An Old Wedding Veil
small photo of Sandy's head "What Nichols veil?," asked my mother in June 1965, just days before my wedding. A great aunt on my father's side of the family had mentioned the "Nichols veil" and wondered if I wanted to wear it. (I was trying to sew my own veil, but was not having much success with any of the designs I tried.) This is how an antique veil came into my life. Four brides wore it before me; one after me. In 1998-99 my daughter considered whether to wear this fragile and beautiful veil for her wedding in California, and I made this webpage to tell its story. --Sandy Nichols Ward

Date: 1833. The first bride said to have worn this veil was married in October 1833. Textile experts have confirmed that this veil is of a style used in Massachusetts in the 1820's and 1830's. It is believed to have been imported from Europe. (See plate facing page 71 in a book by Georgiana Brown Harbeson titled American Needlework: the history of decorative stitchery and embroidery from the late 16th to the 20th century. The caption says "Bonnet and Lace Work; darned net, wedding veil made and worn during 1820's and 1830's in Massachusetts.")

Description:  This veil is made of silk and is machine woven, rather than hand embroidered or darned net. It is an open weave with two threads in one direction, one thread in the other. The designs are woven in with short straight pieces of silk thread. It measures 39 1/2 inches wide by 42 inches long, and has a draw-string at the top of the veil. Photographs taken in 1998 show a closeup detail of the design  and the full veil spread on top of an antique mahogany table. My intention in taking these photos was to document both its beauty and its poor physical condition.

photo of veil hanging from table
1998 photo of 1833 veil hanging from dining room table

There are rips along former fold lines, and tiny holes in many places. A few areas have been mended with very fine thread. These flaws hardly show in these photos. (Nor do they show in a 1965 photo from my wedding, nor was I aware of them at the time.) Of more concern than the rips were several rusty-looking spots diagnosed under blacklight as mold. In November 1998, Margaret Ordonez at the University of Rhode Island carefully wet-cleaned this veil to stop the growth of this mold. The veil now looks much cleaner and brighter.

Family history of the veil: This veil was given to me by my Great Aunt May (Mary E. Nichols) in June 1965. She had had it stored in a bureau drawer in Pine Knoll, her home in the Hathorne section of Danvers, Massachusetts, a short walk from my home. Aunt May not only preserved the veil, but also much family genealogy and lore. Here is the history of this veil as known in the family:

1. Worn October 3, 1833, by Mary Holyoke Ward (1800-1880) when she married Dr. Andrew Nichols (1785-1853). Mary's grandfather, Joshua Ward, was a sea captain from Salem, Mass. Mary's parents were Joshua Ward, Jr. (1776-1840) and Susanna Holyoke (1779-1860), also of Salem. In 1861 Mary's son Andrew built a cottage in Danvers; this was the beginning of "Pine Knoll", the family homestead where my grandfather William and his many siblings (including sisters May and Nellie) were raised.

2. Worn in April 1903 by Nellie Chapman Nichols (daughter of Elizabeth Perkins Stanley and Andrew Nichols) when she married Charles Henry Preston. Newspaper clipping about this wedding, which was held inside Pine Knoll (198 Preston Street), described in an 1881 article as The Nichols Museum. The couple lived at 42 Preston Street. 2008 photo of 42 Preston Street.

3. Worn in 1931 by Florence Ballou Nichols (daughter of Clara Loise Ballou and Joshua Ward Nichols) when she married John Anderson Lord, Jr. Florence was May's niece, daughter of her brother Joshua.

small photo of Nancy

4. Worn Dec. 18, 1955, by Nancy Ballou Nichols (daughter of Martha Hood (1907-1998) and John Ballou Nichols) when she married Bruce Dreher. Nancy is Florence's niece and granddaughter of May's brother Joshua. See her photo at right, or larger version of Nancy wearing veil (292 K)

5. Worn June 19, 1965, by Sandra MacDonald Nichols (daughter of Janet Nesmith Cutler and Nathan P. Nichols) in marriage to Peter Langdon Ward in Salem, Mass. (Reception in Danvers at 121 Nichols Street). Closeup of Sandy in veil: large image (174K) or small (10 K).  Full view of dress and veil (174K) or same view, with less contrast. [Photos by Julie Snow]

6. Worn June 6, 1971, by Emily Nichols, younger sister of Nancy above, when she married Thomas Haggerty. Closeup of Emily, and view of Tom & Emily, or just Emily.  (Reception in Danvers at Glen Magna.)

Survival of the veil: It is rather remarkable that this fragile piece of silk has survived so long. Aunt May died in the late 1960's and the wonderful old Pine Knoll house, full of antiques, burned to the ground in 1975. The Knoll has been flattened and covered with condominiums. Nichols Street, on which I lived from birth 'til marriage, was cut apart by Route 95 and most of Nichols Hill, including the old barn built in 1856, was destroyed in the highway construction. Since 1965, I have moved many times. The veil must have remained with my parents in Danvers for some years, but I know that later it was stored (rolled on a tube) in a closet in my California home. It moved back to New England with me in 1992, but no attention was paid to it again until 1998.

1998-2000: When my daughter began to plan her own wedding, I sent her a copy of some old wedding photos and mentioned that the veil in the photos was still available. She asked to see it, so I unrolled it, realized the need for cleaning and preservation, consulted with various experts, had it cleaned and carefully rolled on acid-free paper, and in November 1998 brought it to San Francisco for my daughter to see. She eventually decided it was much too fragile to use. After the wedding (June 1999), I brought the veil home again with the idea of giving it either to my cousin Emily, who hoped that her daughter Susanna might someday wear it, or to the Danvers Historical Society, where Nancy Rexford, Curator of costumes, had expressed great interest. Emily and I decided that the veil really belonged at the Historical Society. On January 12, 2000, we delivered the veil and watched as Nancy carefully stitched a tiny identifying tag "2000.1" on one corner. The first donation in the new year! Emily wrote a page about the Danvers connections involved in the six weddings above. We also donated several photographs and photocopies of newspaper clippings, all of which will be stored in a file folder marked "2000.1" for future generations to see. The Danvers Historical Society is located at 11 Page Street, Danvers, Massachusetts.

2008: I prepared a shorter version of this story for publication in The Danvers Herald, for which I have been writing a monthly column (Remembering Danvers) since March 2007. I decided to tell the veil's story in the June 2008 column, just in time for Emily's wedding anniversary. I visited Danvers and Salem, taking photographs of some locations relevant to this history. I also took photos of the Joshua Ward House and later realized its connection. I will continue to add links as I find related documents or illustrations.

Sandy Nichols Ward

[Webpage history: revised 3/26/99; 1/25/00; 3/4/04; images moved from former server 3/6/08; more links added 6/4/08, 6/25/08.]