Now that we’ve learned how to give a wedding present, we can all be grateful that we no longer have to worry about it being displayed in the bride’s home to be judged against all the other presents that people have given!
As I mentioned in my post on The Southern Belle Primer, in the past, many brides would display their wedding gifts in their home for people to come and see.
This custom began sometime in the late 19th century, right around the time that wedding guests started to give significant gifts. Prior to that time, the bride’s family provided all of the household equipment the couple would need through the trousseau with guests giving token gifts, if anything. In fact, giving large wedding gifts would imply that you thought that the family could not properly provide for their daughter.
But by the end of the 19th century, that had all changed and manufactured goods had become pretty cheap and people started the wedding gift traditions that we know today. Unlike today, appropriate wedding presents were commonly accepted to be things like china, crystal, silver, and fine linens. These types of items made a much more lovely display.
The basic idea is that the gifts were displayed in the bride’s home for guests to see before or during the wedding. It was much more common at that time for weddings to take place at home, so it actually kind of makes sense to have the gifts displayed, since they were already there. Also, “visiting” at people’s homes was much more common around the turn of the 20th century, so it wouldn’t be as strange as it seems now for people to stop by to see the gifts- in fact, it made it a little bit easier to just have them out instead of having to pull them out of wherever they were stored every time someone came by.
There were variations over the years:
In 1896 Maude Cook writes that if the presents are not to be exhibited at the wedding reception, the bride frequently gives an informal tea the day before to her lady friends for the purpose of displaying them.
The Dictionary of Etiquette in 1904 said that it is not in good taste to display the gifts, but if they are, the names of the givers should be removed and only close friends invited to see them.
Emily Post’s 1922 book states that wedding presents should be sent ahead of time so they can be unwrapped and displayed in the brides home to show them off in a pleasing manner, not to brag but to show appreciation of people’s kindness. They do not have to be displayed, especially if the family cannot spare the room. If they are not displayed, a small afternoon party can be given for close friends to come and see them.
By 1967, Amy Vanderbilt concedes that you do not see the wedding gift display very often, though it is still correct to have it. She does mention that all the cards with the names of the givers should be removed and that though you can display checks, the names should be covered up. She also suggests grouping gifts of similar value together to prevent people from making comparisons. She also suggests having a tea for close friends to come see them and having them on view during the reception if it takes place at home.
Not everyone thought that these displays were such a great idea. Many etiquette books and the very popular Godey’s Lady’s Book denounced the practice as being vulgar and show offy. Sometimes the bride’s trousseau was included in the display, so everyone would be looking at what underwear you would be wearing the next few years- fun! When Consuelo Vanderbilt famously married the Duke of Marlborough, Vogue ran an article, illustrated, of her trousseau including one and a half columns on her lingerie. Consuelo was mortified “I read to my stupefaction that my garters had gold clasps studded with diamonds…and wondered how I should live down such vulgarities”
I have not heard of this being done in any recent times, though some etiquette books still mention it and even suggest doing it so you can easily show your gifts to close friends. Perhaps this is a regional thing? Is anyone still doing this? Let me know!