Marilynn Gelfman Karp owns more than 125 wedding cake toppers, including a rare decoration from 1915 that is made of wax. She acquired her first one more than four decades ago.
“I was at a flea market in New York,” she said. “I found a bride and groom cake topper for $15. It had vitality and vibrated in my hand. It spoke to me.”
A sculptor and the author of “In Flagrante Collecto: Caught in the Art of Collecting,” Gelfman Karp said that hunting for vintage wedding artifacts offers thrills beyond the “sense of achievement when you find something you’ve been searching for.”
As keepsakes from the day two people begin their new life together, “these objects tell a story, they have a voice and represent a commitment a couple have made to one another,” she said. “These items are cultural artifacts and curiosities. They are part of a history that reveals information about a specific time and place.”
Just what do avid collectors look for, and why? Three others offer a peek at their treasures and, in their own words, the story behind some of their finds. (The accounts are edited for context and space.)
BARBARA BINGER; retired teacher; Fulton, Missouri
Collection: 125 wedding cake toppers
Prized possession: A Kewpie bride and groom topper.
I found my first topper in 1983 at an antique shop in Joplin, Missouri. This marvelous, fancy thing popped out at me. The couple stood under a decorated archway. The bride was in a light blue ribbon and lace dress with white roses and pearls. It was only $2. I fell in love with how pretty they were and couldn’t pass it up.
I’m fascinated by how different they are; like couples, no two are alike. Some are so elaborate. Searching for these gave me something to do once I retired. They make me elated.
When I find one, there has to be an emotional connection because I’m buying a piece of someone’s history that was once used when a couple were madly in love. These represent happiness, the looking forward to another stage in life together, and who the couple are. When I think about why someone threw it out or is selling it, that makes me sad.
My rarest is a Kewpie bride and groom topper, which are very hard to find. They came out in the 1920s. I paid $350 for it 15 years ago. It has probably doubled or tripled in value since. My granddaughters have already picked out the ones they want for their wedding cakes. They don’t mind using someone else’s. They feel like they’re getting a little piece of me.
FRANK MARESCA; owner of the Ricco/Maresca Gallery; New York
Collection: 110 wedding cabinet cards
Prized possession: A cabinet card of what appears to be teenage bride and groom, taken sometime between 1875 and 1895.
Twenty-five years ago, I became fascinated by wedding cabinet cards, which typically cover the years 1880 to 1915. These were taken by mom-and-pop studios and are usually 5 by 7 and adhered to a heavy mounting board, which often contained the name and city — sometimes the address — of the photography studio.
They were formulaic, which is why they look similar in how the couple are posed and the background that was used. The camera didn’t move, the lighting didn’t change, and you knew exactly how to stand. One of my favorites struck me by how young this couple was. Clearly in their teens. The look on their faces says, “We don’t have a clue what we are getting into, but here we are.”
These portraits are a window into the beginning of a new life when two individuals become one. Each is a different couple, produced by a different studio, so it’s not like a baseball card. As different as they were, the same moment was frozen. When I put them all together they tell an incredible story. In 2017, I did a show at my gallery highlighting the entire collection called ‘I Do I Do.’
I’ve found most at flea markets for $2. I’d search in shoeboxes from different dealers; some just heap them on a table. I’m fascinated by ritual, by the concept of marriage and the pairing up of two people for an indefinite period: Sometimes it’s months; sometimes it’s for 75 years. Collecting is always about the chase. So is finding your significant other.
BRYCE REVELEY; owner of Gentle Arts, a textile conservator and fabric appraiser; New Orleans
Collection: 275 wedding handkerchiefs
Prized possession: A 27-by-27-inch handkerchief from 1830 monogrammed with the initials ACF.
Handkerchiefs are very historical and tactile. Following an old wedding tradition, men used to pass these down and give them to the groom, who would give them to their new wife. It’s something everyone wished they kept. I bought my first one in the 1950s for 25 cents at a thrift shop in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
They are beautiful heirlooms used to trace the genealogy of a family. Some were passed down through five or six generations. Each one tells a story — they usually have two or three initials sewn on the cloth to show who it belonged to. The ACF on my favorite was beautifully monogrammed in red thread. I found it in a heap at a thrift store in England. I paid $2 for the pile.
Many were framed and, on the back, they would give the list of people who wore or carried it at the wedding. “ECM, with love from her husband, JHP.” With that little bit you can tell what was going on.
In New Orleans this is still a respected wedding tradition. My great-grandmother had one; so did my mother. Both were given to them on their wedding day. Clients give them to me now because they know I collect them.
Strauss is a freelance writer. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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