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Why We Give Wedding Gifts: A Strange History

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For guests, deciding what to wear isn't the only stress-inducing part of attending a wedding. They also have to figure out what to give the happy couple, a decision that involves a variety of factors (How much money to spend? How well do you know them?). Gifting wasn't always a concern, though. In fact, before Macy's invented the gift registry in the 1920s, guests weren't expected to bring anything to the table. From marriage chests to key baskets to china patterns, Racked traced the history of wedding gifting from the very beginning. It's not hard to see why we've ended up with so many creative ways to just ask for cash.

Wedding gifts originated from the notion of a bride price or dowry that was paid to the bride's family. It usually included land, animals, money, and other forms of historical wealth. The first recorded dowry was exchanged in 3,000 B.C.

A marriage chest. Image via

Fast forward a couple thousand years and the Renaissance came through, bringing with it the idea of ornate marriage chests. These chests held all the bride's future wife goods, which she would then take to her groom's house. It was the early form of a hope chest, which unmarried women used to collect all the linens and things they would need to embark on married life.

A typical key basket. Image via

400 years later, the idea evolved into something more symbolic. In the South especially, it was common for American brides to be gifted a leather key basket that represented her new role as mistress of the house. It would be filled with keys to unlock doors, chests, and cupboards in her new home, symbolizing her new status.

As the idea of marriage slowly unwound itself from status and ritual, so did wedding gifts. In 1924, Macy's unveiled the first wedding gift registry. Other department stores were quick to jump on board.

A china plate in the "Bridal Rose" pattern. Image via

In the earlier days of gift registries, crystal, silver, and china were very common things to gift a bride. Picking out the right china pattern was an essential component of making a gift registry.

Of course, Will and Kate asked guests to donate to charities instead of receiving gifts for their wedding. Image via

In the current era of gift giving, guests are more apt to go off registry to get something more personal, or skip the presents altogether and just gift money. Due to increasing numbers of couples living together before marriage, kitchen appliances, linens, and flatwear aren't as popular as gifts. Instead, modern couples are finding creative ways to celebrate their day, including setting up charity donations or just asking for cash (politely, of course).

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