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Silver Wedding Presents

Silver ladle and spoon given to Syndonia (Hobbins) Jackson of Madison, Wisconsin
as a wedding present, 1872.

(Museum object #1955.304,A)

As the daughter of a respected physician and a prominent member of Madison, Wisconsin society, Syndonia Josephine Hobbins would have expected to receive expensive and luxurious gifts for her February 6, 1872 wedding. This sterling silver ladle and spoon with gold-plated bowls and jack-in-the-pulpit-shaped handles, encased in leather and satin boxes probably brought her and her new husband, Dr. James A. Jackson, great pleasure.

Syndonia may not have known it, but this present from a now unknown friend or relation represented a relatively new trend in wedding gifts. Before the 1830s most weddings were unostentatious affairs held quietly at home. The concept of a white wedding dress with veil, the wedding cake and reception, piles of wedding presents, and all the other wedding rituals we consider traditional today did not exist. The couple might anticipate a significant gift of land or money from their parents, but they expected to acquire the items they needed to set up a household by themselves. The bride's personally stocked hope chest, for example, prepared her with all the linens and bedding she might need in the early years of her marriage.

During the 1830s close friends and family began to give couples small but expensive presents. The practice began among the elite members of society, but over the next few decades spread down the social ladder. By the 1870s, when Syndonia married, distant relatives, acquaintances, and co-workers were expected to give gifts as well.

Other changes occurred shortly before Syndonia's wedding that also affected the nature of the gifts she received. After the Civil War ended in 1865, the number of things thought to be necessary to set up a household increased tremendously. With this escalation in consumption, a belief took hold that material goods provided happiness. Consequently, to ensure a young couple's future bliss they had to begin their new life with as many material goods as possible.

Early on wedding gifts were necessities geared toward the couple, but by the late nineteenth century such presents had become unessential luxury items directed primarily towards the bride. Not surprisingly, when they donated this ladle and spoon to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1953, Syndonia's daughters, Alice and Bettina Jackson, noted that these were wedding gifts to their mother and not presents for the wedding couple. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, brides displayed their gifts in the parlor or dining room, where friends and neighbors could visit and read the gift tags to see who had given the bride the more ostentatious gifts. Newspapers also published lists of wedding gifts along with the identities of the givers. Together these practices pressured wedding guests to give increasingly expensive and impressive gifts.

In the early 1870s nationally renowned minister Henry Ward Beecher argued in Godey's magazine that guests had stopped giving practical and useful items to young couples because they were more concerned with exhibiting their own status with their gifts. He also criticized the practice of displaying wedding gifts, which he felt promoted this attitude. A later Delineator magazine article contributed to this argument by noting, "To give massive silver plates or services and force unhappy souls to live up to them is a cruel kindness." It did go on to state, however, that "to select something which hints of a frugal household is in equally bad taste."

By the time of Syndonia's wedding, silver in the form of flatware, serving items, or toiletries had become a popular form of present. So popular in fact that Delineator observed that there had been "an outcry against the giving of silver presents, because an excess of butter-knives and oyster-forks was embarrassing." The magazine's editors, however, refused to participate in this criticism believing, "Solid silver ware is always a desirable present, and good housekeepers appreciate it."

Despite the "outcry" against expensive wedding gifts, including silver, the custom has remained popular since the mid nineteenth century. An improvement was introduced, however, in 1901 when the China Hall Store in Rochester, Minnesota instituted a bridal gift registry to avoid duplication of gifts. The practice did not become popular until the 1930s, but since then approximately 65 percent of engaged couples have registered in at least one store.

[SOURCES: Green, Harvey. The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983); Victorian Wedding Primer (Indianapolis, IN: Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, c. 1990); Bellais, Leslie. Outline and labels for "Rituals of Romance: A History of Courtship and Weddings," a Wisconsin Historical Society exhibition, summer 1991.]

LAB


Posted on December 04, 2008

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