In Catalyst Wedding Co. editor Liz Susong's weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the crazy history behind common wedding traditions we may take for granted. Liz investigates here.
Comedian Jim Gaffigan jokes, “Do you ever go to the registry late, and you’re like ‘Aw the only thing left is a fork for 300 dollars. I guess we’ll be the fork friends.’” While some people desire to express their love through gift giving and would far prefer to gift the couple something they actually like and will use, others find wedding registries—well, obnoxious.
Friends and family coming together to help newlyweds start a new household is not a new phenomenon. According to wedding historian Susan Waggoner, food was initially the most popular gift item, and it was in the Middle Ages that the focus turned to household items. “During the 1700s, handcrafted items became popular, especially in America.” Handmade furniture or quilts were some of the more prized items. The deeply personal nature of these gifts is in stark contrast with today’s practices of gifting cash or purchasing something on a registry.
The concept of a registry was innovated by a store in Rochester, Minnesota, in 1901, and today 88% of engaged couples set up a registry. Say what you will about the ol’ U-S-of-A, but America knows a cash cow when it sees one.
Critics of the registry rightly point out that weddings are no longer about two teenagers moving out of their parents’ homes into their own humble abode with empty cupboards and empty pockets. Rather, more than 70% of engaged couples already cohabitate in a shared household, and they’re likely old enough to have established jobs and can probably even afford a set of plates they like. After living together for a while, Beth and Josh of Colorado say the only things they could think of that would come in handy as wedding gifts were cat food and condoms. So the question becomes: is it really necessary to buy two established adults a set of marble wine coasters from Williams Sonoma because they’re cashing in on their tax benefits? The short answer is no. No, it’s not.
Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been living a revolution of one, because I started ignoring wedding registries long ago. This all started when I once bought something off a Bed Bath and Beyond registry, and when I saw that white box wrapped in a purple ribbon up there with all those other white boxes wrapped in purple ribbon, a little piece of me was squashed by the transactional nature of it all. The army of identical gift wrapping provoked existential questions in me: What is love? Who am I? Why am I here?
I suppose now is the time to apologize to my friends of weddings past for the oddly shaped pitchers crafted by local artisans, the bulky scrapbooks, bunchy quilts, and heartfelt letters. I know you probably wanted a Vitamix Professional Series 750 Heritage Blender, but instead you received my deepest (handmade) expression of love.
I also chose not to create a registry for my wedding and instead asked for no gifts, in part because the very idea of a set of matching plates gives me hives, as though I should just as soon buy a minivan and surrender to suburban death, but also because gifts aren’t my love language, and sharing meaningful time together is far more precious to me. But giving and receiving love is deeply personal, and there’s no shame in appreciating the thoughtfulness of the perfect gift—even if you literally created a list of perfect gifts and posted it online.
So if you’re creating a registry, I encourage you to reflect on what items would be most meaningful to you and why. There are all sorts of innovative new online registries, like Thankful Registry, that allow you to register for gifts from multiple places, encourage guests to make charitable donations, or request experience-based gifts—all from a place of gratitude rather than expectation. For instance, Mandy and Ben from Florida didn’t want any stuff when they got married, and instead they created a GoFundMe for solar panels.
Before you revert into your inner “kid at the candy store,” scanning everything in sight at Macy’s as your brain lights up on the idea that “this could be cool,” press pause and ask yourself questions like: “Will I use this regularly? Will I use this for a long time? Would I save my own money to buy this?” While your wedding guests will certainly notice and appreciate your sensible approach, the person who will be thanking you the most is future you who won’t be fumbling around with a panini press, bread machine, and pasta maker to reach your go-to pot from college.