By Rita J. Egan
Romance is in the air at the Smithtown Historical Society. The organization is currently hosting the exhibit Smithtown Gets Married: Weddings Past and Present at the Caleb Smith II House.
Curator Joshua Ruff said the exhibit, which examines the changes in wedding traditions throughout the centuries, presents a universal theme that provides the historical society the perfect opportunity to display some of its collection pieces that the public may not have seen before.
“The story and topic is one thing, but if you have the objects and the photos and the clothing that really can do justice to the story, then you have the making of a good exhibit,” the curator said. Ruff said the society has a great number of wedding-oriented artifacts in its collection, and among the pieces on display are items that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Items from 1854 include a wedding vest of Benjamin Newton, who ran a livery service, and wedding slippers worn by his wife Ellen.
A wedding slipper from 1755 belonging to Martha Smith, who was married to Caleb Smith I, the original owner of the home located on the property of Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown, is also featured. “It’s pretty amazing that it survived,” the curator said.
Ruff said the historical society borrowed a couple of artifacts from the Smithtown Library including the wedding invitation of Bessie Smith and architect Stanford White, who designed the second Madison Square Garden as well as local structures including All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Stony Brook and Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower in Shoreham.
“It’s a small gallery, a small space, so I think it’s always good for us to have a little gem of an exhibition, something that has a few really great artifacts. You also have to realize that you can’t do a great, huge elaborate exhibition in the space,” Ruff said.
Marianne Howard, the historical society’s executive director said, “I think the exhibit is beautiful. One of the reasons why we were excited about the exhibit is because we wanted to have those partnerships with community members and with other organizations like the library who have a collection that is deep in this history, in this topic in particular,” she said.
In addition to the small artifacts, the exhibit features seven dresses from different periods. Gayle Hessel of Kings Park donated a 1980s wedding dress worn by her daughter Mary in 1985. “This is the kind of thing that people save and at a certain point after handing it down generation after generation, they start to think, ‘Well, what do I do with it now?’” Ruff said.
The curator said the gown by Laura Ashley has the princess style that was popular during the era due to Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding. “It’s timeless. You can tell it’s modern because of the material, and the overall look, and how low cut it is, but at the same time it really is this throwback, and it just looks great,” he said.
On the same side of the room as Hessel’s dress is one from 1882 worn by a Julia Strong. Ruff said it features a lace filigree neckline, and the dress is so small, it looks a child wore it even though the bride was 23 years old when she married. Ruff said he first attempted to put the dress on a regular mannequin, then a child’s mannequin, but finally had to carve a form for it. Ruff said it’s a perfect example of how people were smaller in the past, and the tight bodices and corseted waistlines worn in those days, too.
While at the museum, visitors can watch a 2½-minute video featuring wedding announcements of Smithtown residents in 1961. Ruff said it’s interesting to see the choices couples made as far as venues before the big catering halls of today. He said he chose 1961 because “the video is just a good way of returning to one moment in time, a moment that’s both long ago to feel like history, and maybe modern enough also to have some relevance and connection to people that come to see the exhibit.”
Howard hopes with the exhibit that attendees will not only learn about local history but also realize they can contribute to future exhibits, when they see the artifacts that are on loan. “I want people to learn about the history of Smithtown and the history of Long Island as well. And, I also want people to know that this is a place where they can have a say and have an impact and be a part of something bigger, and that’s what we’re really trying to do,” she said.
With the historical society’s museum located at the Caleb Smith II House on North Country Road slightly north of the Smithtown Library, Ruff said he hopes library patrons will take a few minutes to visit the museum adding, “They can step right next door and see a wonderful little exhibit with really unique little treasures that they’re not going to see anywhere else.”
The Caleb Smith II House, 5 North Country Road, Smithtown will present Smithtown Gets Married: Weddings Past and Present through Nov. 29. Hours are Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission to the exhibit is free. For more information, call 631-265-6768 or visit www.smithtownhistorical.org.