Some brides in early New England actually got married while naked. Or maybe they just wore their underwear, or smock, which is how the custom earned the name of smock wedding.
They could get awfully cold during a January wedding.
But the smock wedding had its advantages. According to a custom that started in England, a groom possessed everything a bride owned — including her debts. Most likely, if she were a widow, she possessed her late husband’s debts.
So a groom could avoid paying his betrothed’s debts by marrying her while she wore either her smock (a thin undergarment) or her birthday suit.
In 1917, Elmer W. Sawyer of the Maine Bar Association called the smock wedding, ‘a public declaration and warning to her creditors that she took no property to her husband which would render him responsible for her debts.’
“It is not known how effective smock weddings were in the face of a creditor,” historian Stephen Parker noted drily.
A Maine Smock Wedding
Historian Alice Morse Earle called the smock wedding ‘a vulgar error,’ and reported that it spread from Maine to Rhode Island.
In 1724, the Town of Westerly, R.I., recorded several smock weddings. And in 1767, John Gatchell and Sarah Cloutman married in a smock wedding in Lincoln County, Maine.
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 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.
In February 1774, widow Mary Bradley wore only a smock 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 to avoid the unpleasant penalties of the law, she wrote.
“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,” wrote Dyer. “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 the major had provided. He had it stored in the closet 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. After the ceremony 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. She took off the rest of her clothes in a pew.
This story about the smock wedding was updated in 2020.