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Wedding history on display at Stately Oaks

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Long before couples shared layered cake on their wedding day, men broke loaves of bread over the heads of their brides -- as a marital right.

In the 1860s, wedding gowns were long and impractical. In the 1920s, they were knee high. And in the 1930s and 1940s, many brides didn't wear wedding dresses at all.

The traditions and peculiar history surrounding courtship and marriage are on display in Stately Oaks Plantation's "Romantic Memories of Yesteryear" exhibit, in Jonesboro, throughout the month of February.

Martha Wilson, a clothing historian and volunteer at Stately Oaks Plantation, said she spent half a year gathering wedding gowns and accessories dating as far back as the 1860s. She said weddings prior to the late 20th century were much simpler than the large productions they often are today.

"In the older days, weddings were more formal and they didn't have as many trappings," she said. "All the side business that is associated with weddings wasn't there.

"In the 19th Century, they didn't invite everyone they knew," she continued. "In the 1940s, a lot of people would just get married in a suit or a regular dress. It was simpler."

In the exhibit, visitors will be able to experience how couples got married throughout the centuries, through pictures, artifacts, wedding accessories, and dresses once worn by real brides.

Along the way, people will learn:

· How the ancient Egyptians designated the fourth digit of the hand as the "ring finger," because they believed it had a direct link to the heart, and ultimately, one's actions.

· How the ancient Romans would break a loaf of bread over their bride's head to signify the male's conquest and the end of his bride's virginity.

· How, in the 1940s, brides crafted bouquets out of war stamps to support America in World War II.

The exhibit will also cover the traditions and conditions under which African-American slaves would marry.

Barbara Emert, director of Stately Oaks, said this is the first time the plantation has hosted an exhibit detailing the history of weddings. She said history buffs will be able to learn more about particular decades by learning about their marriage traditions.

"We are just absolutely thrilled about it [the exhibit], because Martha Wilson is such an expert on clothing and etiquette," said Emert. "Every decade had something unique about it that they did, maybe out of necessity. It was kind of the signature of that period, and I think that was what made it so interesting."

Emert said the first week of the exhibit has been slow, but is hoping the Valentine's Day season will draw in more spectators. "February is the month of romance, so it is an appropriate time to do that," she said. "We hope that we'll see many people ... this month."

Ticket prices for tours are $12 for adults, $9 for seniors, and $6 for children. Tours are given from 10 a.m., to 4 p.m., on Saturday. For more information, call (770) 473-0197.