The History of Weddings and Wedding Gifts 

The History of Weddings and Wedding Gifts 

Wedding season is in full swing – and we’d bet that you’ve attended more than one wedding this year! From dressing up in fancy clothes to watching friends and family commit to one another in marriage – not to mention the amazing reception parties – weddings are always a blast!

But how did the modern tradition of weddings – and wedding gifts – evolve over time? Modern weddings are actually quite different from their ancient counterparts!

In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of weddings and wedding gifts, examining the changes that have occurred, and we’ll give you some insight into the tradition of weddings in Western culture!

The Early History of Weddings (3100 BC – 410 AD)

It is unknown exactly how old the tradition of weddings is  – partially because there was no way to record marriage before modern writing systems were developed.

So, our “modern” definition of a wedding starts with the ancient Mesopotamians. Established in 3100 BC, this culture was the first to develop a writing system. In ancient Mesopotamia, marriage was primarily an economic system. Marriages were almost always arranged by families; women were often sold to the highest bidder for marriage!

Babylonian Marriage Market by Edwin Long, 1875 CE, Royal Holloway College, London.

Babylonian Marriage Market by Edwin Long, 1875 CE, Royal Holloway College, London.


The bride’s “wedding gift” was the price paid for her – this is the predecessor of the “dowry” which eventually became more common in traditional marriages.

It was in ancient Greece and Rome that the definition of “marriage” first became standardized – the monogamous commitment of a man to his wife. Though other cultures at the time practiced, and even encouraged, polygamy.

In Greece and Rome a “dowry” was given to the groom by the bride’s family. This is perhaps the first notable example of a wedding gift – the value of the goods given was intended to cover household expenses for the newlyweds.

Wedding ceremonies were large and ornate in Greece and Rome, especially for the upper class. Ceremonies and receptions were lavish and expensive – this is when the tradition of a “wedding cake” became commonplace!

Weddings in the Middle Ages (500 – 1500 AD)

Marriage in the Middle Ages in Europe was heavily influenced both by Christianity and the classic Greco-Roman conception of marriage between a man and a woman.

Arranged marriages were very common during this time; women married men based on their economic or social status, and pairings were chosen by parents. Being married out of “love” was very uncommon.

From the exchanging of rings and vows, to the feast held after the ceremony, it was during this time the modern form of a wedding came into place. Weddings were typically performed in churches in front of altars, and friends/family were encouraged to attend via notices posted on church walls.

Arranged Marriage

Arranged Marriage


The idea of a “wedding gift” had not quite developed – at least, not from attendees. As in Greco-Roman times, the bride’s family was required to give a dowry to the groom (including money or valuable household goods).

Inability to provide an adequate dowry could result in a marriage being called off. In fact, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, King Lear refused to pay a dowry for his daughter Cordelia and she was refused marriage by one of her suitors!

Weddings in The Early Modern Period (16th – 19th Century)

Marriage and weddings in the Early Modern Period were similar to those in the Middle Ages. Marrying for love was uncommon; instead, marriage was done out of necessity, primarily due to poor life expectancy.

Around the world, marriage was still primarily a way to ensure the longevity of the family line, and that property could be inherited by children. Due to a poor understanding of childbirth and health care, 50% of women died from childbirth or disease during pregnancy.

Not only that, the average life expectancy in the 18th Century worldwide only reached about the age of 35. Marriage was a way to ensure families would have legitimate heirs for their property.

Human life expectancy at birth, measured by region, between 1950 and 2050

Human life expectancy at birth, measured by region, between 1950 and 2050


During this time, many social roles seen in today’s marriages became commonplace. Men were expected to provide for their families and have absolute authority in matters of conflict, politics, and business, while women were expected to care for children and see to domestic affairs.

The style and size of weddings varied widely during this time. For a small family in Colonial America, for example, a wedding may consist of only a few friends and family, and a priest or pastor – with a small celebration afterward.

However, for royal weddings and weddings among the aristocracy in England, Europe, and beyond, weddings were sumptuous, lavish affairs! These weddings could involve an entire city, especially because intermarriage between royalty became very common during this time.

In fact, the wedding between Marie de Medici of Italy and Henry IV of France included a reception for 500 guests at the Palazzo Vecchio Salone dei Cinquecento. According to historical reports, over 50 courses were served at this feast – but the highlight of the festivities came before the meals were even served! As guests sat down and unfolded their napkins, captive songbirds flew out of them – a spectacular show, indeed!

Courtship in its modern form began to emerge at this time as well. Though marriage was still primarily economic, prospective suitors often solicited women with their intentions, and attempted to show off their value as husbands. Often, romantic love would be involved in courtship – although the suitor was still usually chosen by the parents of the prospective bride in an arranged marriage.

Weddings In The Modern World (20th Century – Present)

Today’s weddings can be traced back throughout each of these previous eras. The style of most contemporary weddings often mimics weddings in the Middle Ages – the bride and groom stand in a church filled with friends and family, exchange vows and rings, and celebrate with a reception afterward!

Despite these similarities, modern marriages are also markedly different.

In the early 20th century, arranged marriages became much less common. Though arranged marriages were still performed, especially in Asian countries, marriage in the West were no longer merely a business transaction; it was based on love – a fairly new concept at the time!

In addition, whereas weddings had previously been both a religious and social institution, the separation of church and state made civil unions much more common.

The tradition of the dowry and bride price also faded away. In their place, a new tradition sprung up – the modern wedding gift. Beginning in the 1920s, wedding gifts are one of the newest traditions! Interestingly, Macy’s is a huge reason the modern wedding gift exists at all!

Wedding Gifts


Before the modern “gift registry,” wedding guests weren’t expected to bring anything at all. Gift registries quickly caught on among department stores and, today, it’s pretty much required to go to a wedding with a gift!

Modern Weddings and Weddings Gifts – The Latest Step in a Long Tradition!

The history of modern weddings can be traced back nearly 5,000 years – but the tradition of modern wedding gifts is barely even a century old!

Next time you attend a wedding, think of all the weddings that came before; enjoy your cake, dance the night away and – don’t forget! – bring a gift from the registry!

Comments 1

  1. Thank you for your research. It was very helpful to a Wedding exhibition we are about to under take and really interesting.

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