Why the marriage register must evolve after marriages
“It was a no-pressure thing,” said Judson, 33, who lives in New Orleans. “I used a wedding registry site only because I couldn’t find a non-wedding related wish list site that I liked. I think they make things prettier for weddings than for anything else.
Judson’s friend Hope Rehak was moved by the feminist underpinnings of the register and wrote about it on Twitter. Judson’s note included “a line about how we shouldn’t just celebrate women for babies and weddings and phewwww,” Rehak wrote.
The tweet quickly went viral. Most people applauded her decision, but “a lot of other people said, ‘You don’t deserve this,’ or asked about who deserves what and how you should celebrate — what’s tacky, what’s narcissist, etc.,” Judson said. . “But we don’t celebrate each other enough, and a registry is a convenient way to do that.” She added: “Let’s normalize this outside of marriage and children.”
Judson’s doctoral enrollment skyrocketed during a period of flux for marriage as an institution. Marriage rates have generally decreasesweddings have become more secular, and many millennials are getting married later, when they already have fully stocked kitchens and decent towels.
But the concept of register has remained relatively static and mostly reserved for people embarking on marriage or parenthood. Wish list systems still serve an important purpose – to prevent unwanted or duplicate gifts, and for new parents, to help them stock up on needed baby gear – but are paramount to an overhaul.
“We just didn’t want all that,” said Bridget Rogers, 33, a Denver event planner who gave up a registry when she got married last fall. “Our generation lives smaller and lighter than our parents,” she said. “Will I ever use a fondue set? No, and I don’t have room for that in my kitchen.
Chelsea Luther, a life coach and gratitude specialist in New York City, imagines a world in which we celebrate more difficult or nuanced victories like getting sober, graduating, leaving an abusive relationship, or finishing a marathon. “The registers classify what we celebrate according to these retro ideals,” she says. “They need an update.”
Gifts are an integral part of the wedding tradition — dowry, or money given by the bride’s family to the groom, were commonplace in the Roman Empire as well as parts of India and Asia – but the nature of the exchange evolved. The dowry has been replaced by a wedding chest, also called a trousseau or chest of hope.
In the early 20th century, local boutiques, eager to enter the increasingly lucrative business of marriage, devised a way to help newlyweds avoid piles of duplicate gifts. Registries, or curated wish lists that guests could purchase, solved this problem.
Chicago-based department store Marshall Field’s is widely credited with creating the first bridal registration service in 1924, ushering the idea into the mainstream, but the initial concept was broader. In “Brides, Inc.: American Marriages and the Trade in Traditionauthor Vicki Howard notes that the store’s holiday, wedding and gift desk covered items such as table decorations and party favors and inspired a boom in “gift suggestion departments” in stores at across the country. As leaders refined the service’s offerings, what we now call the bridal salon began to emerge.
There was a lot of resistance. Because registries stripped the gifting process of sentiment, they were often seen as crude and impersonal. They also exerted an unknown social pressure: Not only did the brides dictate what they wanted, Howard says, but they also knew exactly how much each guest had spent. Yet by 1960 it was clear that the donation tool had caught on. Brides magazine polls that year found that women were increasingly specific in their requests, noting the fabric, finish and model of items on their lists.
The registers have undergone some adjustments over the last half century. Smart speakers and air fryers have replaced crystal stemware and formal china; space-saving newlyweds began asking for cash gifts, such as honeymoon contributions or a down payment on a house. A cottage industry of crowdfunding-focused registry companies such as Zola and Honeyfund has sprung up to meet the demand. More cheeky pairs simply ask for money and include their Venmo handles on the invite.
Yet these changes seem superficial compared to the seismic cultural shifts at play. Census data showed that among 18-34 year olds, 29% were married in 2018, while 59% were married in 1978. Parenting is also changing as people delay having children to focus on their studies and careers – or give up having children altogether. About 44% of American adults aged 18-49 who are not already parents say they probably won’t have children, citing reasons such as financial stress and climate change. It is therefore amazing that the records continue to focus on these traditional milestones rather than the myriad of other achievements that shape people’s lives. For many women, this sends a clear message about what is worth celebrating.
“The overwhelming message is that these are always the defining events in women’s lives,” says Katie Schmelzer, an independent education consultant in Chicago. “Even with all the cultural advancements, we are still seen as the primary caregivers. Getting married and having babies are always positioned as the end goal.
Schmelzer, who is 35 and single, recently returned to the Midwest after spending a decade in New York and said she experienced culture shock. “Mothers, grandmothers, and family friends insist on registers because they always see marriage as the biggest event of your life, and they want to shower you with household items to prepare you for it,” a she declared. “I don’t think they understand why this might seem a bit depressing for women of my generation.”
Declining interest in records also reflects changing attitudes among young Americans toward consumer culture and a desire for a more streamlined lifestyle. “My husband and I are neurotic, picky minimalists,” said Rebecca Richter, a 33-year-old doula in Los Angeles who opted out of a registry for her wedding last year. “Tchotchkes, boxes piling up: it’s our nightmare.”
Both Richter and Rogers encountered friction with older, more traditional guests who resisted or ignored their no-gift policies.
“These are different values,” Rogers said. “My parents’ friends still tell me, ‘Oh, you got married? This is the pinnacle of success. Whereas women of my generation tend to spread out their priorities a bit. There is also a certain pragmatism around millennial marriages. “On some level, I think people my age are like, ‘We really have to pay the mortgage or the rent,'” Rogers said. “It doesn’t have to be this blown material celebration.”
But what about those who aren’t planning on getting married or having kids, or are just working toward other milestones first?
“I got my second master’s in 2020, and there was really no way to commemorate it,” Schmelzer said. “I was definitely frustrated. Of course, I want to celebrate my friends who are getting married and having babies, but that’s not the only way.
The women in this boat often refer to the episode “Sex and the City” where Carrie Bradshaw announces that she is getting married and registers with Manolo Blahnik. “I identify with that,” said Jamie Campisano, 37, a New York City human relations manager. “Everyone claims that Carrie’s choices are insignificant and frivolous when it comes to having kids, but there’s a lot of judgment and subjectivity in there. Haven’t we moved past that?
Schmelzer agrees: “Maybe higher education deserves more than an Instagram comment like, ‘You’ve got another master’s degree! Take it, girl!’ ”
A few new registry websites are springing up to fill the void, including two aimed at helping people rebuild after divorce. And Gloss register emerged in 2016 as a service for women starting their own business or undergoing professional retraining; users signed up for art supplies, business cards, network connections, and help with grant and proposal writing. Shine also offers “professional showers”.
During Tracy Gray’s shower for the Sankofa Global Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to attracting more women and people of color into tech and science careers, she received coaching sessions for her TEDx Talk and a financial advice to prepare its fundraising campaign. It also helped her establish new relationships. “Sometimes you can get stuck in a silo. The showers are about rallying support,” she said. Much like wedding parties or baby showers, they capitalize on the idea that people want to help. “Everyone said the same thing: ‘What can I do to support you?’ The registers help you vocalize that.
It’s easy to see a world in which all these freebies go too far. (Imagine getting a registry to celebrate someone’s new pet.) But Judson says there are plenty of life events that deserve community support, like buying that first home. or the death of a loved one. “I don’t want to pit anything against each other,” she said, “but having been married before and now being single with no children, let me say: it’s also important to stand up for non-traditional things.”
Megan Buerger is a freelance writer in New York.