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Mock Weddings as Folk Theater

One evening in 1910, during an apparently genteel bridal shower in Grand Forks, a rambunctious event precipitated: a mock wedding. Friends of the bride appeared dressed as if for a wedding ceremony. “Miss Vernie Ryan took the part of the blushing bride,” according to the society report of the day, “appropriately attired in wedding robe and bridal veil.” Next to her stood the groom, in “the proverbial conventional black” — Miss Sadie Gravelle.

The two walked in to Mendelssohn’s wedding march and went through a marriage ceremony, all parts being played by young women. There followed, in society-column language, “a delicious luncheon.”

Wait, what, back up to that wedding part — a gender-bending mock wedding in North Dakota in 1910? Yes, for although the custom was rather new here, this type of folk theater was quickly becoming commonplace.

Michael Taft of Saskatchewan, the historian of this folk custom on the prairies, defines mock weddings as “theatrical parodies of the marriage ritual, in which members of a community dress as a wedding entourage and stage a mock ceremony” — usually according to a script crafted for the occasion. Participants typically “cross-dress” and engage in “ad-libbing, bawdy behavior, and general horseplay.” The common venue for such irreverent activity, Taft says, was the anniversary celebration of a popular couple in the community.

Taft, an exemplary folklorist, did his work on mock weddings, interviewing and direct observation, in the 1970s. Now, with access to digitized sources, we uncover a revised narrative of how mock weddings emerged.

Mock weddings happened, typically, at bridal showers, and receive bemused coverage in newspaper society columns and country correspondence. The instigators are young women, particular college women.

The first newspaper notice of a mock wedding I have found in North Dakota, then, involved coeds at Mayville State Normal in 1905, and then I find one involving Valley City ladies in 1906. Predictably, I suppose, Grand Forks soon emerged at the hotbed of mock weddings embedded in linen showers, hosiery showers, and all manner of other prenuptial events.

Attendees loved these bits of folk drama — enlivening an otherwise predictable ritual — newspaper reports commonly noting “merriment,” “hilarity,” and “no end of laughter.” Correspondents also recounted with apparent approval the gender-swapping that figured in them. Occasionally men answered with their own productions in their own associations, many of them — including state legislators — dressing as women.

Newspaper narratives often note vivid details, such as scattering celery leaves in lieu of flower petals before the bride, or the mock wedding ceremony conducted in Michigan, North Dakota, in 1910, by Miss Jessie Fox — all in Norwegian.

My favorite plot enhancement, I believe unplanned, happened in 1910 in Williston, where a young lad, Master Fred Lukins, was cast as ring bearer — carrying a doughnut. When it came time to present the ring, it was found that the ringbearer’s little sister Billie had eaten it.

Once in a while a mock wedding took place at an anniversary ceremony, or as featured entertainment at a community event otherwise unrelated to any particular wedding. By mid-twentieth century, however, the function had shifted to a place in another sort of life event, the subject of next week’s Plains Folk essay.

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