In the midst of the summer wedding season's waltzing and toasting, many avowed collectors are matching up with romantic collectibles that are hard to top: bride-and-groom wedding-cake ornaments. These mementos of weddings past vary from traditional forms to humorous or even lewd figures, come in all shapes and sizes, are made of a host of materials, date from the late 19th century to the present, and generally range in price from about $10 at flea markets and gift shops to more than $300 each in antiques shops specializing in fine Victorian keepsakes.
The variety of wedding cake toppers available reflects the fact that couples often use them to make a personal statement, such as how they met, or their favorite sport, according to Barbara Tober, editor-in-chief of Bride's & your new home" magazine. Ms. Tober topped her own wedding cake, 20 years ago, with a pair of swan figures because "swans mate for life," she said.
Despite Ms. Tober's fond recollections, most people forget about their cake toppers by the time the honeymoon is over. "I don't know what happened to mine, I haven't thought about it in years," said Bryce Reveley, a textile conservator and appraiser in New Orleans who often discovers lost wedding cake figures while unpacking vintage bridal gowns for restoration.
When lavish weddings went out of style in the 1960s and early 1970s, so did figural cake ornaments. Although toppers have made a comeback thanks to the 1980s revival of traditional weddings, fresh flowers decorate more and more wedding cakes, influenced, in part, by taste-maker Martha Stewart, whose illustrated book "Weddings," published in 1987 by Clarkson N. Potter, has sold over 200,000 copies.
Of the 50 brides profiled in her book, only one had a cake with a figural topper. (It was a family heirloom.) Although Ms. Stewart thinks old toppers can be charming, when it comes to wedding keepsakes she prefers vintage lace or veils and Victorian posy holders, often made of silver, frequently carried by brides.
Collecting is a family tradition for Amy Finkel, a third-generation Americana dealer in Philadelphia, who thought that bride-and-groom figures would be fun and inexpensive items to collect with her daughters, Elizabeth and Kate Braemer, ages 9 and 7, respectively. Ms. Finkel never imagined how seriously the girls would take their collecting, searching for old ones whenever the family is antiquing, or saving for new ones to buy at a favorite commercial bakery supply house. Their collection includes traditional 1920s standing bisque German figures, a 1940s plastic couple with the groom in military attire ("Can't resist a man in uniform," Ms. Finkel observed), and a circa-1950s couple made in Japan, in which the groom looks distinctly Japanese. Recently made examples include a couple on a bicycle, an African-American couple with realistic features, and, for comic relief, a bride carrying a shocked groom in her arms over the threshold.
"I want to put my collection around the different layers of my wedding cake when I get married," says young Elizabeth, who by that time may need an enormous cake to hold all her brides and grooms.
New York interior designer Steven Wagner, former editor of Metropolitan Home magazine, fell for wedding cake toppers while strolling along Chicago's Michigan Avenue 10 years ago. "Neiman Marcus had a window display of thousands of little plaster wedding-cake figures," he says, adding that the scene's powerful black-and-white graphics hooked him. "I bought 10 pairs and had an immediate collection," Mr. Wagner says. He now owns at least 150, displayed cheek to cheek on shelves in dTC his apartment. In photos the collection looks like a mass wedding. Most of the white-gown- and black-tuxedo-clad toppers are virtually identical, with only subtle differences. Among his favorites: a dancing Dalmatian dressed as a bride with a black Labrador groom, and a circa-1970s Mexican plaster bride which, when removed from its base, reveals a couple engaged in wedding night pleasures.
Most of Mr. Wagner's toppers cost from $10 to $60 each. He hasn't had to buy many himself lately, since friends give him toppers as gifts.
No one is sure when figural ornaments first decorated wedding cakes. "I haven't found references to them in 19th-century etiquette books," noted Victoriana collector Molly Dolan Blayney, author of "Wedded Bliss: A Victorian Bride's Handbook" (Abbeville Press, $24.95), whose collection of 80 toppers includes late 19th-century German bisque couples and turn-of-this-century Rose O'Neill Kewpie figures. Her circa-1920s wide-eyed "Googly" dolls make strange wedding-cake toppers, since the brides and grooms don't look at each other, Ms. Blayney says, adding "There's no romance there."
Romance is key