The History of Gift Giving at Weddings

A pair of hands wrapping a wedding gift in turquoise paper with scissors and tape next to it.

Did you know that in the past, giving a gift at weddings wasn’t really a thing? Instead of receiving a bunch of presents on the big day, a dowry was paid for the bride, and this money compensated for the expenses of the wedding celebration and helped make things easier for the bride and groom to start their lives together as a couple. Of course, many dowries often went to the parents of the bride, rather than being gifted to the new couple. The original dowry happened in 2000 BC. Then came wedding chests, which contained everything the bride owned. She’d bring it over to her new husband’s house once they got married. (I don’t know about you, but I’d need a monster of a chest for all of my stuff.)

After the chests, a new item began appearing in American weddings, especially in the South: the key basket. This was a small (obviously, since it’s for a key) basket to hold keys, which was meant to represent her new role in the home.

The First Wedding Gift Registry

In the 1920s, Macy’s (Marshall Fields as it was known back then) put the bridal registry into action, which paved the way for a slew of other stores to begin their own. The first gifts people gave to newlyweds were things like china, silver, and crystal—sets of dishes so that the new couple could do things like have dinner parties without embarrassing themselves with mismatched dishware. A huge component of getting married in the early 1900s was selecting a good china pattern. Of course, we still spend time picking out patterns for our dishware, but in the past there was a lot more emphasis on it.

In the 1930s, the big stock market crash left folks feeling strapped for cash, and thus less likely to marry in the first place, let alone give expensive gifts at their friends’ wedding ceremonies. During World War II, couples married quickly as young men were being sent off to fight, and there was simply no time for a typical wedding, not to mention a gift registry.

Modern Alternatives to Traditional Gifts

A wedding guest standing in a crowd with a box wrapped in a bow.

Nowadays, some wedding guests like to go “off registry” when selecting a wedding gift. Those who choose to go this route may know the couple intimately and feel confident making their own selection when shopping, while some feel it’s just a lot more personal to make a gift. However, most wedding guests prefer the simplicity of a registry. The extent of what items people register for today is different than even 30 years ago, however, as now people often live together long before getting married. Typical brides and grooms often enter into marriage with a whole selection of dishware, small appliances, and linens.

People on an elephant ride in a tropical location as a wedding gift for their honeymoon.

Because of this, some couples register for some out-of-the-box items like board games, grills—or donations to their honeymoon fund. Some even prefer that guests donate to a charity of their choice. In fact, with the recent popularity of the minimalism movement, it’s not unusual that people want experiences to remember for a lifetime rather than stuff for their kitchen. Modern couples are requesting experiences like skydiving trips, surfing excursions, yoga retreats, and French cooking lessons for their honeymoons and beyond. There are even registries that cater to these more adventurous gifts. If you’re considering going experience-based or out-of-the-box for your own wedding registery, a few good services to check out are Vebo, whose motto is “value experiences before objects;” Honeyfund, which, as the name implies, is focused mainly on honeymoons; and Ugallery, which allows you to choose pieces of art you’d like as gifts.

Of course, you don’t have to pick just one type of wedding gift registry. Some couples choose to create one registry for their friends, which might include some of the less traditional options we mention here, and another for family members or coworkers, which might be a little more by-the-book.

The Future of Wedding Gifts

As the needs of couples getting married continue to shift over the years, who knows what registries might begin to hold in the future. While many gifts given in ancient times had to do with exchanges of money rather than celebrating a couples’ love for each other, the focus now is on gifts that will allow the couple to enjoy each other’s company, to try new activities, or to find something new. Whatever types of gifts you want, remember that this is an opportunity for friends and family to show you how much they love you.

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