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Wedding registries are an outdated tradition, but they’re not going anywhere

Wedding registries are a relic from a time when marriage was more about stability and rigid gender roles than about love.

When Katy George and her fiancé got engaged, they knew they didn’t want a traditional wedding registry. They had lived together for almost five years and have enough stuff as it is, she said.

Katy’s family was “a little bit skeeved out” by the concept of a cash registry, she said, or at least a cash registry with no specific purpose in mind. “They wanted to know what we were going to do beyond ‘honeymoon fund’ or ‘give us cash,’” she told me, “so it seemed more acceptable and a little less uncomfortable to be specific about it.”

They ended up deciding on two registries: a honeymoon fund through Zola, where guests could contribute money for specific experiences like dinner at a nice restaurant or drinks at a local bar; and a “small stuff” registry through Macy’s, which includes kitchen products and other housewares. Aside from a few key upgrades — “My mom gave me her old pans when I went off for college, so they’re probably 35 years old,” Katy said — she and her fiancé don’t want to ask for a lot of home goods. But since their guests want to give them gifts, a honeymoon registry seemed like the way to go. “It feels a lot nicer to say ‘$15 is going to get us two beers at this bar, and we’ll send you a photo of us having the beers at the bar,’ rather than [asking for], like, a cheese grater,” she said.

Katy is part of a growing number of couples who are turning to less traditional registry options to suit their needs, eschewing custom in favor of asking for gifts they actually want. But even if registries are changing to accommodate couples who would rather crowdfund their honeymoons or remodel their homes than ask for china or a toaster, the concept of wedding registries just won’t die.

Wedding registries are a relic of the past

As far as wedding traditions go, registries are a relatively new one. There’s some debate about who came up with the concept — Brides magazine claims the registry was invented by a store in Rochester, Minnesota, in 1901, while Racked’s history of wedding gifts says Macy’s came up with the concept in the ’20s — but the general consensus is that wedding registries emerged at the turn of the 20th century.

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College and the author of Marriage, a History, said registries really took off after World War II. “Registries were a way of expanding both the bride and groom’s aspirations and their guests’ sense of what might be an appropriate way to be a good consumer,” she told me. Crucially, registries were meant to be accessible to people at various price points. Karen Dunak’s As Long as We Both Shall Love, which details the rise of the so-called “white wedding,” notes that Wanamaker department stores’ registries were meant for “the one-room apartment bride as well as the one more generously endowed.”

There’s a reason we associate wedding gifts with crock pots, china sets, and other housewares. Wedding registries were a way of ensuring that young couples — or really, young women — had everything they needed to make a home. Before registries took off, future brides collected silverware, china, and homemade linens in “hope chests,” in many cases long before they even knew who they were going to marry. Much like the hope chests that preceded them, registries were a way of helping women with the transition from daughter to wife.

Things are a little different now. For starters, gender roles aren’t nearly as rigid as they were in the ’50s, and marriage is no longer limited to straight couples: One in 10 LGBTQ couples were married as of 2017, according to Gallup. The postwar era may have led to the rise of wedding registries, but it also created a new consumer society in which it became increasingly common for women to work outside the home.

Eventually, women weren’t just working to supplement their husbands’ incomes — they were working to provide for themselves, and putting off marriage as a result. In 1960, the median age of marriage was 20 for women and 23 for men; in 2012, those figures were 27 and 29, respectively, according to Pew. A growing number of unmarried couples now live together — 18 million people as of 2016 — something that would have been considered scandalous just a few decades ago.

A growing number of couples live together before getting married and already have the kinds of things you’d find on traditional registries, like crock pots and blenders.
Getty Images/Tetra images RF

But it’s not all good news. Wages have been more or less stagnant since the 1970s, which means the rise of dual-earner households is at least partly due to necessity. Coontz, who studies marriage and gender relations, told me cohabitation rates are even on the rise among unmarried, low-income religious couples, which suggests that couples often live together not only because they want to but because they have to. The average American has roughly the same purchasing power today as in 1964, according to Pew; they also have more expenses, due to the rising cost of housing and higher education.

These economic factors may also affect marriage rates, which are at an all-time low in the US, at least among some segments of the population. While educated, high-income people marry at high rates, working-class people and those without college degrees are increasingly putting off marriage, perhaps because they can’t afford it.

Getting married may not be expensive, but weddings certainly are: The average cost of a wedding was just over $33,000, according to the Knot’s annual wedding survey. (It’s worth noting that the Knot publishes average costs, which can be affected by a few big spenders, instead of medians. In 2012, Slate’s Will Oremus reported that the median cost of a wedding was $18,086, compared to an average of $27,427.)

In other words, couples today make less money and spend more on weddings than their parents or grandparents did. Amid all these changes, wedding registries are a tradition that seemingly won’t go away. Some guests may feel like they have to give gifts because it’s a tradition; others may think of wedding gifts as transactional. The concept of “paying for your plate” — giving a gift that costs roughly the same as what the couple spent per wedding guest — has endured, even as the ways we live and marry have changed.

Instead of disappearing, wedding registries are evolving

Jennifer Spector, the brand director for Zola, told me that this notion is slowly changing. “Gift-giving is no longer about ‘paying for your plate,’ but more about gifting something that feels super personal and representative of the couple,” she said, adding that she has seen couples use Zola wedding funds for “everything from honeymoon funds to puppy funds and home renovation funds,” and even a fund for “a lifetime supply of avocados,” which to me seems like a sneaky way of asking for cash without actually asking for cash. This doesn’t mean registries are disappearing; it just means couples are finding ways to ask for what they actually want.

In addition to traditional store registries and wedding-specific sites like Zola and the Knot, couples can register on Amazon and put just about anything on their list. (Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas had a sponsored Amazon registry, which included a dog bed and throw pillows; Khloé Kardashian also had an Amazon-sponsored baby shower.)

Honeymoon funds seem to be particularly popular, maybe because millennials, having accepted that they’ll never be as rich as their parents and grandparents, increasingly prefer “experiences” over material goods. In addition to Zola, newlyweds can crowdfund honeymoons through websites like Honeyfund, which was founded by a husband-and-wife duo in 2006.

Sara Margulis, the website’s CEO and co-founder, told me she and her husband got the idea to start the site after planning their wedding. “We had heard of honeymoon registries but didn’t find one that we wanted to use,” she said, “so we made our own wish list on our wedding website.” Their guests ended up contributing more than $5,000 to their honeymoon trip to Fiji, and Honeyfund was born. “It’s a unique and creative way to ask for money,” she said. “I think traditional wedding etiquette in the US frowns upon asking for money outright, but when it’s something really specific that you’re doing with it, like an experience, it tends to get wedding guests really excited.”

All these options give couples who don’t want or need housewares the ability to ask for nontraditional gifts instead. But couples who don’t want gifts may see these expanded registries as a necessary evil or a way of placating family members.

Louise, who is getting married in June and asked to be identified by her first name, told me that her registry — a honeymoon fund and a small Target registry that is almost entirely made up of tools and other home improvement items — is the result of a feeling of familial obligation. She called the tools registry a “compromise” to appease more traditional guests who want to give gifts. “As much as we don’t really need anything at all, we’d rather steer those relatives in the right direction than take our chances on the gifts they would pick out themselves,” she told me. “It feels ungrateful to talk like that, and I’d happily say, ‘Please, no gifts,’ if I thought any of our guests would listen.”

Registries may be adapting, but there’s no indication that they’re going anywhere, even if a growing number of newlyweds see them as an obligatory formality instead of an opportunity for free stuff. “While couples may not need to register for items the way they did years ago when they were only first acquiring the things they needed for their married home, wedding gifts aren’t going away — even when couples ask for charitable contributions in lieu of presents, the tradition of gift-giving is here to stay, and so is the registry,” Amy Shey Jacobs, the founder and creative director of Chandelier Events, told me.

Couples who don’t want or need gifts may find themselves making wedding registries anyway, often because their families expect them to. If registries aren’t going to go away, at least newlyweds can ask for gifts they’ll actually use instead of kitchen gadgets that will eventually be KonMari’d away.

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