Wedding anniversary gift lists have a long history. The common anniversary gift lists are based on the lists provided by the Chicago Public Library, but tradition of giving specific anniversary gifts based on the number of years a couple has been married dates back to the Middle Ages.
The "Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend" notes that certain luck-bringing substances were paired with a distinct number of years to provide the gift suggestions. Modern-day lists in both the U.S. and Europe are built around wedding anniversary symbols and materials that reflect the progressive strengthening of the relationship and the investment the couple has made in their marriage.
Wedding Anniversary Celebrations in the Middle Ages
Historians say that giving distinct gifts at milestone anniversaries originated in the Germanic regions of Central Europe in medieval times. The wife would receive a silver wreath from her husband on the 25th wedding anniversary. Silver symbolized harmony. If the couple survived to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, the wife would receive a wreath of gold. Given the expense of these precious metals, it is likely this tradition was only honored among the wealthy.
These traditions have survived and lent their names to the silver wedding anniversary and the golden wedding anniversary. These were the only two milestone anniversaries denoted by specific gifts.
Victorian Era Wedding Anniversaries
More anniversaries gained special designations in the Victorian era of the 1800s. Around 1875, wood was designated for the fifth anniversary and the 75th wedding anniversary was designated the diamond anniversary. Queen Victoria of the British Empire established her 60th year on the throne as her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and thereafter a 60th wedding anniversary also became associated with diamonds.
In "The Meaning of Wedding Anniversaries," Gretchen Scoble and Ann Field note "The Victorians, so fond of cataloging and classifying, were likely the first to adapt ancient customs into a prescribed list of gifts for each wedding anniversary."
20th Century Wedding Anniversary Gift Giving
Emily Post listed eight traditional anniversaries in her 1922 "Blue Book of Social Usage." These were the first, fifth, 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th, 50th, and 75th anniversaries. She then noted that there was a trend to have a symbolic anniversary gift for each of the first 15 years and on increments of five years thereafter. Her list helped develop the lists used today.
The gifts associated with each anniversary were further regularized in 1937 when the American National Retail Jeweler Association issued a comprehensive list. Each year up to the 20th year was assigned a different symbolic material, as was every fifth year after that, up to the 75th anniversary. Oddly, the 65th anniversary was skipped. The gifts were of increasing value, all the more to reward stability in the relationship. They also included useful gifts such as clocks, silverware, electrical appliances, watches, musical instruments, and desk sets.
In addition to gift materials, you can find lists of colors, flowers, and jewelry associated with each anniversary milestone. These can help further guide gift selections and decorations for the celebration.