All-Consuming Rituals: Materialism and Baby Showers

A tasteful baby shower table setting (image zAppledot)

A tasteful baby shower table setting (image zAppledot)

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.”

The Swarovski baby bath is set with crystal and a single diamond.

The Swarovski baby bath is set with crystal and a single diamond.

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.”

The silver Tiffany bubble blower is likely to be the most distinctive gift at most baby showers.

The silver Tiffany bubble blower is likely to be the most distinctive gift at most baby showers.

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.

The Roddler Kustom series may be the world's coolest stroller.

The Roddler Kustom series may be the world’s coolest stroller.

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.

References

Ron Alexander

1988 Now Bringing Up Baby Can Start With a Power Shower: Bringing Up Baby and the Power Shower.  The New York Times C1, C10.

Alison J. Clarke

2004 Maternity and Materiality.  In Consuming Motherhood, eds. Janelle S. Taylor, Linda L. Layne, and Danielle F. Wozniak, pp.55-.  Rutgers University Press, Piscataway. New Jersey.

Eileen Fischer and Brenda Gainer

1993  Baby Showers: a Rite of Passage in Transition.  NA – Advances in Consumer Research 20:320-324.

Linda L. Layne

2000 “He was a Real Baby with Baby Things”: A Material Culture Analysis of Personhood, Parenthood and Pregnancy LossJournal of Material Culture 5(3): 321-345. (subscription access)

Meredith Nash

2006 Oh Baby, Baby: (Un)Veiling Britney Spears’ Pregnant BodyMichigan Feminist Studies

 The New York Times

195 Golf Widows Not Bored: Wives Putter and Chat while Pros Chip and Putt.  The New York Times  11 August:16.

Cele Otnes and Elizabeth Hafkin Pleck

2003 Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Lauren Rabinovitz

2003 Points of Resistance: Women, Power and Politics in the New York Avant-Garde Cinema, 1943-71. University of Illinois Press, Champaign-Urbana.

Janelle S. Taylor

2000 Of Sonograms and Baby Prams: Prenatal Diagnosis, Pregnancy, and ConsumptionFeminist Studies 26(2):391-418.  (subscription access)

Rachel Thomson, Mary Jane Kehily, Lucy Hadfield, and Sue Sharpe

2011 Making Modern Mothers.  Policy Press, Bristol, UK.

Images

Baby shower table setting image zAppledot

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Posted on June 11, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Hmmm. This was interesting to read but I don’t think the focus on the sort of consumption you’re targeting gives us the whole story.

    I hate baby showers, but not because of the emphasis on consumption or the requirement to give although I will never have children (and didn’t want them). Focusing on what celebrities give each other sort of leaves out what average people are doing. The majority of new babies in the U.S. these days are being born to single mothers; most of those mothers aren’t getting diamond encrusted bubble blowers or whatever from their shower guests. I’ve seen a lot of showers lately for expecting mothers who are children of high school friends. In these cases it seems like an attempt to crowd source a basic outfitting of equipment for a baby where the parent or parents aren’t in especially good financial shape, not least due to the global economic downturn or whatever we’re calling them. The last one I was invited to had a registry but the most expensive suggested gift was $225 or so for a high chair. There’s also an element of sociability in clusters of agemate friends that seems really important (that I don’t have a lot of access to).

    Incidentally: the reason I hate baby showers is the stupid games that apparently have to be played at them. Consumption may be a goal of the ritual but the ritual itself has plenty of elements that (unfortunately) can’t be left out.

  2. I agree there is a really consequential sociability and genuine potlatch/positive reciprocity dimension to nearly all everyday showers, which are still exchanging mostly essential things other parents realize new parents will need. That ethnographic reality and consequence strike me as being quite different than the media caricature of showers amongst the likes of Kardashian and the Duchess or the bourgeois firms that orchestrate showers that have nothing to do with most showers organized by circles of friends. Maybe what I am musing over are the popular cultural representations of showers that really have nearly nothing in common with most everyday showers, but it is perhaps telling that so many consumers seem at least receptive to the idea of a well-planned if not glitzy shower.

    • Something that occurred to me while I was reading your post was the whole question of rites of passage where the timelines for passages are changing (either post-Xian or certain types of Xian environments). I wonder: what does this ritual mean to those who will not have their children baptized (either b/c they’re atheists or b/c they belong a faith with believer’s baptism)? and to what extent the recent ubiquitousness of ultrasound pictures makes the pre-birth ritual seem like it’s worth celebrating?

      I don’t know that receptiveness to a well-planned party is unique to showers. Is this any different from weddings, significant birthdays, anniversary parties, etc., etc.?

  3. Yes, it would be interesting to get a broader picture here of the everyday event, how participants see what they are doing, and how it might affect the identity and social standing of mothers-to-be. The assumption that the celebrity event provides the ideal for all other events is spurious I think. There are many other representations that feed into the everyday.

  4. Aside from the materialistic aspect, baby showers have GOT to be one of the MOST boring ways to spend an afternoon. The “Oohing” and the “Aahing” as the guest of honor laboriously opens each of her 500 gifts, the inane games (what adult woman who has even an ounce of brains wants to play games involving diapers or baby bottles?), and the terrible food! I don’t want to sip tea and nibble weird little sandwiches that force me to extend my pinky. Where’s the liquor?! Oh right, the mother-to-be isn’t drinking alcohol so all of her guests have to suffer along with her. Baby showers are antiquated rituals that ought to be dumped, along with bridal showers, engagement parties, and save-the-date cards. That last one has to be one of the most stupid wastes of paper on the planet! Not to mention a waste of money.

    After the baby is born, those who want to give him or her a gift should of course do so. But lets stop with the ritual of “forced gift-giving” thinly disguised as something fun for those guests in attendance, most of whom felt obligated to be there. I haven’t attended one of these rituals in a great many years and plan NEVER to attend one for the rest of my life!

  5. At almost 70 years of age, I have lived through the emerging changes in baby shower gifting over several decades. What is currently in mode for North American bourgeoises baffles and amuses me. When one receives an shower invitation these days, it can be assumed that unless an expenditure upwards of $60 is demonstrated by the goods gifted, one may be embarrassed socially. The range of material given is staggering – much of it superfluous. Practicalities of rearing a new infant are largely ignored in favour of weighting the new mother down with equipment that adds to maintenance chores. The aesthetics of parenting take precedence over simple performance, in ease and comfort, of that role. But then, the whole of life has been anesthetized to a ridiculous extent, in the name of “The Economy”. There is a wholesale training of individuals in our North American society to refrain from thinking rationally about what is needed to live an effective and fulfilling life. Where have I heard the refrain ‘because it is what is done and is expected”? By whom? For what purpose?
    The pressure of culture is indeed weighty. To go against the cultural grain is to risk being ostracised or marginalized. G

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