This is a true account of wedding customs in a rural Missouri farming community prior to WWII, as told by Letty Owings, age 89. The account is limited to the small geographical area. Customs may have been different, twenty miles down the road.
The Shivaree and Farming Community Wedding Customs Prior to WWII
Most country weddings in our community took place in the home. The bride and groom dressed nicely, but there were no bridal shops or wedding dress makers. A preacher would come to the home to perform the wedding. Even if people were not churchgoers, the preacher would “marry and bury.” At the wedding ceremony, someone, usually a couple, would stand up as witnesses for the couple being married.
The usual refreshments and a small reception followed the wedding ceremony. A few days after the couple got settled, the community held a shivaree. The shivaree was a post-wedding noisy party for the community where the newlyweds were pressed into service as hosts. In short, the shivaree was a mock serenade and a roast of the newlyweds. People brought all sorts of noisemakers and pots and pans to bang on, and they sang songs and enjoyed refreshments, compliments of the newlyweds. Adding to the atmosphere of friendly ribbing and polite mockery, nobody bothered to dress up. Supposedly, the shivaree was spontaneous and clandestine. However, it was an organized spontaneous that wasn’t really a secret. Since the newlyweds were expected to provide the refreshments for their own roast, they had to know where to be and what time to be there. Community members organized the shivaree by word-of-mouth instructions. Everyone in the community had plenty of advance notice for this ‘spontaneous’ post-wedding party, and looked forward to the fun. Newlyweds looked forward to the noisy event as well, and they would have been insulted at not being forced to host the shivaree.
The marriage rate in the community was nearly 100 percent in those days. Not getting married was almost unheard of, and for the most part, people married their neighbors. Courtships lasted 1 1/2 to 2 years, and people rarely waited past age 22 to marry. Women were younger than men in almost all cases, so you might typically see a 19-year-old woman marry a 21-year-old man, give or take. During the courtship, the woman never, ever called or contacted the man to ask the man out on a date. Men initiated all the courtship contact.
There came a time when a lot of social customs were clouded by the war overseas. Word trickled in that there was a war raging in Europe. One must bear in mind that we had no television or organized press in our community at the time. We only got our first wind charger radio in 1938. Rumors spread, conversations ensued and people exchanged opinions. Some people took the position that the war raging in Europe was none of our concern. It was Europe’s war and Europe’s problem, not ours. After all, WWI had been a bunch of foolishness that we had no business getting involved in, and there was no need to repeat the foolishness. People voiced this opinion even as Churchill was down on his knees begging Roosevelt for help. Others countered this view with, “Yes, but there’s a crazy man Hitler and listen, this man is a maniac, the rumors are true, he’s killing Jews and he is a madman.” During this time there was a pall hanging over America and it extended to social functions in our small farming community.
No one ever came out and said, “There is a pall hanging over our social functions.” However, it was apparent. For one thing, people had a sense of unease about enjoying themselves at social functions while there was so much suffering going on in Europe, and the conversations often turned to that subject, even at the likes of a shivaree. Also, people began to be self-conscious about speaking German out and about. My father’s side of the family included ancestral illegal immigrants from Germany who did not care for German militarism of the time, so they bribed a ship captain and came to this country to escape it. They brought the language with them and the language sifted down through the generations, even to me as a young child. In one case, a boy’s folks did not want him going out with me, because of the German. We spoke Low German in the home when I was a child. It was lost on some folks that descendants of German people from generations past were a peaceful lot. The remnants of the language became associated with the current doings of a madman in Europe.
Everything changed on a Sunday. I had come home briefly from college where I was enrolled in a nature class. I wanted to collect some puffballs from the woods for my class. My father knew where to find these things so we went to the woods where they were, collected some samples, and returned home. I sat in a room with the sample collection, and my father went to the other room to listen to the wind charger radio.
He returned a few moments later and he said to me, word-for-word, “Honey, we’re in a war.”
After retiring from teaching English at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego, Oregon, Letty co-founded a residential treatment home for women and children in Portland, with Nancy Anderson. Letty speaks in this video-