By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist
I think it’s fair to say that even the most seemingly mundane items here at the MHS tell an interesting story if you look at them closely enough. By way of illustration, I’d like to tell you about the Marian Lawrence Peabody record of wedding presents. This volume, given to the MHS earlier this year, complements our substantial collection of Marian Lawrence Peabody papers, the bulk of which came from Marian herself in 1969 and 1970. Visit the guide to that collection to learn more about her life and family.
The volume is hilariously titled The Book of the Bride Elect Designed by a Spinster (N.Y.: Brentano’s, 1902). In it, Marian listed all the wedding gifts she received when she married Harold Peabody on 8 May 1906.
Marian and her husband received a total of 375 wedding gifts, primarily things like dishes, silverware, candlesticks, tea sets, and vases, as well as furniture, rugs, clocks, jewelry, and books. The volume also contains a list of the over 100 presents the couple received, mostly flowers, when their engagement was announced.
Many of the wedding gifts were lavish. Endicott Peabody gave the couple a “run-about carriage” and another Mr. Peabody (possibly her father-in-law) gave them $1,000 cash, which online historical currency calculators tell me would be the equivalent of about $30,000 today. John S. Lawrence’s gift was a tiger-skin rug. Also included are several Tiffany and Wedgewood items. Some of the presents sound like they must have been beautiful, like the “Japanese drawing framed in teak,” the “tortoise-shell & silver paper cutter,” and a pearl and garnet pendant.
The list of donors is equally impressive, a veritable who’s who of the turn-of-the-century elite. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave the couple, quite aptly, a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress. President Theodore and First Lady Edith Roosevelt sent a box of roses and carnations. Other donors included Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, the great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson; and Henry Francis du Pont of Winterthur, Delaware. Needless to say, Marian ran in very privileged circles.
The entry for each gift includes the name of the donor(s), their address, and where the item was purchased (if known), but also what happened to it afterwards. This last column was filled out, in some cases, many years later, and it’s here that we see what was regifted, exchanged, lost, worn out, broken, or sold.
A silver and glass fruit dish from Benjamin Vaughan and his wife is followed by the wistful note: “In 1934 gave to Katharine Lawrence King – regret it.” Many other items were unfortunately lost in a fire that ravaged Marian’s home at Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1947. These included two salt spoons and two salt cellars from Rev. Glenn Tilley Morse (“lost in fire & they were lovely”). Other gifts were distributed throughout Marian’s home at 302 Berkeley Street in Boston or safely ensconced at the State Street Trust building.
The works of Jane Austen were apparently a popular wedding gift that year. The Peabodys received three sets: one from Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, which they gave away; one from Roger Pierce, which they “changed for Victor Hugo”; and one from “Harold’s old nurse,” which they kept.
Particularly intriguing was one gift, a pair of binoculars given to the Peabodys by Robert Winsor, Jr. A unique wedding gift, to be sure, but so was the note that followed it: “Rented to the Navy thru’ the war for $1.00 / Then gave to Tony Parker my godson who let them fall overboard.”
I was curious what Marian wrote in her diaries during this time, so I consulted her papers. Her diary entry for 24 January 1906 refers to The Book of the Bride Elect, the very volume in my hands, which Marian called “the most useful present from Sally.” The entry describing her wedding goes on for an enthusiastic seven pages. She mentioned one gift in particular: “A large box of flowers arrived in the midst of all the excitement with ‘White House’ written all over it, & inside Pres. & Mrs Roosevelts cards & good wishes.”
Sixty years later, Marian published an autobiography called To Be Young Was Very Heaven (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), which consists primarily of her diary entries up to her wedding day. But there are significant discrepancies between the original and printed versions. For example, about the Roosevelts’ present, she incorrectly quoted her own diary this way: “Also a box came from the White House—but it was roses and we certainly had enough of those. Presidents should send something solid so it can be kept as a memento.”
Marian was in her 90s when her autobiography was published, and she engaged in some self-reflection, stepping back to comment on her former self with the wisdom of many decades. On her wedding day, the young woman may have gushed, but the older woman editorialized, “I did not half appreciate all that was done for me. I had been spoilt and still wanted everything the way I wanted it.”
Everything didn’t turn out the way she wanted it, however. Her marriage proved to be an unhappy one, and the couple lived apart for many years. Marian died in Milton in 1974 at the age of 98.