Olivia's post on minstrel shows got me wondering about cultural oddities that appear in our collection:
No, this is not a photograph of a mysterious child wedding. It is a "Tom Thumb Wedding" hosted by All Souls Universalist Church, located on Ocean and Ditmas Avenues, in 1951.
Tom Thumb weddings are not named after the folklore character. They are inspired by an actual event involving the famous General Tom Thumb, pictured here in 1844. At just under three feet tall, General Thumb, born Charles Sherwood Stratton, was one of the most popular stars of P.T. Barnum's New York-based American Museum. By the middle of the 19th century, he was a national and international celebrity, known for his Napoleon Bonaparte impersonation and occasional brawls with royal pets. On February 10, 1863, General Thumb married Miss Lavinia Warren, another Barnum performer, in a lavish wedding in Lower Manhattan's Grace Church. Click here for a picture of the happy couple with their wedding attendants, Commodore Nutt and sister of the bride Minnie Warren.
This was true love and a true wedding, but that didn't prevent the great Barnum from causing a stir. Invitations to the wedding and the reception at the Metropolitan hotel were issued to the finest in New York society. A few weeks before the wedding, the Eagle published the article "Marriage a la Barnum." In it, the writer criticized Barnum's exploitation of the church, arguing that he was taking advantage of a sacred ritual. The writer did not, however, condemn the fact that Barnum was profiting from the physical size of his friends. In fact, the Eagle supported General Thumb making money off of his unusual height, as long as he didn't do it in a church.
Despite its critique, the Eagle covered the wedding in detail, mentioning that the entire block in front of the church was full of anxious spectators representing all classes in society. The new couple's fame spread quickly across the country. During their honeymoon, they were invited to a special reception held by Abraham Lincoln in the White House. In the following months, Brooklyn businesses advertised the sale of wedding photographs, some of which were taken by Matthew Brady, the great American photographer.
By 1901, a different type of Tom Thumb wedding was appearing. Children were playing the roles of General Thumb, his lovely bride, and their wedding party. In that one year, at least four different churches in Brooklyn held mock weddings starring parish children. Each was called a Tom Thumb wedding and was a fundraiser for the church or a selected charity. At the Ross Street Presbyterian Church, for example, a Tom Thumb wedding raised $100 for Eastern District Hospital. These weddings were large social events. One in 1902 included fifty-five child participants.
Tom Thumb weddings were a national phenomenon throughout the first half of the 20th century. Over time, the practice began to dwindle, but some churches turned it into a permanent community fundraiser. Each church provided its own interpretation on the practice. Some emphasized the idea of friendship, while others saw it as a child's introduction to the institution of marriage. In 1991, the New York Times reported a church in Brooklyn held a Tom Thumb wedding with an African theme. I haven't been able to find any recent occurences in Brooklyn, but there are still churches across the country that continue the practice today.
The exact transition from a side-show spectacle to a fundraising activitiy for Christian churches is unclear. Like the minstrel shows that Olivia discussed, this cultural practice began with the exploitation of minorities in society. But Tom Thumb weddings today show no direct reference to the original wedding of General Tom Thumb. The name, and the height of the participants, is the only remaining connection. I myself wonder if parishes today are aware that this custom is based on a politically incorrect impersonation of a historic figure. My guess is that they carry on without any knowledge of the questionable origins... that is until an inquisitive blogger from Brooklyn starts shedding light on the messy past.
All pictures are from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle collection.