Today a betrothed couple can register for a honeymoon or a mortgage payment, but until recently the expectation of wedding gifts, and particularly the gift registry, was a relatively new concept. The first gifts exchanged on the occasion of a marriage were given to the bride's parents by the groom, often as a form of payment for the loss of a productive member of the family. In fact, the term "wedding" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "wedd" which was the groom's pledge to pay the bride's father.
By the early 19th century, it became customary for the immediate family to send the bride to her groom with all the necessities for setting up housekeeping in tow. Often only close family attended the wedding, and even the few non-family guests would only bring a small token, as a practical gift might imply that the family could not provide the essential equipment of married life.
As the guest list expanded dramatically during the Victorian era, so did the gift giving, and soon wedding presents were on display in a room of the bride's home. Society columnists often reported not only who attended upper-class weddings, but what gift was brought, and even how much it cost! And while this might shame a guest into bringing a gift, most guests didn't feel obligated to purchase a present until the 1930s.
In 1929, the Ladies' Home Journal urged department stores to create the "wedding-gift consulting bureau," as a way to track which gifts had been purchased for which couple, or the couples' preference for a pattern. But most stores still agreed with their shoppers that this amounted to asking for gifts, a concept considered greedy and crude. It was only after decades of receiving three coffeepots, mismatched china, and incomplete sets of flatware, along with the publication of detailed explanations and advertising by bridal magazines and stores (who changed their minds and began to promote the registry idea during the 1940s) that brides and their guests finally began to take advantage of the registry system.