By Rebecca Zerzan
Here’s how some beloved traditions came about, including diamond engagement rings and the ubiquitous green-bean casserole.
The origin of Rudolph has nothing to do with Jesus or Santa. He sprang from the mind of Robert May, a copywriter for Chicago’s Montgomery Ward department store. May wrote and illustrated the poem (that later became the song) for the store’s holiday coloring book in 1939. But Rudolph’s fate was threatened when store execs realized that the animal’s big, glowing honker might put off consumers, because red noses were often associated with alcoholics. Luckily for May, shoppers embraced the story wholeheartedly. A whopping 2.4 million copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were given out at the store that Christmas.
America’s favorite casserole dates back to 1955, when a chef named Dorcas Reilly created it for a cookbook designed to promote Campbell’s products. By 2003, more than 20 million families (about one in four households) reportedly served the dish at Thanksgiving.
Prior to the 20th century, engagement rings were strictly luxury items, and they rarely contained diamonds. But in 1939, the De Beers diamond company changed all of that when it hired ad agency N.W. Ayer & Son. The industry had taken a nosedive in the 1870s, after massive diamond deposits were discovered in South Africa. But the ad agency came to the rescue by introducing the diamond engagement ring and quietly spreading the trend through fashion magazines. The rings didn’t become de rigueur for marriage proposals until 1948, when the company launched the crafty “A Diamond is Forever” campaign. By sentimentalizing the gems, De Beers ensured that people wouldn’t resell them, allowing the company to retain control of the market. In 1999, De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer confessed, “Diamonds are intrinsically worthless, except for the deep psychological need they fill.”
In addition to diamond engagement rings, De Beers also promoted surprise proposals. The company learned that when women were involved in the selection process, they picked cheaper rings. By encouraging surprise proposals, De Beers shifted the purchasing power to men, the less-cautious spenders.
Greeting-card companies didn’t invent valentines. Candy suppliers, on the other hand, were very much behind the idea of giving out Valentine’s Day candy. In fact, the tradition almost seems born out of jealousy. In 1892, Confectioners’ Journal advocated persuading customers that candy was better than “cheap, grotesque” valentines. The floodgates were opened, and by 2004, consumers were buying more than 35 million heart-shape boxes of candy each year.
In the 1900s, it was customary for only close family members to give wedding presents. But gradually, newlyweds came to expect gifts from friends, as well. Detecting a trend, department stores started to direct engaged customers to their home furnishings and kitchenware departments, encouraging them to think of their weddings as a time to acquire the tools for domestic life. In 1924, the Marshall Field & Company department store in Chicago created the first wedding registry, and the “tradition” took off. Today, up to 96 percent of American couples register their weddings.