirations.

Women’s role in American life experienced dramatic changes during the nineteenth century. Industrialization and urbanization brought dislocation and a quest for security. The home, in which middle class women were enshrined, became, in the words of Christopher Lasch, a “haven in a heartless world”. Marriage, the object of most women’s lives, was an important female rite of passage. Women’s momentous transformation from “daughter” to “wife” was cause for sorrow as well as celebration–an ending as well as a beginning. Historians Nancy Cott and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg have explored the “cult of True Womanhood” which emerged during this period in American history, and the “female world of love and ritual” which was its result. The wedding celebration grew in importance during this era as Americans celebrated women’s role facilitating their adjustment to change. The wedding ceremony became a drama with “the Bride” as its heroine. Center stage, dressed in elaborate wedding attire, adorned with flowers and jewels, women embraced their starring role. They were the embodiment of culture, symbols of the continuity of American values in a rapidly changing world. Thus, the opulent wedding celebrations of this era may be studied as expressions of middle class taste and social aspiration, and women’s changing role in American life.

As historian John F. Kasson illuminates in his book Rudeness & Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America(1990) social manners, rules for “proper” behavior, also became more elaborate during this era as middle class Americans sought to distinguish themselves from the untutored immigrants flooding our nation’s shores. Consequently, etiquette books incorporating advice for brides planning wedding celebrations provide valuable insights into the rituals of American weddings.

Even before the advent of industry specific bridal magazines in the 1950s, women’s magazines–like Godey’s Lady’s Book, and Ladies’ Home Journal–found a ready audience in young women seeking guidance in orchestrating this important life ritual. First time brides (and their mothers) slavishly followed their “rules” regarding who pays for what, the appropriate bridal attire, wedding etiquette, and the honeymoon. More recently, second- and third-time brides, “mature” brides, and women with families fractured by divorce, have turned to these wedding “authorities” for answers to their questions as well. Today, the scope of this “industry” is revealed in popular bridal magazines, chock-full of advertisements for everything from bridal gowns and formal wear to furniture and appliances, from engraved invitations to advice on birth control. Revealing undercurrents of change in our society, these popular magazines are a valuable resource for tracing the evolution of marriage customs and rituals in the United States from the nineteenth to the twentieth century.

Despite the many changes in American life since the nineteenth century, especially in women’s roles, many wedding “traditions” persist today. The feminist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the escalating divorce rate, have had little effect upon the rate of marriage or how marriage is celebrated in our culture. Although today some couples alter their marriage vows to reflect their belief in the equality of the wife and husband, much of the ritual and ceremony developed and articulated in nineteenth century America remains. When else do women and men attire themselves in the dress of the nineteenth century but at their weddings? Indeed, perhaps because of the myriad of changes Americans have experienced, the legacy of the traditional wedding ceremony lives on. Our longing for tradition, security, ties with the past, as well as our hopes for the future, are embodied in this all-important public celebration.

If you would like to get in touch with me, stop by my office, Room 203, Arter Hall, call me at (814)332-4309 or contact me at