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Credit: Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

One great aspect of doing this column is when an article brings pleasant memories to a reader and that happened recently after we wrote about the Deen Hotel and long time Athens resident Jimmie Mitchell contributed his own article about his memories. For it was the Deen Hotel which was the venue of his “first marriage” – when he was in the first grade in 1939. So how did that happen?

Actually, as he described it, Jimmie and his school mates were part of a “Tom Thumb Wedding” – a popular entertainment event at the time which was, as one source put it, "a play in which children performed mock marriage ceremonies while dressed in elaborate costumes.” It was usually a fundraiser and for Jimmie’s class it was the PTA. The children dressed as brides and grooms, as members of the wedding party; there was a faux preacher and the other attendees in their best clothes. Probably wouldn’t be so popular with today’s youngsters.

You’ve probably heard of the original Tom Thumb - actually short statured Charles Stratton – who as a child was discovered by showman/promoter P.T. Barnum in the 1850s. Billed as “General” Tom Thumb, Stratton eventually became an internationally beloved artiste who one biographer said had probably appeared before over 50 million people in two dozen countries during his 40 year career. Britain’s Queen Victoria was a great fan.

When Stratton married fellow little person Lavinia Warren in 1863 the wedding was a major New York social event and was possibly the inspiration for the idea of mock children’s weddings. Indeed, these events became quite popular, especially with churches and community organizations.

Naturally there were published event guides and one such was an 1898 pamphlet that described how to have the ideal "Tom Thumb Wedding." According to a 2017 Internet article by Betsy Golden Kellem, in this case the groom was, of course, Tom Thumb and the bride was dubbed “Jennie June.” The author described how the pamphlet "envisioned a full retinue of wedding participants, with as many as 40 or 50 children recommended for a successful performance; a minister, bride and groom, maid of honor, groomsmen, wedding party, ushers, flower girls and guests, all well rehearsed and dressed in their best evening wear." The vows were stereotypical and corny. For example, Tom vowed to take Jennie "for better, but not worse, for richer, but not poorer, so long as your cooking does not give me the dyspepsia and my mother in law does not visit oftener than once in a quarter." Jennie's millinery (hat) budget was to be covered by her father "out of gratitude for not having you left upon his hands in the deplorable station of a helpless spinster."

Jennie's vows were similar. She took Tom "provided that you do not smoke or drink; provided that you will never mention how your mother used to cook, or sew on buttons, or make your shirt bosoms shine; provided that you carry up coal three times a day, put out the ashes once a week, bring up the tub and put up and take down the clothes line on washday and perform faithfully all other duties demanded by a 'new woman' of the nineteenth century." With that, the “preacher” pronounced them married and it was the end.

According to Ms Kellem, these performances were very popular, particularly in smaller towns, and a Tom Thumb wedding was often accompanied by other attractions - maybe a "baby parade."

So what was the purpose? Probably to educate children about moral or religious values, to reflect adult conduct and institutions, to provide entertainment and to raise funds - all at a time when electronic entertainment was rare or nonexistent.

One 1914 North Dakota newspaper article described such an event to raise funds for a local woman’s organization but as Ms. Kellem described the events the children had a tendency to just be themselves. She wrote: "Despite the fact that the bride got a little drowsy and fell off her Lilliputian chair, and never mind that the participants were very quickly distracted from the script by licking their dessert bowls and hiking their fancy skirts over their shoulders, the adults were surprised and delighted by the whole affair." However, the women's group earned approximately $75 which would have been about $1,800 today.

Though “Tom Thumb weddings” became less popular over time, the idea did pop up in the 1980s. There was a difference, however, because at that time the childish “couples” being married portrayed the Flintstones, and the Smurfs.

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