Have a drink with: General & Mrs. Tom Thumb
Tiny wedding of the century!
Ask them about: Will there be ice cream?
I’m over at Atlas Obscura today writing about the Tom Thumb wedding, an American dramatic tradition in which kids put on elaborate, supremely awkward mock weddings for paying audiences. These plays began in the 19th century as a wink and a nod to the “Fairy Wedding” of celebrity little people Charles Stratton (aka “General Tom Thumb”) and Lavinia Warren, and have been undertaken through history as a fundraiser, a crash course in etiquette and promises, or presumably simply so adults could enjoy their children’s embarrassment over cocktails. Click over to Atlas Obscura for more.
Barnum allegedly offered Charles & Lavinia fifteen thousand dollars to postpone their wedding for a few months, so he could wring some more business out of the anticipation. The couple politely and without reservation declined the offer, though that didn’t stop Lavinia – no wilting flower, she – from teasing Barnum that he should have offered at least a hundred grand.
Coverage of the Fairy Wedding says the streets outside – Broadway, 9th Street and Union Square – were full of folks hoping to catch a glimpse, concessionaires selling apples to the crowds, and yes, pickpockets. Two hours of carriage traffic clogged the streets, and police stood outside to contain the crowds – the “breath-expurgating, crinoline-crushing, bunion-pinching mass of conglomerated humanity that rushed eagerly to view other portions of the all-absorbing ceremonies.”
The 1898 Baker pamphlet has yet more to offer: not only a guide to the quintessential Tom Thumb Wedding, but also a script for a children’s play called “The Brownies’ Flirtation” – the two, together, “Two Unusual Entertainments for Children.” This is true if by “unusual” you mean “racist:” the Brownies “have their faces blacked with cork” and “may be dressed according to fancy…Policeman, Indian, Chinaman, Soldier, Sailor, Scotchman, Dude, and Uncle Sam.”
A Tom Thumb Wedding was no casual undertaking: “This entertainment may be given by any number of children from three to seven years of age. The more that take part, the surer and more complete the success will be. Forty or fifty should be secured at least, if at all possible. The minister should be a boy about twelve years of age with a clear, strong voice…The tiniest little folks may with wonderful ease be trained to take the various parts.”
Betsy Golden Kellem, “At Tom Thumb Weddings, Children Get Faux-Married to Each Other,” Atlas Obscura, July 7, 2017
“Tom Thumb Weddings: Only For the Very Young,” New York Times, June 16, 1991
Linton Weeks, “The Wondrous World of Tom Thumb Weddings,” NPR, November 16, 2014
Erin Allen, “The Greatest Wedding Cake on Earth?,” Library of Congress Blog, December 3, 2015