Today most couples have a gift registry to help friends and family choose a wedding gift they both need and want, but long ago guests didn't even bring gifts. It is thought that the idea of wedding gifts stemmed from the idea of a dowry which was the price paid to a bride's family.
In medieval times, a dowry usually included things like land, animals, money, and other forms of wealth. This was an ancient custom with the first recorded dowry noted in 3,000 B.C. This practice effectively "bought" the groom, which left girls without dowries with minimal chances of getting married. On the groom's side, his family provided a house for the couple to live in, and the groom himself would give his bride a valuable surprise gift following the wedding night as reimbursement for the loss of her virginity. A third gift was given to the priest who performed the ceremony and blessed the marriage.
|Italian Wedding Chest|
During the Renaissance ornate marriage chests marked the joining of the couple. These large chests were produced in pairs and usually held the bride's dowry. In the mid-fifteenth century, these chests were crafted to complement other furnishings in the couple's bedchamber, and they were sometimes paraded through the streets of Florence, Italy, in wedding processions. Gradually, these chests were used to hold all the bride's future linens and other household goods, which she would take to her groom's house. These marriage chests were the earliest form of what we today call a hope chest.
By the 1850s, especially in the American South, brides were gifted with a leather key basket which represented her new role as mistress of the house. These baskets were embossed with figures, and shapes like hearts and stars and were kept in Colonial homes. The baskets held keys to unlock doors, chests, and cupboards in the bride's new home.
The custom of guests and family giving gifts to the newly married couple is rather recent, and started back around 1890. And with the giving of wedding gifts came folklore that influenced what to buy. For example, according to folklore, giving of knives was a poor gift choice because a knife signified a broken relationship. It was considered bad luck as a wedding gift. If knives were given, you could always pay the giver a penny and that way it became a purchase and not a gift.
As the rituals and customs surrounding marriage slowly evolved, so did wedding gifts. In 1924, Macy's offered the first wedding gift registry and other departments were quick to do the same. Brides picked out their china pattern, with gift registries in these early days including items like crystal, silver, and china as very common bridal gifts.
Today, it's not unusual for guests to buy something more personal rather than purchase something off the registry or to skip presents altogether and just give cash. With so many couples living together before marriage, items needed to set up a household like linens and flatware are no longer popular gifts, and some modern couples have even set up charity donations in lieu of gifts, or they just ask for cash.