Just over half, 50.4%, of the population aged sixteen or over in England and Wales were married or in civil partnerships in 2019, according to the Office for National Statistics. While much of the focus is on the big day, around £14.7bn is spent on weddings each year, wedding anniversaries afford an opportunity to reminisce, take stock, look to the future, and celebrate. Cards and gifts are exchanged and some anniversaries bear names which act as a reminder of the type of gift that should be given.
To reach fifty years of marriage is a considerable achievement, even more so when life expectancy was much lower than now. In 18th century Germany couples who reached this milestone were given a wreath made of gold by their friends in a ceremony witnessed by a correspondent of The Belfast Newsletters, whose account appeared in its edition of October 27, 1852.
“It was usual” he wrote, “for them to be married again, and this is called the golden wedding…the priest pronounces a simple blessing…the whole ends by a dance and a supper, to which all the friends and relations of the parties are of course invited”. He also noted that “there is another custom, too, called the celebration of the “silver wedding” (silberne hochzeit), which takes place after twenty-five years of wedlock; but it is of not such universal observance”.
Counting the years was not exclusive to the Germans. The Morning Chronicle in 1825 noted that Mr and Mrs Gerred of New North Road in Exeter had, on January 25th, celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of their wedding, a rarity worthy of especial note. More mundanely, in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, published in 1838, the Kenwigs celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary by hosting a gathering for their friends and acquaintances. It suggests that anniversaries were marked, even if they were not major milestones.
As well as noting the Gerred’s achievement, the correspondent of The Morning Chronicle helpfully tabulated the names of the key wedding anniversaries that prevailed at the time; cotton (first), paper (second), wooden (fifth), woollen (seventh), tin (tenth), silk and fine linen (twelfth), crystal (fifteenth), china (twentieth), pearl (thirtieth), and ruby (fortieth), not forgetting silver and gold for the twenty-fifth and fiftieth respectively.
The point of controversy lay with the Diamond wedding. “Contrary to a very general misconception”, the correspondent noted trenchantly, “this requires 75 years of marital companionship”, rather than sixty as it is now. Queen Victoria’s commandeering of the name to celebrate her sixty years on the throne in 1897 cemented it in the public’s consciousness. Clearly, it was used interchangeably to refer to both the sixtieth and seventy-fifth anniversaries, despite a rear guard effort on the part of compilers of anniversary tables throughout the century. The distinction, in truth, was probably moot.
The choice of symbols reflected the development of a marriage, starting with a blank canvas (cloth and paper), before it gained more solidity (wood) and strength and flexibility (tin). Crystal and china reminded the couple of the fragility of their bonds while the radiance and value of long and happy relationship was reflected in silver. Marriages of longer duration were rarer, reflected in the choice of pearl, while the inner flame of a ruby represented the passion that remained after so many years.
By the mid-19th century, the list was extended to include coral (35th), associated with magic and protective powers, for the thirty-fifth, and sapphire (45th), whose deep blue colouring signified profound love. Platinum symbolised the seventieth while oak with its strength and powers of endurance was adopted for the eightieth.
During the twentieth century the celebration of anniversaries became increasingly commercialised, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the American Retail Jewellers Association, who, lamenting the long wait until the golden and diamond anniversaries, compiled lists of gifts, mostly jewellery of course, appropriate to each of the fifty years of marriage. These were published in 1937 and, with minor regional variations, form the lists we use today.