Ellen Litwicki, is Professor of History at the State University of New York at Fredonia.Her research and teaching areas include topics in American cultural history, research methods, public history, and digital humanities.
Anthropologist James Carrier has provided the fullest examination of how the rise of industrial capitalism and its commodity relations affected gift exchange.
He argues that capitalism intensified gift relations and spawned the ideal of the free, unreciprocated gift as a way to distinguish gifts from commodity transactions.
The idea for this project came from overhearing a young woman discussing what she would do with wedding gifts that did not come from her registry.
This made me curious about the origins of the gift registry, and researching that has led me down an intriguing path through the contradictory ideas of gift giving that Americans manage to hold simultaneously.
Sociologists have contended that the gift is just as central to contemporary market societies as to non-market but that gift giving in such societies is essentially a social/cultural, not an economic, system.
Despite this rich literature, historians have neglected the gift.Like Hugh, I hate that the registry tells me I cannot figure out the “perfect” gift based on my knowledge of the individual in question, but have to buy what s/he selected, specified right down to the pattern, color, etc., with no room for creativity.But, like David, I love the registry in other cases, when I have no idea what to buy, especially when I barely know the recipient (my boss’s daughter, for instance).The scholarly literature has been dominated by anthropologists and sociologists, who have tended to posit a binary opposition between gift exchange as an economic system and as a social system.Anthropologists have largely followed the lead of pioneering gift scholar Marcel Mauss by concentrating on non-market societies and their gift exchange economies.This ambivalence about the registry, rooted in our discomfort with the “audacity” of someone telling us what to buy them for a gift, seems widespread today, judging by the number of outraged letters sent to etiquette columns.This is particularly true when prospective recipients request the ultimate pragmatic gift of money.A recent letter to the popular American etiquette columnist Miss Manners described an invitation to an engagement party that specified, "We kindly request that you leave the choice of the gift to the engaged couple.” Another letter from a prospective bride asked “the proper way to request cash in lieu of gifts via a bridal registry.” To the latter, Miss Manners responded succinctly, “Sit on the floor with a hat turned upside down on the floor next to you” (Martin).Although Miss Manners (the pen name of Judith Martin) remains firmly opposed to both the gift registry and monetary presents, both are widespread in the United States today.David, the pragmatist, wants the recipient to tell him exactly what he or she wants.He is the type of person for whom the gift registry was invented.