All-Consuming Rituals: Materialism and Baby Showers
This week it was confirmed that the Duchess of Cambridge will have Buckingham Palace’s first sanctioned baby shower. Sister Pippa Middleton is hosting the shower, at which guests will “toast mum with cupcakes and champagne,” and receive luxurious goodie bags that The Telegraph indicates will include Jo Malone candles and items from the White Company. Increasingly the baby shower is joining a series of celebratory life events involving material gifts—not just weddings and birthdays, but wedding proposals, graduation parties, bachelorette parties, and baby showers are now orchestrated rituals served by a range of firms and specialized consumer goods (the Middletons’ family business is Party Pieces, a party company committed to just such celebrating, and Duchess Kate worked for the firm, was as a part-time buyer for Jigsaw Junior, and launched First Birthdays, a junior brand to Party Pieces).
A variety of cultural traditions mark the impending birth of a child, just as marriages, deaths, and other life events are governed by myriad distinctive rituals, but many such events are increasingly materialistic–if not pretentious–consumption rituals. These orchestrated events are often reduced to American consumer superficiality, but they are clearly reaching beyond American bourgeois. The Independent observed that 28% of British mothers-to-be have showers, leading the paper to wonder if the shower was a “vulgar American import offering the worst of Hallmark consumerism.” The South Wales Evening Post likewise mused that the baby shower was “another American gimmick that has swept across the pond faster than the child-bearing stork itself.”
Baby showers emerged around the turn of the 20th century as an exclusively women’s event that fortified traditional motherhood roles while providing a modest assemblage of essential goods. In 1902, for instance, the St. Paul Globe complained about “showers of all kinds” and indicated that the “baby shower is the crowning affliction which has sprung into popularity.” The paper observed that “showers have ceased to become a fad; they are a mania. . . A baby shower is the latest phase in the development of the mania. . . The mother is supposed at one of those showers to receive enough clothes to last the infant for the first year of its life.” In December, 1908 the St. John’s Review (Oregon) felt compelled to explain the custom to its readers when it reported that “Mrs. W.L. Plummer was the recipient of such a `baby shower.’” The paper reported that it was not “a shower of babies, but a baby shower, where a houseful of the friends of the new baby’s mamma gathered to pay their respects to the new arrival and shower him with presents of everything useful for his comfort.”
Some social and ritual dimensions of showers did not really change radically. In 1939, for instance, a Bridgeport, Connecticut woman identified only as “Mrs. A.” indicated that baby showers were both women’s leisure and a sort of positive reciprocity: “Once in a while I go to a show — not down town — it costs too much . . . I go to Baby Showers — I try to keep up with them, even if I can only bring something for twenty-five cents. I know that if I do that, when my turn comes next, they’ll help me.”
Baby showers became more popular in the wake of World War II, alongside a post-war baby boom, Cold War consumer affluence, and a move to larger homes in the suburbs. In the 1970s and 1980s, though, the baby shower became increasingly more commercialized. By 1988 The New York Times was moved to ponder the emergence of opulent baby showers that one woman referred to as “power showers.” Lee Salk suggested that the baby shower that once provided essential goods for parenting had in 1988 become a celebration of late parenthood, and by the late 1980s the shower clearly was assuming many of the consumer dimensions now taken for granted. The Times noted that the “baby registry business is still in its infancy,” but southern California store Bergstroms had introduced a registry in 1984 and some New York firms were introducing registries.
Since her pregnancy was revealed in December, the Duchess’ every material move has been closely monitored by royal-watchers who have assessed her pregnancy fashion, food cravings, and exercise regime. One British baby shower planner is offering up a special “Royal Baby Shower” package “inspired by the understated elegance of the Duchess herself.” Ironically, though, the royal shower may be a somewhat staid model in comparison to the overdone celebrity showers followed closely by the press. Reality star Kim Kardashian, for instance, invited friends to her baby shower with a satin-lined music box that opened to reveal a ballerina dancing to father-to-be Kanye West’s “Hey Mama.” Among the gifts at her shower, Kardashian received a Swarovski crystal-studded high chair and a cashmere baby gown, and no-show Gwyneth Paltrow sent a “21-day cleanse.” In 2006 Sean Combs and Kim Porter sent shower invitations carved in a child’s toy block, and their registry included an R-class Mercedes Benz; their shower consultant fancied the couple was much like other parents-to-be, observing that she showed the mother-to-be “a $17,000 diamond-encrusted pacifier and she laughed because she’s down to earth. They are realistic people. Everything (on the registry) wasn’t just the bling bling.” Victoria Beckham asked guests at her shower to bring only pink gifts, which included a five-foot tall giraffe.
In the early 20th century shower gifts were relatively functional and modest goods. In 1915, for instance, The Omaha Bee’s column “Advice to Lovelorn” counseled a woman preparing for a shower that if the mother was “poor or in moderate circumstances, something useful, particularly a little nicer than the parties themselves, would be likely to buy, would be appropriate. Anything too expensive would out of place, however, unless the family of the recipient was affluent.” The early 21st century marketplace, though, is crowded with high-end goods. Some of these baby items are ludicrously expensive, like the Baby Suommo luxury cot (13,310 Euro’s), the Roddler stroller (described as the “Rolls Royce of strollers,” $4495), or a diamond-encrusted pacifier ($17,000). Some expensive gifts are rationalized as “keepsakes,” such as the Cristofle Savan baby cup, on which “Animals of the sub-Saharan [sic] decorate a stunning, silvertone baby cup with two handles and a polished finish.” Other products like the Tiffany sterling silver bubble blower or the Lamborghini Murdielago battery-powered ride-on car delicately attempt to make a humorous show of affluence.
Rachel Thomson, Mary Jane Kehily, Lucy Hadfield, and Sue Sharpe’s Making Modern Mothers suggests that the pretentious contemporary shower may be a reaction against the 1950’s shower that framed the mother as selfless. Yet exceptionally outrageous baby gifts are perhaps most important to the baby product industry for establishing an expectation that the shower is a unique and obligatory life event that must be commemorated with something more consequential than a cotton layette. For many first-time mothers, the shower that once was ideally an entrance into the world of motherhood now becomes an initiation into a new corner of consumer marketplace
Web sites like The Bump and Martha Stewart provide detailed planning guides for those contemplating a less affluent shower than Kim and Kanye, and for those simply seeking stylistic and organizational inspiration Pinterest is awash with images of showers, favors, gifts, and shower foods. Yet while scores of women (and increasingly men as well) have showers, many still do not: Thomson and colleagues’ 2011 study of British women found that few mothers-to-be were swayed by opulent infant goods or even had showers. Baby showers may be a “manufactured” ritual that most consumers see as “timeless,” but nearly all holidays and ritualized life events share some constructed dimensions. Increasingly these manufactured holidays and consequential social rituals cannot be separated from material consumption.
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Baby shower table setting image zAppledot