Everyone Loves a Wedding

With all of the media buzz around the recent nuptials of Chelsea Clinton, I thought of another presidential wedding: the marriage of Nellie Grant to English aristocrat Algernon Sartoris in 1874.

Eighteen year-old Nellie Grant was the only daughter of Ulysses S. and Julia Grant.  She met Sartoris, the son of the famous singer Adelaide Kemble (sister of Fanny) and Algernon Sartoris Sr., on a steamship on her return voyage from Europe. The two immediately fell in love and became engaged. Apparently, the twenty-three year old Sartoris had a bit of a reputation as a womanizer, which led Gen. Grant to question whether he should allow this union, but he eventually acquiesced.

The marriage went off without a hitch on May 21, 1874 in the East Room of the White House. The magazines and newspapers of the day were abuzz with the details of the wedding, from the flowers and decorations, to the bridal gown, the guests, and the food.

The June 6 issue of Harper’s Weekly describes some of the gifts; “… a dessert-service of eighty four pieces [given] by Mr. George W. Childs, and a complete dinner-service by Mr. A.J. Drexel, the combined value of the two being $4500.” Harper’s also states that the couple received a “little” gift of $10,000 from Mr. Grant, and a silver Tiffany fruit dish that the bride supposedly swooned over.

An entire chapter in Grant’s 1885 biography by B. Poore and O.H. Tiffany is devoted to the event. Rev. O.H. Tiffany had officiated the ceremony as well. About two hundred and fifty guests attended the wedding in the East Room, where a platform was built so that all of the guests could see the ceremony.  The stage was “flanked by white columns wreathed with flowers, over which was a floral arch bearing a swinging marriage-bell of white roses. From this arch wreaths of flowers were carried to the covered window, forming a bower, and the back of which was the monogram of the happy pair.”

At eleven o’clock in the morning, the ceremony began. Sartoris wore a “black evening suit and appeared the embodiment of health and happiness.” His best man, Frederick Grant, stood beside him in his military uniform. The eight bridesmaids entered the room, all wearing the same white silk gowns, four wearing dresses trimmed with blue forget-me-nots, and the other four dresses trimmed with pink roses. Nellie’s dress was described:

The bridal dress was white satin, with a comet-like train trimmed with a set of point lace made in Brussels at a cost of five thousand dollars … It was arranged in wavy horizontal lines across the front of the skirt of the dress and interspersed with white flowers, green leaves, and miniature oranges … The bridal wreath was of white flowers and green leaves of the most delicate kinds … She wore high satin shoes bearing water stripes from the toes upward.

I plugged in the $5000 cost of the lace of the dress into a historical currency calculator and found that the dress would cost about $92,000 to make today. Does Vera Wang (the designer of Chelsea’s dress) even make gowns that expensive?

After the ceremony, the guests were led through the gift-filled library into the dining room where satin menus were placed at each setting, and the centerpiece of the table was the cake, “crowned with a bouquet of delicate white flowers arranged in the highest style of art.”

Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky’s wedding has caused a similar public examination of every detail of the president’s daughter’s wedding, much like a hundred and twenty six years ago.

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Associate Curator of Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian Society

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