- Historic Sites
The Bliss Business
Institutionalizing the American Honeymoon
June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
Many couples found that there was privacy in the anonymity of the large crowds at Niagara Falls. Napoleon’s brother Jerome and his beautiful American bride, Elizabeth Patterson, are said to have been the first honeymoon couple to visit the falls. They came in 1804 on their extended wedding trip, but they seem to have been more interested in giving Napoleon (who disapproved of their marriage) a moving target than in sightseeing. The incredible popularity of Niagara Falls began with the 1836 construction of a small railroad joining the town with the Erie Canal. This made the place available at relatively low cost to travelers. Honeymoon couples could be assured that their embarrassment would go unnoticed among the throngs of tourists who could now afford to visit the great wonder.
(In the West, concerns of privacy and delicacy gave way to the unsettled conditions of the country. Just before his wedding Abraham Lincoln told an acquaintance who inquired as to why he was all dressed up that he was going “to hell I reckon.” Instead, his and Mary Todd Lincoln’s honeymoon was a short carriage ride through a heavy downpour to the Globe Tavern near Lincoln’s Springfield, Illinois, law office. There they hired room and board for four dollars a week.)
Then as always, Americans tended to do everything by the book, and when there wasn’t a book, they wrote one. In the 1830’s, at least twenty-eight self-help manuals appeared; there were thirty-six in the next decade; they have kept coming ever since. Weddings received obsessional attention. There was no question about clothing, flowers, kinds of presents, seating arrangements, food, or music which was not discussed in stupefying detail. “If she will change her frock before starting on her wedding journey,” advised one turn-of-the-century expert, “she may wear any soft afternoon dress or ensemble suitable to the season, with a dressy hat. If she is leaving immediately by train, steamship or motor, she will select a costume appropriate to the mode of travel. This is not necessarily heavy cloth like cheviot, tweed, or serge. It may be lightweight cloth or heavy silk, but it should be in her most becoming color, and should strike a more festive note than the severely tailored suit.”
This attention to minutiae characterized the wedding trip of Lina Roth who married novelist Zane Grey in 1905. She titled her journal “Our Honeymoon,” and began with the contents of her trunk: “First tray, hats, collar, linen shawl, books, fishing tackle, etc. Second tray: Gray suit, short skirt, red waist, white jacket, sachet, combing jacket. Third tray: pink dress, tan, two white skirts, white petticoat, chemise, c.c. stockings.”
Until 1914, advice usually stopped with the wedding. A veil was drawn over the honeymoon itself, because, of course, t was sex. The bride, who had instructions about how many buttons her bridesmaids’ gloves should have, was dumped informationless into the arms of her husband. But soon after World War I, repression and sublimation came to be regarded with the same disgust that previously had been reserved for sex. Still, whether sex was officially bad, as in the Victorian years, or officially good, as it was after World War I, it retained an alien quality.
After 1917 the honeymoon, a couple’s first legitimate sexual experience, was suddenly a public topic. But there was no voice in which to discuss it. The honeymoon joke may have grown to fill the tense quiet the subject provoked.
Embarrassment wasn’t the only bad feature of the twentiethcentury honeymoon. Once people began talking, it appeared that the wedding trip was difficult emotionally and sexually for a large percentage of women. The Ladies’ Home Journal became something of a self-appointed honeymoon watchdog, on the alert for problems. Over the last fifty years, it has run a series of cautionary pieces, each one suggesting that some very good marriages had dismal prefaces. One Journal survey found that more than 50 per cent of the women interviewed had been “disillusioned and disappointed,” or “overstimulated and tense,” or “fatigued and exhausted” on their wedding trips. The magazine advised upset women that it was premature to judge the next forty years on the basis of a few days of mixed emotions. Articles tried to reassure disappointed women by stressing the fact that in a country where sexual repression is a strong force, it is unlikely that sudden license will result in instant sexual happiness.
The first resort specifically for honeymooners and their anxieties was The Farm on the Hill near Swif twater, Pennsylvania, owned and operated by a retired New York executive, Rudolf van Hoevenberg. He opened his hideaway in 1945, asking prospective clients for an informal autobiographical statement including a description of their future plans. On the basis of this document, he and his wife weighed the desirability of the couple. If they were found congenial, the pair would get a small cottage and the odd combination of privacy and enforced socializing commonly found in summer camp. Van Hoevenberg neutralized honeymoon fear by surrounding each couple with others who duplicated their embarrassment. He greatly reduced the possibilities for surprise and error on the wedding trip and guaranteed a snigger-free environment. When bride and groom could no longer support their new intimacy, they could retreat into casual conversation with other couples pre-tested for congeniality.