By Amy D'Orazio, author of So Material A Change
Two days before the wedding saw the arrival of Darcy’s cousins at Netherfield. Saye, having not been there previously, cast a disinterested eye over the vestibule and said to Bingley, “Not too shabby for a tradesman,” and then punched him lightly on the shoulder.
“Saye, Bingley is not, nor has he ever—”
“Yes, yes,” Saye said impatiently. “But on to more important matters. Darcy, the ancient Greeks had a tradition—”
“Oh, no,” Darcy said immediately. “No Greek traditions, Saye, not here where they do not know us.”
Saye ignored him. “Before a man can be leg-shackled, he must be permitted to sow some wild oats. So we shall throw you a party here tonight—”
Were bachelor parties ‘a thing’ in regency England? Probably not, certainly not in the sense that we know them today, but they have been around a lot longer than many of us might realize.
The concept of a party to celebrate a man’s last days before marriage does have its origins with the ancient Greeks, the Spartans to be specific. Around 5 BC, Sparta was a military state dedicated to raising warriors. As such, boys were taken from their homes at the age of seven to live communally in small groups of about 15 to be educated and trained. This requirement lasted until military service was completed around the age of 30, but many men did not wait for the completion of their service to marry. The average age of marriage for a Spartan male at this time was 25, meaning that many men would marry and then for several years remain in their barracks, while their wives remained in their parents’ homes.
Thus for a man who was about to marry, a feast would be given. The purpose of that feast was solidarity; the men would eat and drink and make merry but the overall point of it was to pledge his loyalty and continued service to his fellow soldiers in the barracks.
Even the word ‘bachelor’ has, itself, an origin in the military. The term bachelor itself was not used to refer to an unmarried man until the 14th century, when Chaucer used it that way. Prior to that time, a bachelor was someone who was in probationary status to be a knight. Chaucer, in the Squire’s Tale, reports a bachelor as ‘yong, fressh and strong, in armes desirous As any bacheler of al his hous’ — in short, someone who is a probationist, or in some sort of a test period or apprenticeship.
In the 19th century a bachelor’s party or stag party was merely a party attended by all men. Surprisingly, the phrase ‘stag party’ was originally coined in the United States, in The Knickerbocker Magazine by Mace Stoper in 1856, who said, “I lose myself in a party of old bricks who, under pretence of looking at the picture, are keeping up a small stag-party at the end of the room’. This was likely a derivation of the ‘stag-dance’, also coined in the US, whereby male prisoners in mid-19th century jails would be provided with a violin and perform a little cotillion. For most of the 19th century therefore, bachelor’s parties and stag parties were not associated with weddings but were merely all-male parties, most of which involved cards, drinking, feasting and gambling.
Right around the turn of the 20th century, a bachelor party was given which savored more strongly of the current idea of pre-wedding bachelor/stag party debauchery. Called The Awful Seeley Dinner (Lucius Beebee, the New Yorker Magazine) it was held by Herbert Barnum Seeley to celebrate the forthcoming nuptials of his brother, Clinton Barnum Seeley. The two brothers were heirs and grandsons of PT Barnum.
Twenty men who represented the upper tier of New York Society attended the party held on December 19, 1896 at Sherry’s restaurant on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The men were treated to a lavish 17-course feast with copious amounts of alcoholic punches and hard spirits, and numerous scantily clad women were on hand to pass out gifts and dance for them. One dancer in particular was known as Little Egypt and was famed for her ‘hoochie-coochie’ dance and for posing ‘in the altogether’. It was rumors of the public indecency of Little Egypt that got the party shut down— the police raided Sherry’s around 1:30 in the morning and Herbert was arrested. It also led to his own wife eventually suing him for divorce although Miss Florence Tuttle, Clinton’s fiancee, did go through with their nuptials on December 23, 1896.
It was midway through the 20th century when the ladies got in on the scheme. In the 1960s, women began to have their own parties, referred to as bachelorette parties in the US or hen nights in the UK. These began as secondary wedding showers in which the bride and closer
friends gathered for the exchange of gifts which might not have been appropriate to open in front of grandmothers and aunts at the more traditional showers, but soon changed into a farewell to the single state that more closely resembled the grooms’ parties. They soon reached their own height of festive debauchery in the 1980s with the rise of all-male revues like Chippendales.
Today, things might be seem relatively tamer as the more unfettered bachelors/stag lads and bachelorettes/hens nights giving way to travel to luxury destinations or adventure-based excursions. With many brides and grooms having wedding parties consisting of friends gathering in different cities, it makes more sense to have an extended celebration. Many parties in modern times do not restrict themselves to all-male or all-female celebrations but instead include whatever friends the prospective bride or groom wishes to have, irrespective of gender.
Viscount Saye certainly would approve!
Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States, By John Russell Bartlett (1859)