(Editor’s note: DeeDee Wood is the owner of Black Cat Curiosities, an online antiques research and sales venue.)
June is the month when a lot of people “tie the knot,” but from where does the custom come to bring a gift to the occasion, and what items, that would now be considered antiques, were brought to the festivities of nuptials and why?
Since before Renaissance times, in many cultures around the world, when a couple was betrothed, a dowry was given to the bride or her family by the groom’s family, which could include land, farm animals and money.
There was often a dowry chest given to the bride as well, which included precious items that could sustain the couple, such as jewels and items that had monetary worth.
Often inlaid with jewels, stones and hand carved woods, the dowry chests themselves were passed down from generation to generation.
In later years, it also became a chest that could hold linens, an early gift given as a wedding present, started in France with fine French linens that were often embroidered.
Often times, the chest would be packed with all of the bride’s belongings, and carted to her new home with her groom.
Early gifts for the bride show up in history as the “key basket,” a small basket given to brides, especially in the American South, that was small and held the keys to the house, a symbol of the bride’s new status and role as female head of the household.
These key baskets can still be found in antique auctions, and a collector should look for the basket to be made out of leather, sometimes with a name inscribed on the side, by hand.
They would be small, as only a few keys would open all the doors to a mansion.
In the antiques world, the first glimmer of the current customs of wedding presents began in the late 1800s, when presents were given to the happy couple in conjunction with folklore.
For example, you should never give a knife set as a gift because it was considered to symbolize a broken marriage.
It was said that the receiver could give the giver a shilling for the set, and then it wasn’t considered a gift.
Other examples of symbols as gifts would be bells, that were given during a wedding as a present, so that they may be rung to ward off evil.
In Ireland, bells were also called make up bells, because each time the new couple would get into an argument in the first year of their marriage, a bell was rung to ward off the fighting energy.
Many superstitions surrounded a new life together, and the tenuous road ahead that had to be traversed lightly.
In 1924, Macy’s department store in New York changed everything by creating the world’s first “wedding gift registry,” a gimmick to solidify wedding attendees to shop at their store for wedding gifts.
Other department stores followed suit very quickly, and the gift registry became a popular tool to ask for what you needed in your new life as a married couple.
Popular items were china patterns, silver, cut crystal glasses and helpful kitchen tools.
Couples who were married in the 1920s and stretching well into the ’50s, had not lived together outside of marriage, and had usually not lived on their own, and needed the basics to get started in a brand new life as a new couple, together.
A gift registry made sense, then, to accrue china to serve their new guests, kitchen items for baking and cooking, sheets for the bed, linens for many different needs around the house, and more.
It was a way to celebrate and help couples start out with the essentials.
The new trend in wedding gifts today is to mainly give cash, and gone are the heavily influenced folklore wedding gift ideas, china patterns collected year after year, and cut crystal collections that the new bride would display proudly in her china cabinet.
Current trends in modern lifestyles do not have room for ironing and starching linens, polishing silver, or handwashing crystal.
Many people get married today that have either lived with someone else previously, lived alone but had all of the items they would ever need, lived with their parents, or had readily available goods we all consume.
Gathering items to start a new life is not difficult to accomplish, long before nuptials are shared.
Dowry chests from long ago could not possibly hold all that a bride owns today, let alone what she might need in today’s household, but the traditions of weddings, in many arenas, remains strong, although the origins of those traditions do get lost in time.