The Smock Wedding, or Getting Married Naked in Early New England

The strange practice of the smock wedding -- marrying a naked woman or one wearing only a smock -- survived the voyage from England. It even took hold in some New England towns.

Early New Englanders believed that marrying a woman who was naked or in her underwear absolved them of liability for the woman’s debts. If she was a widow, a smock wedding absolved her of her late husband’s debts.

They thought a groom possessed everything a bride and her dead husband owned -- including his debts. smock-wedding

The bride must have had money.

A Maine Smock Wedding

John Gatchell and Sarah Cloutman married in a smock wedding in Lincoln County, Maine, in 1767.

Some Mainers also believed if the bride was married "in her shift on the king's highway," a creditor could follow her no farther in pursuit of his debt, according to Alice Morse Earle in Customs and Fashions in Old New England.

Such ‘smock marriages’ took place in York, Maine, on the public highway. They often happened at night to preserve the bride’s modesty.

A smock, or shift, was a thin undergarment worn in the days before bras and panties.

In February 1774, widow Mary Bradley wore only in a shift when she met her bridegroom and the minister in York halfway between her house and the groom’s. Because the minister took pity on the shivering bride, he threw his coat over her.

The Vermont Version

In 1789, Maj. Moses Joy fell in love with Mrs. Hannah Ward, widow of William Ward. She was executor of her late husband's insolvent estate; he was the constable of Putney, Vt.

Catherine Cornelia Joy Dyer recounted the story of their smock wedding in her 1876 volume, Brief History of the Joy Family: They wanted, she wrote, to avoid the unpleasant penalties of the law.

On the morning of her marriage with Major Joy Mrs. Ward placed herself in a closet with a tire-woman (lady’s maid) who stripped her of all her clothing, and when in a perfectly nude state she thrust her fair, round arm through a diamond hole in the door of the closet, and the gallant major clasped the hand of the buxom widow and was married in due form by the jolliest parson in Vermont.

At the close of the ceremony the maid dressed the bride in a complete wardrobe that the major had provided. He had it stored in the coset at the beginning of the ceremony. The bride emerged elegantly dressed in silk, satin and lace, and there was kissing all around.

In another Vermont smock wedding, the widow Lovejoy married Asa Averill while naked. She hid in a chimney recess behind a curtain.

There is also the story of the naked bride who climbed out a second-story window at night and stood on top of a ladder. There she put on her wedding clothes.

The custom survived in old England as well. In 1775, the widow Judith Redding married Richard Elcock in a Winchester church wearing her shift, after she took off the rest of her clothes in a pew.



  1. Diana Stevens

    May 24, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    I married my husband in a widow’s smock wedding in 1987, as part of a colonial festival on Oct 3 , and then again as a demonstration on Oct 4.
    There were 40000 people on the grounds that day.
    This will be our 27 th anniversary and this year the fesfival will be on our Anniversary dates!
    Diana and Michael Stevens, Danville, Indiana

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  6. Marjory Gomez O'Toole

    January 9, 2018 at 9:43 pm

    By coincidence I saw a marriage record for one of these yesterday in Tiverton, RI and did not understand it. The justice noted that the bride, a widow, wore only her “shift” and her “lace.” I wonder what “lace” was?

  7. Bill

    January 10, 2018 at 7:52 pm

    There was a pre-marital custom in parts of old Scandinavia, whereby a chaperoned bride-to-be and groom were shown naked to each another before the wedding, an act of full disclosure if you will, and last chance to bow out of an unsuitable match. Of course, given the parallel custom of “night visits,” they probably already had some idea of what was in store.

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