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I Thee Wed: Bridal fashion from the Collection

As rice showers down, the happy couple runs to a car donning cans and ribbons along with the words “Just Married” sprawled across the back window. Smiling ear to ear, the groom disappears into the cab followed closely by the bride pulling her long white skirts around her. 

This classic scene is what many of us picture when we think of a wedding. The white wedding dress is probably the most significant part of the scene but has this always been the case? White wedding gowns in a variety of materials and styles are held in countless museum collections across the globe including Westport Museum. But these ideals of bridal wear, along with the social definition of marriage, have been constantly changing throughout time. 

The Iconic White Gown 

White can symbolize virtue, purity and innocence in Western countries such as the United States in the 21st century, but in the past the color white specifically symbolized one thing: wealth. 

Until synthetic dyes and electric washing machines became widely available in the 20th century, keeping clothing clean was a laborious task. Fine white textiles, especially with fragile lace, silk, and satin used only for one occasion would have been unfeasible for most. To marry, women of middle and lower classes would wear their “best dress,” usually in a shade of brown. Colors such as grey or light purple could be multifunctional as both wedding and funeral gowns.

Queen Victoria's wedding gown on display

White as the ideal wedding gown color spread in the 1840s with the publication of Godey’s Ladies Book. Although white was a wedding dress color among royals and the wealthy prior, Queen Victoria’s white wedding gown worn in 1840, became the ideal because of widely distributed media coverage of the nuptials of the young British Queen. Today Victoria is still credited with the “creation” of the white wedding dress.

Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom wed Price Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on February 10th of 1840. Her white gown was made with materials manufactured in Britain to bolster the country’s silk and lace trades. (The Royal Collection Trust)

Changing Definitions 

Just as the use and symbolism of white in weddings has evolved so has the social understanding of a marriage contract. Marriage as a legal agreement has existed for millennia, usually as an agreement between the father of the bride and the groom—with the father literally handing off his daughter to her husband. These marriage contracts, and their subsequent wedding ceremonies, were legally a transfer of assets—the woman—from one man to another. 

In Westport in the 18th century a White woman could not own property, make contracts, or vote—women of color and immigrant women held even fewer legal protections. Legal contracts such as marriage did little to safeguard women through the 19th and 20th centuries; Women entering a marriage contract were free to do so under their own legal power in the mid-20th century. Throughout history “concubine marriage” allowed couples to engage in intimate relations and co-habitation when differences of religion or race did not allow for legal matrimony. Concubine marriages were formed by contract, meant to financially protect women, and sometimes her children, in the event of separation. 

Two guests at Westport Museum's Build a Bride exhibit

Opening Reception

Visitors explored several examples of wedding gowns—both white and the less traditional—in the Museum’s exhibition opening on March 10, 2023. Not only did our community get to admire these gowns in detail but also discovered how these iconic dresses relate to wealth, class, gender, and women’s rights.

Visitors enjoy the interactivity of the exhibit as well as the gowns themselves.

Our textile collection contains over 1200 individual pieces; these gowns are fine examples but represent such a small part of our holdings. These gowns not only exemplify the changing silhouettes of bridal fashion but also the changing nature of women, and those presenting as female, in our society.” 


– Nicole Carpenter, Programs and Collections Director

Many enjoyed creating their own wedding dress through the exhibit’s interactive magnet wall, highlighting wedding fashions from around the globe and how individualism is encouraged in multicultural ceremonies today. Explore our exhibit yourself through November 11, 2023.

From Henry Street to Westport

The “House on The Pond” is recognizable to many Westporters but from about 1919 to 1940, the lady who lived there – Lillian Wald – was even more famous still.  A nurse and humanitarian most noted for her work among young people and with immigrants in New York City’s Lower East Side, Wald was a noted pioneer of American public health. 

Born 10 March 1867 in Cincinnati, Ohio to German-Jewish parents Miss Lillian D. Wald, got her first taste of nursing when she was eighteen years old assisting the nurse her elder sister Julia had hired after the birth of her first child. Lillian’s interactions with the independently helpful woman sparked in Lillian a passion that would last a lifetime. Lillian resolved to become educated as a nurse and was accepted to the New York Hospital School of Nursing in 1889. After her graduation in 1891 she spent a brief time working in the New York Juvenile Asylum on West 176th Street in Manhattan. After seeing deplorable conditions and suffering exceedingly ill treatment of patients by medical staff, she determined a medical degree would gain her the respect and abilities to effect change for the youth of the city. In 1892 she enrolled at the Women’s Medical College (WMC) in New York City. 

While enrolled at the WMC, Lillian volunteered to teach a home-nursing course to immigrant women from the Lower East Side. One morning, the daughter of one of her students came to fetch Miss Wald to assist her mother. The child rushed her through a series of side streets and alleyways until reaching a tenement on Ludlow Street. Then Lillian was led across a court, past open toilets to a rear building. There, the family of seven and two boarders were living in two rooms and the sick mother was lying on a dirty bed, suffering from a two-day old hemorrhage. The sight of this woman’s plight and the shock of seeing how many humans lived in similar conditions were the catalysts to change Lillian Wald’s future life. After this experience, Lillian found that she could be useful without a medical degree and decided to leave WMC. 

Lillian Wald with former UK Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, his daughter Ishbel and Lillian’s dog,

With the help of Mary Brewster, a friend from nursing school, she acquired an apartment in a Jefferson Street tenement. The two began going about the neighborhood to help with the sick regardless of their religion or their ability to pay.

Lillian Wald with former UK Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, his daughter Ishbel and Lillian’s dog, Ramsay at her home on Round Pond Rd, Westport, CT, 1929; WMHC Collections

Soon, however, Miss Wald and Miss Brewster found that they had more work ahead of them than just the two ladies could handle, and so they increased their number to four and in 1895 moved to a house at 265 Henry Street which was donated by Jacob Schiff and would eventually become the Henry Street Settlement and Visiting Nurse Service. 

Twenty years after Miss Wald initially arrived on the East Side, the Henry Street Settlement housed two kindergartens, carpenter shops, dancing schools, gymnasiums, debating classes and literary societies, as well as having three summer homes in the country for patrons to visit, a convalescent home, a library and study, and a place set aside for a sewing school. They offered lectures on subjects which ranged from government to sex hygiene, and there were clubs for boys and girls. 

Over the years, Miss Wald became involved with numerous humanitarian efforts. She worked with the Board of Health to post nurses in schools and by 1914 had succeeded in having 374 school nurses city wide. Also, she and others formed the National Child Labor Committee in 1903. In 1905 Lillian met with President Theodore Roosevelt and suggested the idea of creating the Federal Children’s Bureau which would help educate and protect children in the workforce. The Bureau was eventually formed, but not until 1912 by President Taft.

Lillian also helped to establish the Nurses Emergency Council during the influenza Epidemic when it struck in the fall of 1918, at a conference of nurses called by the Red Cross Atlantic Division. Perhaps one of her most well-known contributions to society was her suggestion to Dr. Lee Frankel of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to send trained nurses to the family of every policy holder where insurance representatives had reported illness. This visiting nurse service was approved by the Met Life board and speedily implemented not only in New York City, but to all policy holders throughout the United States and Canada. 

Toward the end of WWI, Lillian rented a home for her ill mother to convalesce in during the summers on a small pond near the Saugatuck River in Westport. After her mother’s death in 1923, and after her own health began to decline in 1925, Lillian continued to summer at “her house on the pond” which she then purchased. Lillian retired from active work at the Settlement in 1933 and relinquished the presidency in 1937. However, her retirement was not spent quietly as she entertained many of her famous friends at her Compo home. Chief among them were Jane Addams, Albert Einstein, Former Mayor of New York City Fiorello LaGuardia (a fellow Compo resident), Governor and Mrs. Herbert Lehman, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald with his daughter Ishbel, and Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Lillian Wald and Jane Addams in a photograph together

For her 70th birthday in 1937 and the 20th anniversary of her residence in Westport, a book of words, signatures and illustrations was compiled by the members of the community. 1200 of Westport’s men, women, and children signed the book or provided illustrations. Each contributed $0.25 to make up a check for the Henry Street Settlements.

Lillian Wald with Jane Addams in Washington, D.C., 1916; Library of Congress Photo Collection

This unique book was cherished by Miss Wald and its pages were preserved at her request. Local artists who contributed to this book were James Daugherty, Charles Prendergast, Robert Lambdin, George Wright, Alice Harvey, Kerr Eby, Karl Anderson, Beulah Allen Northrup and Joe King. This book is now on display at the Henry Street Settlement and a facsimile copy was made and bound which can be viewed at the Westport Library. 

Miss Wald remained active while in Westport, willing to help with local relief programs, and she maintained a phone on her bedside table so that she could be in constant contact with welfare and relief organizations. And in her last months, although she was quite ill, she instructed workmen to install flood lights around the pond so that the children who were apt to skate there in the evenings would be able to see. 

Lillian Wald passed away September 2, 1940. Westport mourned her passing and many of her friends and neighbors pushed and eventually succeeded in her election to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans at New York University in 1970.

You can learn more about Lillian’s life and work by reading her books, The House on Henry Street and Windows on Henry Street or by visiting the Henry Street Settlement in New York City or by viewing their online exhibit at TheHouseOnHenryStreet.org.

Dragon Lady: The Life of Sigrid Schultz

On New Year’s Day in 1935, American reporter Sigrid Schultz witnessed raucous celebrations in Germany’s Black Forest. Shooting rifles into the air, the members of the fast-rising National Socialist party celebrated their leader’s rising hegemony over the German political landscape. Their leader was Adolf Hitler and they were Nazis.

Schultz recorded all she saw and sent it via telegram to her editor at The Chicago Tribune:

“…year two of Hitler’s Fuehrer Germany finds Germany comparable to a mass of cooling lava after a volcano eruption with some people getting burned and nobody certain where the lava will finally settle…”

Schultz had been the Chicago Tribune’s Central Europe Bureau chief for nearly ten years by that time—the first woman to hold the post in a major news organization. Her reputation for fair and fact-based reporting had gained her the trust of Hermann Göring, the man who would be Hitler’s second in command. It helped that she was a trained chef and gracious hostess who held dinner parties that lured her subjects and gained their trust. From this position of access, the journalist was to get inside information in order to report—and forewarn—of the Third Reich’s insatiable hunger for power and unquenchable thirst for violence that led, ultimately, to the Holocaust.

It was nothing short of remarkable that an American woman was allowed entry into the inner sanctum of the Nazi party. Sigrid Schultz had been born in Chicago and emigrated to Paris with her family at eight years old because her father, a Norwegian immigrant and an artist, had secured several commissions there. Her parents separated within a year and Schultz later wrote in an affidavit explaining her foreign residence that she only saw her father three more times. Her mother continued to live with her in Germany.

Portrait of Sigrid Schultz as a teenager

Demonstrating a natural aptitude for language, Schultz spoke English, French and German, her mother’s native language. She secured positions as a language teacher in Berlin during the First World War when, according to some sources, her mother fell ill and they could not return to America. When the Chicago Tribune was seeking multilingual in-country reporters, Schultz secured the job, rising to bureau chief by 1926.

Schultz at the age of 17, Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

But with the growing power of Hitler’s Nazi party, Schultz’ job became more dangerous. While she saw clear evidence of Hitler’s evil intentions for war and Jewish extermination she had to remain impersonal in order to maintain her position of access—especially after other Allied journalists had been expelled from Germany. Taking extreme risks, Schultz filed her most explosive and revealing reports under a pseudonym while traveling outside of Germany.

Göring came to suspect Schultz and was enraged by her intrepid reporting, calling her “that dragon from Chicago.” He had several attempts made on her life yet she outsmarted him every time. Realizing the escalating danger of her position, she sent her mother back to the United States to live in their Westport home in 1938. Eventually the reporter was forced to leave Germany after being injured in an Allied air raid. She recuperated in Spain but came to back to Westport recover further. Schultz attempted to re-enter Germany and resume her reporting but her visa was denied.

Sigrid Schultz lived in Westport for another forty years. From her home at 35 Elm Street, she continued to write tirelessly about antisemitism and the dangers of national extremism. A treasured neighbor and friend, Schultz was well known throughout the town and was a woman of many talents—including as the writer of a number of international cookbooks .

Today a group of Westporters who remember Sigrid Schultz are working to place a commemorative plaque at the site of Schultz’ former downtown home, which was bulldozed, along with others, to create a public parking lot.

The life of Sigrid Schultz as a fearless reporter, prescient observer of human nature and Westporter is celebrated in Westport Museum’s Women’s History exhibit DRAGON LADY: The Life of Sigrid Schultz now through November 14th, 2020