Cultures & Traditions
The Bridal Registry
The following essay was published in 2000, written for the catalog accompanying the DMA exhibition "Tabletop to TV Tray: China and Glass in America, 1880-1980."
The ritual giving of wedding gifts has long been of seminal importance to the china and glass industries. For hundreds of years in Western culture, the presentation of precious objects like fragile, expensive ceramic and glass vessels has been associated with the marriage ceremony. During the 20th century the American retailing establishment exploited this tradition to the extent that it ultimately became heavily dependent on the bridal business. By the late 1960s, the bridal market accounted for approximately one-third of all dinnerware and glassware sales in the United States. In the category of fine china, the figure was nearly double- 64 percent, or $111 million in sales.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not uncommon for the bride's or groom's parents or another close relative to give the young couple a complete set of china at the time of their marriage. However, as purchasing entire services of tableware became less popular after World War I, this practice changed. The situation that emerged vexed retailers all across the country. In the 1920s and early 1930s, relatives and friends of the bride and groom were prone to visit the jewelry store, specialty shop, or department store of their choice and select wedding gifts at random. As a result, fewer sets of china or glass were sold, and inventory had to be increased so that potential purchasers could have immediate delivery of the merchandise they selected. Furthermore, couples returned many of the uncoordinated gifts and exchanged them for items they truly wanted.
To increase the usefulness of wedding presents and to avoid what retailers called the "pest of exchanging wedding gifts," clever brides and purveyors of china and glass manipulated the gift-giving ritual. In 1931, the trade press noted:
Some brides, an increasing number, make the rounds of the china, glass and other departments of their local stores and tell the buyers that if friends inquire what to buy for her to show them certain merchandise. In this manner modern brides are saved from receiving a mayonnaise set of French china, a tea pot of English earthenware, six Japanese tea cups, sugar and creamer from Bavaria, bone china cream soups of English make and a Delft ware jug while the humiliation of having to set a table with four Waterford reproduction tumblers, a hobnail butter dish, cut rock crystal stemware in goblets and etched glass finer bowls is obviated at a stroke. Today she receives an ensemble instead of a hodge-podge.
Aggressive retailers capitalized on this behavior. They increased their share of bridal profits by systematically "capturing" brides and the gift business that they brought with them. By attracting most of the business for a particular wedding, a retailer was in a position to coordinate the purchases, thereby limiting the amount of stock that had to be carried and the number of returns. Furthermore, if the main store at which a bride registred happened to be a department store, profits could be large indeed because the couple and their attendants and relatives were often likely to purchase their wedding clothing at that store. Stanley Marcus, former president of the elite department store Neiman Marcus in Dallas, recalled that by midcentury an expensive wedding might be worth $30,000 to a high-end department store like Neiman's if it could capture all of the associated business, from ring to dress and china to silver.
During the 1920s and early 1930s, retailers in small towns and urban areas escalated their efforts to attract bridal business by capturing brides themselves. Merchants regularly scanned newspapers for engagement announcements and queried customers about future weddings in their families. Lists were compiled of brides-to-be who soon received letters or telephone calls encouraging them to visit a particular store for advice about etiquette, formal entertaining, and home furnishings for their new abodes. Most important, stores asked these young women what they would like to receive as gifts. If a bride accepted the offer and came to the store, sales representatives discussed her preferences. During the process, a good sales clerk steered the young woman away from patterns the store might not have in sufficient quantity or that might not fit the family's economic position. The appropriate selections were recorded, and the bride was asked to supply her list of wedding guests. Those individuals in turn were invited to the store and told of the bride's choices.
Working in concert in this fashion, the bride and retailer controlled the gift-giving ritual to their mutual advantage. Stores avoided returns and often sold more expensive stock because items were now being purchased by the piece or place setting. Brides received coordinated gifts that were not only suited to their tastes but also often more costly than if entire sets of china or glassware had been purchased by individuals.
The logical extension of this act of control was the creation of the bridal registry. Although numerous stores actively sought bridal business, the first true bridal registry appears to have been developed by Marshall Field & Co. In spring 1935, the gigantic Chicago retailer installed the "Bride's House" on its eighth floor among other model rooms. The trade press reported:
It is a complete house, completely furnished to give the bride suggestions as to her new home from kitchen to bedrooms. And as if the wedding was just about to occur there is one room devoted to the wedding gifts. Here, attractively arranged on tables and shelves, are the gifts which the bride has supposedly received. Instead of the card of the donor each one carries the price card.
No selling was done in this room, but engaged women and potential customers were directed to the appropriate departments to discuss possible selections with a departmental "adviser to the bride." However, in this space occurred the formal registration of a bride's wedding gift preferences. Previously records were kept and gift givers counseled; now there was an official "registration bureau."
Marshall Field's "Bride's House" was extremely popular among shoppers and rival retailers. While most stores could not erect a model house to promote their bridal business, they could institute a formal bridal registry christened with myriad names and staffed by so-called bridal consultants, advisors, secretaries, or coordinators. Registries had sprung up in stores of all sizes from coast to coast by 1940. During the post war years, the concept was refined and integrated into elaborate bridal promotions usually held in the spring months leading to June. By the 1950s, recording your selections at a bridal registry had become a marriage ritual in itself.
The concept of registering gift preferences expanded to the point that teenage girls, aided by bridal consultants, began selecting patterns and acquiring tableware long before they were engaged. In 1969 it was reported that "one in five has begun to hoard flatware, one in six owns china, and one in ten are collecting crystal. Sterling silver is the first acquisition at a median age of 14 years 6 months. China and crystal follow at 16, and such practicalities as linens, towels, and stainless flatware at the sensible old age of 17."
Although the registry's popularity began to decline as more and more newlyweds adopted casual lifestyles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the traditional bridal registry promoting the classic gift categories of china, glass, silver, and linens was not seriously challenged until the 1980s. In response to competition, sellers of china and glass have become more efficient in serving the bridal market. Choices are now computerized so that relatives near and far can consult a bride's registry information at any branch store. Computerization has allowed retailers to reduce their investment in stock to a bare minimum. When stock runs low, the computer reorders. Today most china and glass purchased through a bridal registry is "drop-shipped," meaning that it is shipped directly from a central warehouse to the bride, accompanied by a packing list and notification of the purchaser's identity. Unfortunately for sellers of tableware, the gifts that arrive in the mail today are often not china or glass. With annual wedding gift sales now estimated at over $15 billion, retailers of all kinds, including sellers of sporting goods, tools, CDs, and liquor, have established registries in hopes of increasing profits. Tradition is giving way to the realities of modern life.
Charles L. Venable, Ellen P. Denker, Katherine C. Grier, Stephen G. Harrison, China and Glass in America, 1880-1980: From Tabletop to TV Tray (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000), 311-313.