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I Now Pronounce You Thoroughly Embarrassed

March 31, 2023

Do you love dressing your kids up in costumes? How about formal wear? It’s a natural urge, I think, and I must admit that I got a little thrill when my son (then 2) first donned his Iron Man costume for Halloween. And everybody loved the tiny dress shoes and bowtie he wore for his first Easter. I say it’s a natural urge because parents seem to have been doing it for a long time.

When master promotor PT Barnum orchestrated an elaborate wedding for his protégé Charles Stratton (AKA General Tom Thumb, an adult man with dwarfism) in 1863, the groom and his bride, Lavinia Warren, were invited to a reception at Lincoln’s White House. The New York Times carried stories about the wedding on its front page for three days in a row, even while a domestic war was raging. Photographs of the couple were popular among collectors, as evidenced by one such example showing up in a Civil War-era album in our collections.

General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren from the Worthington Williams Civil War Photograph Album

The wedding was such a sensation that theatres began staging re-enactments of the event. In the early 20th century, the practice of staging mock weddings between children came into popularity. Deemed “Tom Thumb Weddings,” these events could serve as church fundraisers, birthday parties, or just to teach children about formal wear and decorum (to say nothing of the infantilizing effect on Little People). These events would usually include a full cast of pint-sized bridesmaids and ankle-biter groomsmen and would be conducted like a normal wedding between consenting adults. However, the “vows” exchanged would usually be written for the comedic benefit of the adults in attendance.

Musical selections at this 1924 Tom Thumb Wedding in Cambridge City included “When You and I Were Young, Maggie,” and “Yankee Doodle.”

Of course, these pageants were popular in Indiana, too. According to a popular online newspaper database, occurrences of the term “Tom Thumb Wedding” in Indiana newspapers peak at anywhere between 50 and 90 mentions per year beginning in 1899. Fifty years later, in 1949 there were 93 mentions recorded. After that the mentions decline rapidly with only small, sporadic peaks through the second half of the 20th Century.

I recently processed an addition to the Florabelle Wilson Collection here at IHS. Florabelle was head librarian at Indiana Central College (now University of Indianapolis) and her papers contain a wide array of interesting materials. It seems that Florabelle attended a Tom Thumb Wedding in 1981 at St. John’s AME Church in Indianapolis. As was her practice, she snapped some photographs. While the unnamed “groom” appears quite pleased, the rest of the party looks as if their parents’ insistence and the promise of cake and punch afterwards were their top two reasons for participating.

The happy (?) couple.

The bridal party in 1981.

Have you ever attended a Tom Thumb Wedding? If you happen to be a parent, rest assured that people have been forcing their kids into awkward and confusing public situations for time immemorial. The latest Florabelle Wilson addition is available by appointment in our reading room as M1505.

Matt Holdzkom is an assistant reference librarian at IHS. He's a circus history enthusiast, dog person, puppeteer, casual cyclist and karaoke nut.

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