This is the history behind the traditional wedding gift rules you’ve heard
I was supposed to be looking for suggestions for wedding anniversary gifts. Forgive me—I wound up down a fascinating rabbit hole about their history, one that I had no idea existed until now.
The abridged version
You may be aware that there are a few different lists for types of anniversary gifts that are designated for each year a couple is married. The oldest one, the “Traditional List” is said to date back to the Medieval era in the Holy Roman Empire (Central Europe) before fully developing sometime during the 1920s to its current iteration. The “Modern List” made its appearance in 1937 when its writers expanded and revamped the “Traditional List.”
The in-depth version
What do you call a trigger warning when instead of being triggered you actually feel really interested? Buckle up.
On a couple’s twenty-fifth anniversary in the Holy Roman Empire (present-day Germany, Austria, Switzerland, parts of France, parts of Northern Italy) during the Medieval Era, it was common for the wife to be presented and crowned with a silver wreath either by her friends or by her husband, who himself might have been wearing a silver buckle gifted to him for the occasion (incredibly swanky for the time). The same would happen on the 50th anniversary (basically unheard of given the era), except with a gold wreath. And so, here started the long-standing tradition of the Silver Anniversary on a couple’s twenty-fifth and the Golden Anniversary on their fiftieth.
Let’s fast-forward a few hundred years to 19th-century British Victorian Era, a significant one in terms of marriage. It was during the Victorian Era that the idea of marrying for love very slowly began to take off. (Wait. You mean you had issues with marriage and love for most of your collective existence too, Great Britain?)
Up until that point, marriage between a man and a woman was a transaction, and its primary motivation was merging of similar class status, the transfer of familial assets and the overall practice of antiquated chivalry.
In the royal spotlight at the time, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were visibly in love until his premature death at age 42. Believe it or not, they are still known today for constantly exchanging anniversary gifts.; this was just not a thing before they came along. Their choices for gifts for each other were quite opulent, including paintings and jewelry they would commission or design for each other. Lest we forget, they were royals.)
It wasn’t the royals themselves who advocated for gift giving. Nope—they just set the example because it’s what they liked to do.
It was the merchants and shopkeepers of the era who we saw an opportunity and jumped on it. They expanded on the silver and golden anniversaries by beginning to propose specific items as designated anniversary gifts for specific years. Among the first, they conjured up was paper as the gift for the first anniversary. This is still the case today and has since developed a symbolism behind it; it is said that the couple should consider how they treat the paper as a parallel to how they treat their marriage. Just as in a relationship, when paper is well taken care of, it can last nicely for a very long time.
Slowly a list developed, and by the 1920s, we had ourselves a list of standard anniversary gifts by year that we know as the “Traditional List” appearing in magazines, periodicals and even dictionaries. Emily Post included it in her writings on etiquette. It was the go-to source for anniversary gift-giving procedure and it was widely used.
Here’s the thing: The Traditional List only covered Year 1 through Year 15. (And from there it gives a single suggestion for every five years beyond that (although it skips the years 60 and 65) We can’t exactly say it was the most complete list in the world.
Enter the Chicago Public Library and the National Retailers Association. It was the 1930s and librarians, who were personified search engines in those days, complained that they were getting too many correspondences from frustrated spouses who didn’t know what to gift on their anniversary because their marriage outlasted the 15 years covered by the Traditional List.
The Chicago Public Library certainly made an attempt. Not only did they fill in the gaps for every year from 1 until 50, but they also offered what they felt was an update on the original fifteen. On their Modern List (officially debuted in 1937), the designated gift for the first anniversary is a clock. If we look down the list, it’s pretty obvious they got desperate for ideas as they went along. For a couple’s forty-fourth anniversary, their suggested gift is groceries. How’s that for keeping the romance alive?
So, why should we care?
LGBTQ+ folks have been bucking tradition for ages. Why should this matter to us?
I, for one, am supremely jealous of people who have no trouble coming up with gift ideas for others. The beauty of having these lists is that if you’re admittedly terrible at coming up with possible gifts, like me, these could give you a gentle but structured nudge toward a solid, high-quality idea. They provide structure and justification. I also like to think that if we do choose to use them, Matt might start to guess what the gift might be.
And I get it, they can feel antiquated, or that the context of these older-established lists with the relatively recent advent of LGBTQ+ marriage suggests some kind of a disconnect. I also understand the notion that not everyone needs or wants these suggestions.
But that’s what they are—merely suggestions. If you ever find yourself in a bind for a gift, they may just prove themselves helpful!
William Travers (pen name) and his husband Matthew were married at The Piermont in Babylon, New York, in August 2019. At that point, they had been together for nearly five years. William is a public school teacher on Long Island, and Matthew works at a nearby university. Together they blissfully enjoy shared interests in television, travel and food.
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