People have always wanted to celebrate important events with family and friends, but it wasn’t always as easy as it is today to inform them of those events.
The Renaissance Period
In the years before the invention of the printing press, the written word was much a luxury enjoyed exclusively by the nobility. Often, monks were commissioned the painstaking craft of creating written documents. Using highly stylized lettering, which eventually gave birth to calligraphy, the monks would work diligently and carefully, as a single mistake could destroy many hours of labor and waste precious writing materials. Paper, created by the Chinese around 105 BC, did not become popular until after the invention of the printing press, by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, so monks would more commonly use smooth and lustrous parchment made from animal skins. Since a single piece of parchment was very expensive, only the rich could afford a finished printed work. At that time, however, very few people could actually read the finished product anyway and often had to employ someone to read the documents to them.
At this time, wedding invitations were very rare. Most wedding invitations were delivered verbally. Weddings tended to be local events, as people rarely ventured far from their own town. Even extended families tended to be clustered together around the same village. Similar to placing an engagement announcement in the newspaper today, town criers were often used to announce a wedding. Town criers were tasked with walking a normal route through the town, pausing at decided places to shout the news of the day and any important happenings or events. Anyone who heard about a wedding from a town crier was invited to the celebration.
It was quite some time before written wedding invitations made their way to the common people of the day. Even with the advent of mass produced print, the nobility generally preferred hand-crafted invitations, as print quality was generally poor, and the wedding of a prince or princess, dutchess or earl rated the added expense. Most wedding invitations included the family crest, or coat of arms, and were usually sealed with wax. To some extent, that tradition survives today. Seals are used to give wedding invitations that extra mark of distinction.
Print quality was revolutionized in 1642, when Ludwig von Siegen invented the process of metal-plate engraving. Engravers would carefully etch the wording, in reverse, on soft metal plates. These etchings would then be coated in ink. When the plates were wiped, ink would remain in the etched recesses, to be transferred to paper when it was pressed firmly against the plate. The pressing would also cause the fibers of the paper to expand into the recesses, creating raised print. Engraving plates could be used to make many identical copies. Now it was possible to get the look and elegance of hand-made wedding invitations, with the added benefit of raised print, and to mass produce it. Nevertheless, engraved invitations remained very expensive and literacy rates were only growing slowly. Tissue paper was laid on top of each printed invitation, to keep the ink from smearing. Today’s fast drying inks have eliminated that problem, but the tradition of placing tissues on top of the invitation wording remains.