What did a 1920s wedding sound like?

What did a 1920s wedding sound like?
Ask a Librarian to unveil the past
2 April 2015

As a member of the National Library’s Ask a Librarian team, I get to work on the rich variety of questions sent to us from all across Australia.

When was my great-grandfather born?
How can I find out when this book was published?
What page number is this quote on?


 Wedding bells [music] / words by P.C. Cole ; music by Harold Lindsay, nla.mus-vn5787936

While they are all interesting, there are some that you know are going to send you delving deep into Australia’s history.

I was recently scrolling through our list of new questions, when the following jumped out at me:

“Hello, I am trying to find out what kind of music would have been played at an Australian wedding in a small regional town in 1920?”

I was hooked. Music has such an influence on emotion and memory, to be able to hear what a wedding sounded like would add a totally different dimension to our understanding of what it was to be there.

Switching into research mode, I was eager to find a search strategy to recommend. I decided on three sources that were likely to contain relevant information:

  • Women’s magazines—perhaps these would include articles about wedding fashions of the time.
  • Newspapers—for wedding announcements and articles.
  • Published music from 1920—to find out what was popular at the time.

I also thought about the social factors that would influence the music choice, such as:

  • family income—could they afford professional musicians?
  • proximity to music stores—would they have access to the latest hits?
  • did the family have conservative tastes? Would they prefer modern music?

I started by searching the catalogue for the subject “Women’s Periodicals—Australian” (librarian language for women’s magazines). These are always a fun glimpse into days gone by, and they’re especially valuable for finding references to popular pastimes.

I scanned the magazine pages for music and weddings, all the while trying not to get distracted by the fashions and gossip of 1920. Finally, I found something in a classical music column from The Woman's Record—could it be a clue?

The woman's Record, 7 December 1920

Ok, so jazz and ragtime were popular at the time. But the article was from metropolitan Adelaide; would this kind of music have been popular in rural areas, or even played at weddings? Maybe not—sometimes the first “clue” doesn’t turn out to be the one you need, but can still help to refine your understanding of the question and your choice of source material.

I moved on to Trove’s digitised newspapers, which ended up being, of course, a wealth of information. Today we can see someone’s choice of wedding dress and flowers on social media; in 1920 you could read about it in the local newspaper.

Starting with a Trove search for ‘wedding AND music’, I used the ‘Narrow search’ options to whittle the results down to articles from 1920 (you could even narrow by state or newspaper title). This brought up an array of wonderful articles about weddings, such as that of Archibald Dearlove and Nellie Pearce from Kooringa, S.A.:

"Miss G. Pearce presided at the organ and rendered the usual music. The service opened with 'The Voice that Breathed o'er Eden... At the close of an impressive service, 'O Perfect Love' was sung and the Wedding March played as the bridal party left the church." 

Burra Record (SA: 1878–1954), 18 February 1920,  p. 3.

I did a quick search of the Library’s catalogue—(you could even use our sheet music app Forte)—and found a handwritten copy of O perfect love.

O Perfect Love  1930–1960, wedding anthem / words written by D.F. Blomfield ; the music composed by S.W.R. Jackling, nla.mus-vn318273

With this, I now had a lovely example to send and a proven research strategy to find out more.

  • Define the details of the wedding, such as location and wealth
  • Search Trove’s newspaper articles to find wedding. announcements and descriptions from this area, and take note of the music that is played.
  • Search for this music in the Library’s catalogue.

Helping someone find an answer to a tricky question is the most satisfying part of being a reference librarian … travelling back in time is just an added bonus!

Norah Valentine Knox and Ernest Whistler Street at their wedding, New South Wales, 21 April 1925 [picture], nla.pic-vn6303285

Not sure where to start your research? Stuck somewhere along the way?  Ask a Librarian

I have always dream to have destination wedding. I live in Sydney and would want someone to provide me with wonderful wedding planning services. I would prefer a wedding planner who is a specialist in his field and could help me have an absolutely unique destination wedding through his wonderful ideas. Is www.wedding101.com.au a good place to find such a wedding planner?
Hello Jessica, Thanks for your comment. We recommend speaking to a professional in the wedding industry about this – our Librarians are here to help you with historical and research information about Australia rather than today’s commercial services. If you are using online services just remember to read the reviews of previous clients and check the qualifications and experience of the company. Best wishes for your wedding! Danelle
Nice article and great information. I have learnt much from here, and enjoyed with this post. I would follow your article more and more. Cool!
Nice article and great information. I have learnt much from here, and enjoyed with this post. I would follow your article more and more. Cool!
Thank you so much. My grandparents married in 1920, and although I have some wonderful photos of the bridal party and guests, I hadn't even considered the question of music, or anything else about the reception either. Your methodical research plan has let me see the steps to take when researching something like this, and the wonderful resources on offer online. Thanks again.
Nice rustic wedding <a href="https://craftwed.com">pics</a>
Thank you for the fascinating article. I'm doing some research on family life for people on the land in the 1920's in the Hunter Valley region of NSW. I know of violins (fiddles) and pianos being played but wondered if any other instruments were common?