Shivarees, Spin the Bottle, and Post Office

Posted by | February 17, 2017

If you’ve taken part in a shivaree and played post office and spin-the-bottle, chances are you’ve been around a half-century or more.

In fact, you’ve been around so long the anthropologists may come looking for you to get information about those fine old East Tennessee customs of courtship and marriage.

Dr. Charles H. Faulkner, a UT anthropology professor, sent me a copy of a book called ‘Glimpses of Southern Appalachian Folk Culture.’  It is a memorial collection of term papers by students of the late Dr. Norbert Riedl. Before Bert Riedl died of a heart attack, he and his students were studying folk culture in the Southern mountains.

It has chapters on several subjects, but the one that got my attention first was Philip Conn’s piece on ‘Traditional Courtship and Marriage Customs in the Appalachian South.’

Philip talked with his elders in Hardin Valley, Shady Valley, Ocoee Birchwood, Tellico Plains, TN, and Damascus, VA. He came up with lots of courtin’ and marriage customs before most people had dates and went on honeymoons after the wedding. They walked home from church together, sat up together with dead neighbors. They met at candy-pullings and corn-huskings.

After all the candy was pulled or the corn shucked, the young folks played post office. (Girl in separate room would call a boy and say he had a letter. He’d go and kiss her.) Or they’d play spin-the-bottle. (Boy spins the bottle and kisses the girl whom it points when it comes to rest.)

When a couple married, they didn’t go on a honeymoon. Most went to live temporarily with the groom’s parents, or, less frequently, with the bride’s parents.

The young folks in the neighborhood gave them a shivaree, called a ‘serenade’ in some communities. Nearly always, the groom was given a rough ride on a fence rail, and the bride was carried around in a big zinc wash tub.

All this was good-natured fun. But, according to the findings of Philip Conn, people in some communities went farther. They would abduct the bride or groom or both and keep them awake and apart ‘until both became thoroughly disgusted with the institution of marriage…The common denominator of shivarees was a ransom given either in the form of money, food, or wine to buy peace and privacy.”

A girl usually married a boy of her own community. Young men of some communities helped enforce this custom by hiding in ambush and throwing rocks at any outsider who called on a neighborhood girl.

One of the superstitions concerning weddings was that a bride should not bathe on her wedding day, because if she gets her belly wet, her husband will be a drunkard. Another was that if the bride’s father tapped her lightly on the left cheek with an old shoe, it would bring good fortune to the marriage. The bride’s mama sometimes gave her a poke of wheat to make certain mama would have many grandchildren.

Church weddings were rare back then. Lots of weddings were at the bride’s home, often outside in the yard if it were a spring wedding. Engagements were brief and sometimes not at all. When a boy and girl decided to get married, they wasted no time doing it. Without telling anybody, they sometimes went to a preacher or justice of the peace and got married.

But marrying at home was better. For it was considered good luck in some communities if the family cat was at the wedding.

Then there was the elopement, in which the boy ran off with the girl, usually against the wishes of her parents. ‘In cases of elopement, the ceremony was very simple, with the couple usually getting married in their everyday clothes,’ Mr. Conn wrote.

I can verify that. For I once drove the get-away car for an eloping couple. I think it must have been in the late 1930s that this young fellow came to my uncle’s general store in Mooresburg. I’d never seen him before. He wanted to borrow a car and a driver. My older cousin Bill was tending store and couldn’t go. So I took the fellow and Bill’s car.

He wore an old black hat, overalls, and a beard that must have escaped the razor for at least a week. I have seen people nearly as clean come off a day’s work with a threshing machine.

I drove him to within 100 yards of his intended’s home. He got out of the car and headed toward the house, He was bent over, hurrying, trying to make no noise. He looked like a fellow hurrying to get a shot at a deer about to move out of range.

Pretty soon, he came back with her. Both were hot, sweaty, excited. I took them to the nearest justice of the peace. The ceremony was very brief. And the groom never took off his hat.


Source: “Remember Shivarees and Spin-the-Bottle?,” from the column: Mountain Stories as told by Carson Brewer, Knoxville News-Sentinel, November 26, 1978

Carson Brewer  (1920-2003) attended Maryville College and the University of Tennessee. In 1945, he joined the Knoxville News-Sentinel staff. He began in the 1950s a weekly column, which expanded to three columns per week. Through this column, he supported local folklore and the region’s natural resources. He wrote several books on the Smokies and Tennessee, including “Valley So Wild: A Folk History” and “Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains.”

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