WHILE WOMEN HAD the pleasure of receiving callers and deciding which ones they might marry, men had the responsibility of actually proposing marriage. This could be a daunting task, one with no guaranteed results.
The most proper way to propose was in person, but a proposal by letter was also acceptable. If the right man proposed marriage, a lady was to state her response immediately and not keep the gentleman in suspense. If she turned him down, each was to return all of the other's letters and gifts, and speak of the rejection only to their parents.
If the young lady accepted his proposal, the prospective groom was then to speak to his fiancée's father and request consent to marry. If permission was not granted, the unhappy couple had but two choices: separation or elopement. The first resulted in broken hearts; the second often resulted in disinheritance. A young lady's father might reject a potential suitor for any number of reasons: poor health, legal entanglements, unpromising financial condition, poor social standing, suspected alcoholism, prior marriages or other "unfortunate liaisons."
ANNOUNCING THE LIAISON
The engagements of prominent people were usually announced in the local newspapers. Sometimes engagements came as a surprise, despite the knowledge that the young lady and gentleman in question had been known to keep company. When Rosa-Maye Kendrick became engaged to Hubert Harmon in 1926, for example, the newspaper gossip columnists indicated surprise even though the couple had been courting for nearly five years:
The engagement of Miss Rosa-Maye Kendrick, only daughter of U. S. Senator and Mrs. John B. Kendrick of Wyoming, to Major Hubert Harmon of Washington, D.C., was announced today … Word of the engagement came as a surprise to Washington society, where Miss Kendrick is a great favorite … Miss Kendrick and Major Harmon had been friends for years and for the past three years the major has been a summer guest of the Kendricks, but rumors of an engagement have been denied.
After an engagement was formally announced, a young lady's social circumstances were drastically reduced, and her young man's responsibilities were greatly increased. She could no longer receive evening visits or private correspondence from her former admirers and she had to spend considerable time preparing for the upcoming wedding. The groom, meanwhile, was expected to pay her a social call every evening, if he lived in the same town.
Traditionally, a young man presented his intended bride with an engagement gift, usually a ring made of gold set with a diamond, sapphire or other precious stone. She wore the ring as a visible symbol that she was "spoken for" and no longer in the market for a husband. Men rarely wore either engagement rings or wedding rings.
Throughout the engagement and on the day of the wedding, the bride was the center of attention. The groom's main responsibility was to show up and say his vows. He was also responsible for obtaining a worthy gift for his bride, one that represented the value he placed on her. John B. Kendrick's gift to Eula Wulfjen, a very expensive pair of diamond earrings from Chicago, showed everyone that she was worth a great deal to him.
Unidentified Washington newspaper, 1926 (Hoff Collection, TESHS)
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
August 1996 - December 1996
Rosa-Maye Kendrick Harmon's wedding table (Kendrick Collection, TESHS)
State Historic Site