CHICAGO — When Serena Stoneberg walked down the aisle at a North Side church this month, her wedding continued a family tradition that spanned seven previous brides across three generations and several Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs.
Stoneberg became the eighth bride to say her vows in a satin gown previously worn on their wedding days by her grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousins. Her late grandmother purchased it for $100.75 from the Bridal Room at the former Marshall Field’s on State Street and was the first bride to wear it in 1950.
Since then, thanks to the family heirloom, seven more brides have looked good, and all but one wedding has taken place in and around Chicago. Many of these brides gathered in a River North hotel room the day before Serena Stoneberg’s wedding to chat.
The third bride to wear the dress, Sharon Larson Frank, 77, who was the youngest of the first generation of brides to wear the dress, said getting married in one dress was not an important tradition.
“We never talked about it or said, ‘OK, you’re going to wear a dress,'” Larson said. “It just evolved.”
But over time, they say, the clothes took on a deeper meaning as a connection to each other and to Chicago.
Larson’s daughter and seventh bride, Julie Frank Mackey, 42, who married in 2013 and was the last person to wear the dress until this month, said she never considered marrying anything else.
“You were going to make it work,” Mackay said. “Even if it didn’t suit me. It was very important just to be a part of this tradition. It’s just that I always knew that I would wear this dress since I was a child.”
Dress with long sleeves, high collar and floor-length train.
Serena Stoneberg, 27, added some jewelry of her own for her ceremony. She wore her own shoes, her own jewelry, and a new veil from her great aunt, the third woman to marry in this dress.
“But other than that, I’m very happy to fit into the tradition that it is,” Stoneberg said.
Over the past 72 years, the family has made small changes to the dress.
Maki, who is above average height, asked her mother to add eight-inch wide ribbon to the hem and back panel to make the bodice fit.
Jean Milton Ellis, the sixth woman to wear it, added a crinoline to “give it a little boost” without changing the hemline.
But they did their best to stay true to the original design of the dress, which the oldest living bride, Eleanor “Ellie” Larson Milton of Northbrook — the middle sister in the first generation — called a classic.
“I think that’s why eight brides want to wear it because it doesn’t scream 1950s or 1970s,” she said.
Milton recognized her older sister and first bride, Adele Larson Stoneberg, as a smart buy. Adele Larson Stoneberg, who died in 1988, is the only woman who did not attend the eighth wedding ceremony in a dress.
Adele Larson Stoneberg’s choice to buy a dress at Marshall Field’s was an obvious one, her sisters said. Their mother, Anna Larson, was a devoted patron of a huge Chicago department store on State Street, and when it came time to choose a wedding dress in 1950, they doubted Adele would have gone anywhere else.
“My mother (Anna) loved Marshall Field’s,” Sharon Larson Frank said. “So I don’t think she could have gone to any other store. I [Adele] went to a bridal salon because they wanted it to be a beautiful dress.
Sharon Larson Frank said her mother, Anna Larson, would take the L train to shop downtown, “and then the Marshall Field truck would take it home the next day” in Lincolnwood.
Every year at Christmas, the family gathered in Marshall Field’s Nut Room to see the giant tree and celebrate the holiday together.
“None of these women drove, so we took public transportation,” Sharon Larson Frank recalled, adding that their aunt Lil would come from the west side of Chicago and she and her mother would head from the north side, and everyone would meet at Marshall Field.
The store played an important role in the family’s daily life, as well as in its holidays.
When Ellie Larson Milton’s daughters were born, Marshall Field became a place where they could meet Anna Larson, their grandmother, for tea.
Jean Milton Ellis grew up in Glenview and saw her grandmother often.
“Grandma used to say, ‘Hey, let’s meet tomorrow at Marshall Field on State Street,'” she said. “I’d like to take the bus and meet her in the old third-floor waiting room and have a Field’s sandwich and Frango mint pie for lunch.”
When Jean Milton Ellis traveled out of the area for school, she would get “packages of Frango Mints because of the output from those little green boxes,” she said.
Eli Larson Milton’s father, Elmer, was taking his wife, Anna, to Clark Street shopping on Saturday morning.
“It was still her neighborhood, even though she lived in Lincolnwood,” Ellie Larson Milton said. “She wanted to pick up a coffee cake. We always had coffee cake and limpa’ – black Swedish rye bread – and lutefisk – a traditional Swedish dried fish dish.
The Swedish origin of the family determined not only the Saturday morning shopping, but also the place of their marriage.
The first three weddings that included a dress by Marshall Field’s were held at Ebenezer Lutheran Church on Foster Avenue in Andersonville, which will also host Serena Stoneberg’s ceremony.
Anna and Elmer Larson, great-grandparents of Serena Stoneberg, were faithful church members and ministerial friends. There they baptized and confirmed their daughters Adele, Ellie and Sharon.
“Getting married in a church was a very familiar place,” Ellie Larson Milton said. “We all went to Sunday school there. We regularly worshiped there. So Ebenezer Lutheran Church was our second home.”
After Adele Larson Stoneberg’s wedding, they had three urns of coffee and a cake from a bakery on nearby Foster Avenue or Clark Street—the women couldn’t remember which.
Older brides said it was markedly different from how many celebrate weddings today.
“We got married and then we walked down the hall to the Sunday school room and had cookies and coffee,” Sharon Larson Frank said. “But there was no band or dancing.”
“Or booze,” Ellie interjected.
The next generation of weddings was scattered across the northern fringes.
Adele Larson Stoneberg’s daughter, Sue Stoneberg McCarthy, was the first to wear a dress in a church that was not a Lutheran church. She was married in Park Ridge at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church.
Later, Sue Stoneberg McCarthy’s home on Delphi Avenue in Park Ridge was a frequent gathering place for the entire family. Jean Milton Ellis said one of her strongest memories of visiting the house was that the house, like much of Park Ridge, was directly on the flight path of planes to O’Hare International Airport.
And when it was her turn to wear the dress – after her sister Carol Milton Zmuda and cousin Sue Stoneberg McCarthy – Jean Milton Ellis got married at the Westmoreland Country Club in Wilmette.
The dress spent the last decade in Pittsburgh after Mackie’s marriage in 2013, in dress form after a special cleaning.
In the 72 years since the dress appeared at the Larson-Stoneberg-Milton-Frank family weddings, none of those who wore it have gotten divorced.
“All the marriages lasted a long time,” added Ellie Larson Milton. “Long, healthy and happy marriages indeed.”
Julie Frank Mackey said it was a lucky item.
“I think about the dress, and all the happy marriages that have started since that dress walked down the aisle, and I wish Serena and Chris the best because it’s a happy dress,” she said.
Serena Stoneberg said the dress for her own wedding would connect her to all the brides while she’s down the aisle, as well as one bride who isn’t in the wedding: Adele, the late Serena Mormor (grandmother in Swedish).
“Wearing her original dress (is) very special,” Serena Stoneberg said the day before the wedding. “It’s probably going to look like she’s there a little bit.”