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Tom Thumb Gets Married

Small people’s wedding highlights Banneker-Douglass celebration of African American traditions

Tom Thumb weddings became a Civil War-era fad when 36-inch-tall Charles Sherwood Stratton wed 32-inch-tall Lavinia Warren.

It was the most talked about wedding of 1863. Society families like the Astors and Vanderbilts clamored to be on the guest list. P.T. Barnum sold tickets to the reception at the Metropolitan Hotel. Wealthy Americans sent lavish presents, such as a horse-drawn carriage designed by Tiffany & Co.
    The headline news was the marriage of actor Charles Stratton — a 36-inch-tall dwarf, whose stage name was Gen. Tom Thumb — and 32-inch-tall Lavinia Warren. The couple was married in New York and spent part of their honeymoon visiting the White House by invitation of President Abraham Lincoln.
    Tom Thumb weddings became the fad of the era. Children took on the roles of bride, groom and wedding party and play-acted a mock ritual complete with wedding gowns and tiny tuxedoes. Thus, they learned the etiquette of formal affairs: weddings, receptions and dinners.
    Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis renews the tradition July 30. Children are invited to join in a friendship ceremony and learn about manners and etiquette, followed by a reception, all in the museum chapel, site of the old Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church.
    “We will talk all about friendship and weddings in a fun way,” says ­Trenda Byrd, curator of education, who hopes to expand the lessons beyond this tradition to other cultural aspects of weddings.
    The Tom Thumb ceremony is just part of the broader Jumping the Broom exhibit now showing in the museum.

    “We wanted to showcase African American weddings and why we carry out these rituals,” says Shakia Gullette, curator of exhibitions.
    From white suits and handmade brooms, the two-level exhibit showcases many facets of African American weddings: traditions, fashion, food and longevity. A special section highlights couples married over 50 years.
    There are photos of weddings in exotic locales and weddings of couples special to the Banneker-Douglass Museum, including the wedding of executive director Dr. Joni Floyd. Floyd’s wedding included a broom-jumping ritual. That tradition, Gullette says, dates back to slavery-era marriages.
    “These couples couldn’t legally get married, so they had to have a way of demonstrating their commitment to each other,” Gullette says. “They took a broom and jumped over it to do that.”
    “It’s the perfect symbol for sweeping away the old — and into the new,” adds Byrd.
    “This exhibit has been met with great response,” Gullette says. “People just love love.”

Tom Thumb Wedding: July 30, 1-3pm (rsvp: 410-216-6189). Jumping the Broom: Tu-Sa 10am-4pm, plus Aug. 2 1-4pm, Banneker-Douglass Museum, 84 Franklin St., Annapolis, free: