Saturday, September 25, 2010

Weddings at Clermont

Over seven generations of Livingstons, Clermont has been the home of about 33 children, and during that time, it has seen its fair share of weddings. What did these weddings at Clermont look like? Well, it depends on which one you mean.

Stretching over a span of 191 years, these weddings would have differed greatly from one another. Wedding traditions and practices changed greatly over the years, and one bride's dream wedding might be simply unthinkable to the next.

Family stories and documentation exist about five different weddings and receptions at Clermont. Though more couples most likely tied the knot here in each generation, these are the ones we know:

  • Janet Livingston to Richard Montgomery (1773),

  • Elizabeth Stevens Livingston to Edward Philip Livingston and Margaret Maria Livingston to Robert L. Livingston (both in the late 1790s),

  • Katherin Livingston to Lawrence Timpson (1900),

  • and Honoria Livingston to Rex McVitty (1931).

Janet Livingston was part of the first generation to get married at Clermont. She was the eldest of ten children when she married a handsome Irishman named Richard Montgomery not long before her 30th birthday. Although older than some brides for the time, Janet's late marriage was her own choice. Arranged marriages were not common by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and Janet was waiting for a love match. Richard was it.

The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox, 1729, Hogarth

In July of 1773, the two were married at Clermont, in the family's best room, the drawing room. They would most likely have been surrounded by a moderate gathering of friends and family as well as a few bridesmaids and groomsmen. After her religious ceremony, Janet and Richard would have sat down to a splendid afternoon dinner (accompanied by much drinking and toasting). Fashionable wedding desserts included candy and maple sugar molded into shapes, like the sheep at right. Wedding cake, or Bride's Cake was just coming into fashion. It would have been heavily spiced and remenscent of modern fruit cakes.

Let's hope Janet got a chance to dance at ther wedding. High society valued dancing as a social activity that also betrayed good breeding and status. Of course, they weren't dancing the YMCA: “After dinner we danced cotillions, minuets, Virginia and Scotch reels, country dances, jigs, etc. till ten o’clock. I had the pleasure of Miss McCall for a partner. . . The bride and bridegroom led off the different country dances . . . After supper, which was as elegant as the dinner . . . we continued dancing till twelve," wrote a Virginian about another wedding he attended in 1785.

We don't know what the Janet wore, but we can only assume it was something fabulous, according to her wealthy station. Unlike today's wedding dresses, it would have blended into the fashions of the day for more formal events. These were gowns that could, and most likely would, have seen successive wearings instead of being boxed up and stored as a memory.

Silk would have been prefered: damask, satin, taffeta--you name it. White was the choice for some of her contemporaries, but she may also have selected yellow, green, or almost anything else that caught her fancy. Just so long as the dress showed bride at her best, it was the right choice. The dress shown at right is a dress from the collections of Colonial Williamsburg, reported to have been worn for a 1756 wedding. Its wide square neckline was popular for the era, and would have shown off a healthy dose of cleavage (also fashionable).

White did find its way into the celebration in other ways. That old standard of Kindgarten art class, the paper chain, was a popular wedding decoration, and it had to be clean, white paper. Paper was expensive, and white unused paper made a good showy decoration. If the wedding cake was iced (which was not always the case), that was likely to be white as well.

When it came time for Janet's neices Margaret Maria and Betsy to get married some 25 years later, family story asserts that her mother Margaret Beekman Livingston insisted that they also be married in Clermont's drawing room in front of the fireplace. By this time, an obsession with the neoclassical had made white a popular color for dresses for all occassions, so these two ladies (both young brides in their teens) could very possibly have worn white gowns or white gowns with a pattern. Still, plenty of decolotage would have been an important feature. Twenty years later, white would become even more common, as described by this New England farmer of her wedding in 1812 "I wore a white India muslin, the skirt edged by an ornamental border wrought in colored worsted; bands of similar embroidery finished the neck and short sleeves, with a girdle to match…Mr. Emery had a blue coat with brass buttons; drab pants, white vest, a drab overcoat, and a very stylish black beaver; we both wore white kids [gloves]."

With the cerenmony still at home, they would only have had to cross the hall to the dining room for their bridal dinner, probably with many of the same accoutrments that Janet's wedding had had twenty years earlier. The dances may have changed a bit, but the English country dances were still the most popular.

According to Old Sturbridge Village, "Although advice literature and conventional wisdom stressed the importance of seeking a mate who would not prove to be a disappointment in the role of husband or wife, love—physical attraction, in addition to emotional and, for some couples, spiritual compatibility—was at the center of early nineteenth-century marriage and courtship. Men and women were urged to choose prudently but never to ignore the feelings of their hearts." Hopefully Margaret Maria and Betsy felt okay about marrying their cousins. From everything we know, they did.

However, some women were given strong encouragement by their parents to chose a mate that met with parental approval. In the case of Nancy Shippen (who married Margaret Maria and Betsy's uncle some ten years earlier), the pull of Livingston wealth and security was enough for her father to pressure her very heavily to forgoe her emotional connection to a Frech diplomat with an uncertain future. Sadly, this relationship was a total failure that resulted in a separation and harrowing battle for custody of their single daughter.

The next wedding at Clermont that we have documentation of is that of Katherine Livingston to Lawrence Timpson more than a century later in 1900. Traditions had changed quite a bit by this time, and so had Clermont. Though the house now carried with it the stately power of age, it was no longer adequate to meet with all of the requirements of a society wedding. Instead, her wedding ceremony was held about a mile away in a nearby church with the wedding breakfast being served in Clermont's dining room (where Janet, Margaret Maria, and Betsy's had all been before).

Katherine's wedding also bore the extra pressure of being covered in the local newspaper, The Tivoli Times, in rather complete detail. "On Saturday June 2nd at high noon in St. Paul's church, Tivoli, Miss Katharine Livingston... was married to Lawrence Timpson, Esq. of maizeland, Red Hook, in the presence of distinguished guests," it began. Even a number of the important guests' names were listed. I imagine the pressure to impress would have been significant.

It is lucky for us that Katherine's wedding did get written up this way since we now have an excellent description of the event, decorations, etc. For instance, we know that her decorations were mainly floral, and they were coordinated between the church and house. According to the newspaper, they "were beautiful and elaborate, the colors being white and green with a dainty touch of pink. The chancel was banked with tall palms enlived by large bunches of lillies and white roses with festoons of pink and white roses along the chancel rail." And the bridal procession was to orchestral music provided by Seidel's Philharmonic Orchestra.

And what did Katherine wear? White had gradually become a common color for wedding dresses as the nineteenth century progressed--especially after Queen Victoria selected for her wedding in 1840. "The bride wore a gown of white satin profusely trimmed with rare old point lace and a beautiful lace veil fastened with organe blossoms [also like Queen Victoria] and carried a boquet of lillies of the valley." Her corset was stiff; her petticoats were numerous and rustling; her neckline was high. Her bridesmaids wore matching white organdy dresses and carried bouquets of their own.

After the wedding, it was just the bridal party that returned to Clermont to share in the catered wedding breakfast. No reception with dancing was necessary. After the breakfast and some socializing, the bride and groom proceeded straight to their new home in Red Hook.

This was the first wedding at Clermont to be captured in a photograph. It was an uncommon practice to photograph weddings at this point in time; many couples chose to get a commemorative photograph at a later date so gathering the entire party up on the day of the event was a pretty special moment.

Thirty-one years later, when Honoria Livingston married Rex McVitty, she too celebrated a "first" in Clermont weddings. Her's was the first wedding at Clermont to be filmed. Two minutes of film have survived, and a cd of these motion pictures was given to Clermont in 2009. They show Honoria and Rex exited St. Paul's church (just like Katherine), showered with rice and smiling happily. There are about three seconds of film showing the moment caputred on photograph above. It was a very breezy day, and Honoria's dress blew wildly in the wind as Janet, the bridemaides, and groomsmen got into place. as well as a good bit more footage from their lunchtime reception on Clermont's back lawn.

The hors d'oeuvres were served by maids in black with white aprons. Children and families smile and sit on folding chairs while they enjoy large slices of frosted cake. They also smile nervously and dodge the camera whenever they see it following them.

The last moment caught on film is Honoria and Rex, changed into casual clothing and awaiting their train to their honeymoon. After their wedding, the two took off for Ireland, where Rex would introduce his new bride to his parents for the first time. A photo from just a few days later shows them on their cruise ship, trying out its amenities (who knew foosball went back to the 1930s?)

While the Livingstons may not live here any longer, Clermont's rolling hills still play host to many weddings during the warm seasons. While traditions and common practices have changed over the centuries, many people like the continuity of feeling that what they do at their wedding is connected to long string of brides and grooms throughout history. Knowing that so many couples have started the next pages of their lives together here can add a touch of continuity to the day.

And, of course, the view is stunning.

If you are interested in holding your wedding at Clermont, please contact our wedding coordinator Roberta Nolan at (518) 537-4240 for a complete packet of wedding information.

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