Wedding Gifts, Past and Present

Wedding Presents, Past and Present

The custom of presenting gifts upon the celebration of a marriage may be said to be almost co-existent with the institution of that ceremony. From the very earliest ages records have been handed down to us of the offerings made to the contracting parties by their relatives and friends, and of the gifts of enormous value claimed upon such occasions from their vassals, by sovereigns and feudal chiefs; though in some instances potentates made these important events an opportunity on their own part, of a lavish distribution of gifts amongst their subjects and dependents.

In the "jewels of silver and jewels of gold" presented to Rebekah by Abraham's servant, we have an instance of the valuable wedding gifts it was no doubt customary on the part of the shepherd princes of those early times to offer to brides elect; and the record made of the great feast at which Ahasuerus gave gifts to his subjects, upon the celebration of his marriage with Esther, is conclusive proof of a custom no doubt of long standing in the East.

In a curious little volume published in 1704 by L. de Gaza, the author states that in Cambodia, in the East Indies, when the king married, his subjects were obliged to present to him offerings of cloth, turbans, mats, fruits, and flowers; and that in Java the bridegroom's procession always numbered in its ranks thirty young women richly dressed, some of whom carried flowers, others pictures, others little gilt boxes, and habits of all sorts—presents from the bridegroom to the bride.

Amongst the ancient Goths, Swedes, and Danes, it was an invariable custom with the common people for the parents and friends of the bride to present her with a pig, sheep, or cow, while for his share the bridegroom received a dog, cat, or goose.

In the early history of our own country, we have some very interesting records of wedding gifts. We learn, for instance, that in a.d. 1041, when Gunhilda, the sister of Hardieanute, King of England, married Henry, the Roman Emperor— the King, her brother, and all his people, were so lavish of gold and silver, silken garments, precious jewels, and costly horses, that the splendor of the gifts was for centuries extolled by minstrels and players.

It is interesting to note that though, as in the above instance, jewelry, clothes, and other valuables were always included in the wedding gifts of mediaeval times, a custom also existed, even when the contracting parties were of high rank, of making offerings of edibles.

Such contributions to the festal board were no doubt vastly acceptable upon such an occasion as the marriage, in a.d. 1243, of Cynthia, daughter of Raymond, Count of Provence, with our English Earl Richard.

At the feast held in honor of this event, no less than 30,000 dishes were got ready for those who sat down to dinner, and one may safely conclude that at a period when cooperative stores and general contractors were unknown, many of the component parts of the said dishes were either levied from, or contributed by, dependents and friends of the English earl.

Of a wedding which took place some two centuries later than that of Cynthia of Provence, a very interesting and amusing record is in existence, which throws considerable light upon the wedding customs of the landed gentry of that period.

The marriage took place on the 3rd of November 1567, between Richard Poleshead, of Albury, and Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of William More, of Loxley. The bridegroom was a man of good family in Surrey, having been sheriff of that county at the time of his death in 1576; and after his decease, Elizabeth More married Sir John Wody, and became one of the ladies of the Privy Chamber of Queen Elizabeth.

At the time of her first marriage, of which the record is given, Elizabeth More was only sixteen, and it would certainly astonish a youthful bride of the present day to receive from her friends such an array as she did of "fat does," "capons of grease," "fat cygnets," and other constituents of good cheer, amongst which it is amusing to note that Lord Clynton, " Admyrale of England," presented " Swannes and Torkes fat, and two grete boxes of Mermelade."

And we find other friends of the affianced couple contributing "puddings fine and chickens great," and Mrs. Katherine Hill, of Underwood, no doubt a notable housewife, sent "great bride cakes." The gift of one John Brodefield consisted of "sugar loves one wing," an item which leaves one in doubt as to whether the worthy gentleman contributed sugar for the use of the establishment, or some of the wondrous sweet confections constructed by the cooks of olden times.

A customary and no doubt highly complementary wedding gift in mediaeval times was a suit of armor; and a very interesting relic of this kind is preserved in the Tower—a suit of horse-armor which, it is authoritatively concluded, was presented by the Emperor Maximilian to Henry VIII upon the occasion of his marriage with Catherine of Arragon.

The armor, which was originally silvered, is most elaborately engraved all over with curious representations of the history of St. George and the Dragon and other mediaeval saints, interspersed with the English rose and various conventionalized floral emblems; the motto, "Ich Dien," and the word "Ghick" being worked into the border design.

The Tradition of Wedding Rings

Rings have apparently for many centuries been connected with the ceremonial of marriage, and the custom still prevails in some foreign countries for the bridegroom to present the bride with a Gimmal, or dual engagement or wedding ring, engraved with some appropriate motto or date.

Formerly this custom also existed to a certain extent in England, and a very curious Gimmal ring was discovered at Horselydown, in Surrey, late in the last century.

The ring, as described, is probably of French origin, of about the Elizabethan period. It is constructed of twin or double hoops, which play one within the other like the links of a chain, each hoop having one of its sides flat and the other convex.

Each is twisted once round, and each surmounted by a hand finished off by a sort of ornamental cuff; on the lower hand, that of which the palm is uppermost, is represented a heart, and as the hoops close the hands slide into contact, forming, with their ornamental wrists, a heading to the ring.

A copy of the old Gimmal ring would be a pretty deviation from the ordinary engagement ring of the present day, the device presenting, as it does, a triple emblem of love, fidelity, and union.

Precious Wedding Gifts

To give any details of the numerous quaint, as well as useful or precious wedding gifts made in comparatively recent times, would far exceed the limit assigned to this paper; costly jewels, plate, tapestries, furniture, priceless objects of porcelain, and curios of every description having from time to time been called into requisition for this purpose.

Many such treasures are preserved in royal or private collections. One very curious wedding present in the South Kensington Museum should not be overlooked by visitors to that institution. It consists of a set of most wondrously constructed models of Chinese houses, temples, and gardens, mainly composed of precious stones.

These models were sent by the Emperor of China, as a gift to Josephine upon the occasion of her marriage with the Emperor Napoleon, and they have a curious history attached to them, for on their way from China they were captured by the English, and for many years were preserved in the East India Museum.

Upon the conclusion of peace, the English offered to restore these valuable gifts, but they were then declined, and have therefore become the property of the English nation, and now form a great attraction to the Chinese department of the South Kensington Museum.

Modern Wedding Gifts

To turn, however, to more modern times and less exalted walks of life: the custom, but recently existing, of almost exclusively giving presents of plate or ornaments for the person or house is now very considerably modified, and in many instances, we find the useful cheque being offered by the wealthy relative or friend as a happy substitute for the possibly duplicate jewel and elaborate piece of plate; a substitute, no doubt, in many instances most welcome to the recipients.

Everybody, however, does not care to give, or perhaps even to receive, a monetary offering; and unless, therefore, a timely hint can be obtained as to what will be most acceptable for the young house folk, it will be just as well for the friendly giver to search for something quite out of the common.

Nothing can be more embarrassing than for the happy couple to have to return glowing thanks for the tenth sugar-basin or sixteenth butter-knife. Even that most useful little addenda to the breakfast-table, the bread-fork, now added to the list of possible wedding presents, is apt to pall upon the recipients, when making its appearance, as upon a recent occasion, in triplicate form.

Amongst recent fantastical wedding presents, no doubt a cordial welcome was given to half a dozen little pussies, with richly-chased bodies and jeweled eyes and whiskers, which were destined to serve the purpose of salt-cellars.

Whether the precious gift of a mummy's hand, contributed by a learned professor to a blushing bride, equally delighted the recipient, is questionable; and the little Spanish dog, measuring eight inches, which the bride appreciated so highly that she took him on the wedding tour, may not, perhaps, have had equal attractions for the bridegroom.

Without, however, committing oneself or one's friends to any such eccentricities, it is quite possible nowadays, if a little care be exercised in the selection, to pick up some quaint object of bric-a-brac which will be a joy forever.

What a delightfully useful gift would be one of the old inlaid writing tables or cabinets, which may now be obtained very reasonably, or one of the carved oak linen chests, which perhaps, centuries ago, formed part of the marriage portion of some fair demoiselle.

For those who may prefer modern manufactures, with a moderately full purse and an opportunity of looking over the collections of "bigotry and virtue" gathered together by any of our leading West-End firms, there should be no difficulty whatever in selecting gifts suited to the occasion, and to the tastes of the intended recipients; the beautiful Oriental onyx caskets, clocks, and numberless other treasures displayed affording a wide range for choice.

Useful Wedding Gifts

Acceptable, however, as may be well-selected ornaments with which to adorn the home about to be formed, it should not be overlooked that in many cases really useful offerings would be more truly valued; and instead of overloading the bride and bridegroom with inkstands and paper-knives, the children of even wealthy parents would thankfully welcome some of the little odds and ends which go so far to make home attractive and the table elegant.

A set of plated entree-dishes, a hot-water bacon-dish, or even the more prosaic set of meat-covers, would delight the heart of many a youthful housewife.

A barometer is seldom seen amongst the list of fashionable wedding gifts; and, useful as it is, it is not one of the first things purchased by a young couple.

Again, a handsome ornamental filter would insure to the bride and her beloved a constant supply of the pure element; and even a handsome damask table-cloth, or set of dinner serviettes, would commend themselves to many young folks who have all such requisites to purchase.

A little thoughtful consideration on the part of the friends of those whose purses are not very deep, would put them in possession of numberless such things, the value of which would be far greater than that of superfluous knickknacks.

The writer can call to mind how one bride rejoiced over the presentation of a set of lovely hot water jugs, and another values amongst her chief domestic treasures a set of jugs presented by some village folk.

In the writer's possession is a beautiful tea-set of Canary Crown Derby, a wedding gift in 1800 to a member of the Stonor family. A service such as this, or one of less value if tastefully selected, would in most cases be a welcome gift.

To turn to very prosaic offerings, a word may be said in favor of the colored blankets, and the handsome eiderdown quilts, now so much in use; or the Oriental rugs, or Japanese draught screens; all of which should form part of a comfortable ménage.

For those who chiefly depend upon their own ingenuity to supply tokens of affection to their friends, a watch-pocket may not be an unacceptable suggestion. To work it out, the design of orange-blossom should be enlarged to a suitable size and worked upon a piece of rich white satin.

It should then be stretched over a piece of card cut to the shape of a heart, and neatly lined; the pocket piece being cut a little wider than the lower part of the heart, in order to allow of its falling into pocket form, and the heart then finished off by strings of satin ribbon and an edging of silk cord.

A pair of these pockets, and a larger one for the mouchoir, would be a most lovely bridal gift; similarly the slipper form of pocket may be adapted to the same purpose, enlarged either to the size of a watchpocket, or to the more capacious proportions of a videpoche.

Those who can paint, need seldom be at a loss as to gifts, for pictures, if of any merit, are always acceptable; and a word may perhaps not be out of place here, as to the wide field for selection of wedding presents afforded by the collections of paintings annually gathered together in the metropolis and principal country towns.

The walls of newly-formed homes would afford ample accommodation for many of the charming sujets de genre, and other pictures, which now return unappropriated to the exhibitors; and many of them might be secured at prices within the compass of even a moderate purse.

Engravings and autotypes also should not be overlooked. These, if tastefully framed, stand far less chance of being cumbersome acquisitions than many of the knickknacks selected according to the prevailing fashion of the day.

Books, as wedding presents, are but seldom thought of; yet what could be more appropriate than the presentation of some good standard encyclopedia, or volumes of historical or chronological reference?

The presence of which in the home may, in many cases, materially conduce to that healthful mental condition, without which latter the security and happiness of the roof-tree are by no means assured.

Love flies out of the window not alone through poverty; uncongenial tastes as often frighten the little god away; and in early days, a little mutual study of objects of general interest might effectually bind his wings, whilst at the same time laying the foundation of a homestead, the attraction of which would serve to knit its members together, by one common bond of union, love, and intellect combined.

B. de M. Morkell, “Wedding Presents, Past and Present,” in The Woman’s World, Cassell & Company, Limited, London, Paris, New York & Melbourne, Volume I, No. 10, August 1888, p.470-472.

Note: We have edited this text to correct grammatical errors and improve word choice to clarify the article for today’s readers. Changes made are typically minor, and we often left passive text “as is.” Those who need to quote the article directly should verify any changes by reviewing the original material.


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