Wedding invitations are a required element for weddings today. Of course, announcing impending nuptials has probably been a part of weddings since people first began tying the knot, but the method of making those announcements has changed over the years.
Before and During the Middle Ages
While printed invitations may be good etiquette today, they weren’t always an option. Prior to 1447 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, there was no way to mass produce printed invitations. Furthermore, most people were illiterate and could not have read a written invitation anyway. For that reason, most weddings were announced by the town crier. Town criers were men who were responsible for walking through their cities and verbally proclaiming in a loud voice the news of the day.
The first written invitations were a luxury created for the wealthy nobility of Europe. These invitations were costly because they were created by hand by monks who were skilled in calligraphy. Most of these invitations also included the family’s coat of arms, also known as a personal crest. Like a person’s family name, these crests served as a form of identification and were common in the Middle Ages. In honor of this tradition, some couples still add their coat of arms to their wedding invitations today.
Between the Invention of the Printing Press & the Industrial Revolution
After the printing press was invented and literacy rates began to rise, printed invitations did become more common. However, the standard printing techniques used to create books in large quantities did not produce high quality invitations. Because the ink was just stamped onto the paper, the look of the invitations was disappointing.
Another invention changed that forever. In 1642, Ludwig von Siegen created metal-plate engraving. With this method, an artisan would use a carving tool to carve the message in reverse into the metal plate. This allowed invitations to look more beautiful and stylish.
One problem did still exist, however: ink smudging. To prevent this problem, a piece of tissue paper was placed over the invitation. This tradition is still used today. Not all of the old traditions have been carried on into modern times, however. Back then, each guest’s name was printed individually on the invitations.
During the 17th century, another modern tradition also began. In 1605, the first newspapers began to be printed. Not long after, couples began announcing their upcoming weddings in those newspapers as an easy way to spread the word.
The Victorian Period
Although engraving allowed the wedding invitation market to take off, it wasn’t until another invitation more than 150 years later that they were able to be produced in the mass-market fashion we are familiar with today. This invention was lithography. Alois Senefelder developed the process would use chemicals to create an image. With lithography, a crisp printing without the time constraints of engraving metal plates became possible.
In Victorian England during the 19th century, invitations were created using this method or were handwritten. Most invitations were mailed only two weeks in advance.
Despite all of the innovations of the Industrial Revolution, most wedding invitations were delivered by hand and on horseback. This was because people still didn’t trust the postal system which was still in its infancy and was notoriously unreliable.
When the postal system was used for delivery, a so-called double envelope was used to protect the invitation. The invitation was placed inside one envelope, then that envelope was placed into a second envelope which was sealed and addressed. When the invitation was delivered, it would be handed to a servant who would remove the actual invitation from the outer envelope in order to bring it to the head of the household.
Today, most wedding invitations are still mailed in double envelopes even though the reliability of the postal system has dramatically improved.
The Victorians also popularized another element sometimes included in today’s wedding invitations. Known as reception cards, these were essentially invitations given to select ceremony guests who were being asked to come to the reception as well. Not all wedding guests were invited to the after party back then. Modern brides and grooms sometimes send reception cards if the wedding and reception are not taking place at the same location.
Because weddings were performed in churches and because those churches were typically open to the public, families had to worry that uninvited guests might attempt to get into the ceremony (and probably the reception afterward). To prevent this, invitations sometimes included a small card, often including a specific pew number for seating, which was to be presented to an usher at the ceremony. Without the card, the person would not be allowed in for the ceremony.
The invitation industry changed little after the development of lithography until World War II. After World War II, people’s incomes began to increase dramatically. This meant they had the means to imitate the lifestyles of those in the top rungs of wealth in their countries. That imitation became common in weddings and, in particular, in wedding invitations. This meant fine wedding stationery became a traditional part of most weddings, not just the weddings of the rich.
Along with these changes, etiquette became a popular topic. Common folks not only wanted to have the material possessions of the wealthy, they also wanted to act like the wealthy. Society figures, such as Amy Vanderbilt and Emily Post, wrote etiquette books aimed at average people. Part of that etiquette included guidelines for planning weddings, including how to address the invitations.
The development of thermography also changed the invitation industry. Thermography uses heat to create raised-ink lettering on paper. Because thermography could create the same beautiful invitations as engraving but at a fraction of the cost, it made invitations more affordable for average families.
Another change happened in 1973 for couples in the United States who were mailing wedding invitations. Starting that year, the U. S. postal service began issuing an annual “Love” stamp around Valentine’s Day. The stamp would be sold in two denominations – the standard amount for regular mail and a denomination appropriate for mailing heavier pieces of mail, such as wedding invitations. Although couples are not required to use “Love” stamps to mail their invitations, they do add a nice touch.