What Is a Wedding Registry? The History and Purpose

Why do they exist and do you really need one?
alyssa longobucco the knot wedding planning expert
Alyssa Longobucco
alyssa longobucco the knot wedding planning expert
Alyssa Longobucco
Wedding Planning Expert
  • Alyssa Longobucco is a freelance editor, content creator, and stylist.
  • Alyssa is well-versed in shoot production and styling and market work for a variety of platforms.
  • Alyssa worked as a Senior Style and Planning Editor for The Knot for over three years.
Updated Apr 20, 2023

The entire wedding planning process is steeped in so much history. From the exchanging of rings to the lingo in traditional vows, so many moments and milestones are rich with meaning. One wedding tradition with an unexpectedly interesting history? The wedding registry!

If you're wondering: "What is a wedding registry?" or "How did this whole wedding wish list thing start?" you've come to the right place. Not to brag, but we're kind of experts in this realm—not only can we give you the download on how wedding registries came to be, but we can also clue you in on how to decide if the tradition is right for you. (Pro tip: If you decide it's the move, you can get started ASAP with The Knot Registry.)

From its modest department store beginnings all the way to the modern, tech-enabled wedding cornerstone it is today, the wedding registry has evolved (and improved) with the times. Read on to discover the history of this long-standing wedding tradition and learn whether or not a wedding registry is right for you (spoiler alert: we say yes!).

In this article:

Wedding Registry Meaning

In its most basic form, a wedding registry is a wish list a to-be-wed couple compiles at the beginning of the wedding planning process to help friends and loved ones choose gifts they need (or want!) in celebration of their big day. Think of it like a helpful roadmap for guests: Instead of having to guess a couple's style or what will be useful to them in married life together, they can instead turn to the pair's wedding registry to inform their shopping. This way, it's ensured that whatever they give is something the newlywed duo will use and love for years to come. Plus, it'll save them some serious shopping time, too. Wedding registries come in handy for guests throughout a couple's journey to the altar, but are most notably useful during gifting occasions like the wedding itself as well as the bridal shower or engagement party.

Wedding Registry History

While nearly all wedding registries are digital these days, they actually got their start at brick-and-mortar shops—in particular, Chicago-based department store Marshall Fields (now Macy's). Around 1924, the location pioneered the first wedding registry, allowing local couples to ask for items like fine china and flatware that would carry them into married life together. While this service was the first of its kind, ceremonial gifting at weddings is nothing new—in fact, it dates back as far as the ancient Greeks.

In the beginning, gifting at weddings held a less-wholesome meaning, often involving several gifts and money paid from a bride's family to a groom's family as a means of "exchanging" the bride for marriage. Luckily, the sentiment has evolved considerably over the years as marriage has become less transactional and wedding day gifting has morphed into yet another way friends and family can show a betrothed couple just how excited they are for this meaningful milestone.

After Marshall Fields kicked off their registry service, many other department and specialty stores followed suit. Soon, creating a wedding registry became a rite of passage for any couple heading to the altar. An engaged pair would shop their store (or stores) of choice and spend time with a registry specialist, typically picking out a china pattern, silver, crystal and other homewares. (Remember those hand-held registry barcode scanners we've all seen in movies?) From there, the roster of stores where the couple registered for items was passed along to the guests, friends and family members of the couple of honor, who could then shop from the bevy of products the couple selected at each retailer with confidence and ease. The store clerk would delete the products on the registry once they were purchased to avoid duplicate presents and it was common for the couple to scoop up any remaining items that weren't bought after the big day.

These days, setting up a wedding registry couldn't be easier. To-be-wed couples and guests alike can turn to services like The Knot Registry to handle all of their gift giving needs, from providing one streamlined wish list in lieu of separate ones from different stores to offering the ability to ask for items you'd never find in a Marshall Fields—like scuba lessons in Bali or golf clubs for your next date on the green.

Do You Need a Wedding Registry?

If you've been wondering: "Do you have to have a wedding registry?" here's your answer: it's totally up to you, but we'd definitely recommend it.

We get that formally asking for gifts can feel a bit weird, especially if you're an established couple that's been living together for years. But hear us out: people love to give gifts to engaged and newlywed couples, so it's not like you're going to escape the pomp and circumstance altogether. Instead, think of a wedding registry as a way to help your guests by providing a helpful roadmap to your preferences and needs, all while saving yourselves the trouble of answering loads of questions about what you'll actually use in your life together—or the months of inevitable store returns postwedding.

Beyond being helpful to your guests, creating a wedding registry is also a useful exercise for couples who are beginning to envision what the rest of their lives will look like together. Will you host the family celebration for your favorite holiday? Camp under the stars in Yosemite every summer? Splurge on an epic Australian honeymoon? Whatever your plan for married life is, wedding registries can help you get there. From charitable donations, to experiences, to cash funds for future milestones (hellooo new puppy), you can easily craft a custom wedding registry that will be as unique as the rest of your lives together.

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