origin of ‘shower’ (party held to present gifts to a person)

The noun shower is used in American English to denote a party at which a number of gifts are presented to the guest of honour.

(This acceptation of shower arose from its figurative use in the sense of a liberal bestowal of something.)

Originally, shower denoted a party held by female guests to present gifts of a particular kind to a prospective bride, so that in early use the word was preceded by a modifier indicating the kind of gifts brought.

The first of those modifiers was linen, and the earliest instance of linen shower that I have found is from Some Customs of the Wedding Season, published in The Women’s Corner of the Boston Evening Journal (Boston, Massachusetts) of Wednesday 25th October 1893; the author indicates that the practice is a novelty, and presents it as borrowed from a German custom:

The season of weddings is responsible for several pretty and novel fads. One of the most favored is the “Linen Shower,” a revival of an old German custom of presenting the bride-elect with all or a portion of her household linen. A few days before the nuptial festivities one of the bride’s most intimate friends gives a luncheon, and each young woman bidden is expected to bring with her an embroidered piece of linen, which is presented at the close of the luncheon to the honored guest.
At a wedding celebration in Cincinnati on Thursday the groom’s name, Campbell Scott, was found convertible by a play upon words into an emblem. So at the linen luncheon it was decided to have the “camel” represented in every possible manner. In the centre of the table the pieces of embroidered linen were laid folded in tissue paper, and completely hidden under a mass of ferns and flowers, while reposing on the top was a large toy camel. The dinner cards were glided camels: the crackers for soup were camels, and when the large cube of ice cream was brought in it was surmounted by a train of camels in porcelain, that each guest might have a souvenir of the occasion. At the close of the luncheon the bride-elect was requested to remove the large camel from the centre of the table, as it was her souvenir. By a unique arrangement the lifting scattered the ferns and flowers, leaving exposed the packages bearing her name.

The following is from the column Incidents in Society, in the New York Tribune (New York, N.Y.) of Friday 8th March 1895:

linen shower’ - Incidents in Society - New York Tribune - 8 March 1895

Mrs. W. H. Kenyon, at her home, No. 321 West Eighty-second-st., gave a “linen shower” and tea yesterday afternoon for Miss Louise Wilson, whom the Rev. Merle St. Croix Wright, pastor of the Lenox Avenue Unitarian Church, in this city, is soon to marry. A large number of the women of the church were present. Miss Wilson received many pieces of choice needlework on linen and the congratulations and best wishes of her friends.

An early instance of shower not preceded by a modifier is from The Indianapolis Journal (Indianapolis, Indiana) of Sunday 18th October 1896:

One of the delightful parties given to a bride-elect is a shower. This may be either a linen shower or a kitchen shower, both of which are novelties in the list of entertainments. Parties of these descriptions have been given recently in this city, and with success. The first was a linen shower and this was followed not long after by some fifty or more young ladies and young married ladies receiving invitations to attend an afternoon tea for a bride-elect, and to bring some article in the line of kitchen utensils. These articles were each done up in dainty tissue paper, tied with colored ribbons, and as the guests arrived the parcel was placed in a huge willow laundry basket, having the handles tied with big pink ribbon bows to give it a festive appearance. The tea was served early in the afternoon and after all were refreshed, the guest of honor was placed in a convenient position before the basket and the hostess, with some of the young ladies’ assistance, untied the parcels and laid them on the lap of the recipient, who brought the contents to view and read for the pleasure of the company the inclosed rhymes. None of the lines are dignified with the name of poetry, and numerous donors declared those inclosed their first effort. The name of the writer, being read first, the lines follow. There is great opportunity for a bride-elect to show her resources in making impromptu comments on the verses. In the unwrapping of one gift, a tincup with a gay pink ribbon tied to the handle, there came to light these lines:
     So drink, my dear, and happy be where’er the days may find you,
     And when you drink, I pray you think, of the girls you left behind you.
Inside a blue ball for cooking rice was a card with this:
     You and William must have some rice,
     For luncheon and sometimes for tea;
     That you will make it real nice,
     Will you take this ball from me?
The following names the gift:
     I would write a verse, but I might fail
     So I send with best wishes, a bright tin pail.
Another also names the gift:
     To you, my dear, this gift I present,
     For rolls, nice and brown, you see it is meant.
     In eating them, dear, with your nice cup of tea
     I hope you may always think kindly of me.
Attached to a tray ornamented with a row of birds on the branch of a tree were these touching lines:
     Four little birds sat on a tree,
            Sing merrilee!
     They were as happy as happy could be,
            Sing merrilee!
     A willy bird came, and a thief was he,
            Sing sad-sadlee!
     He said, “Fly away, fly away with me.”
     She up and she did fly away with he,
            Ah me!
     But they were as happy as happy could be,
            Sing merrilee.
With a large spoon was “Wishing you a heaping spoonful of happiness.” This was attached to one present:
     I wanted to give an ice-cream freezer;
     But thinking that it might tease her,
     And surely ’tis my wish to please her,
     I decided on a lemon squeezer.
With a nice bag of clothes pins was “May your joys stick as close as these pins to the line, and bring you weather bright and fine.”
With a wash board was “Hoping this board will get all your hard rubs in life.” With a sieve was, “May only love and happiness sift through your life.”
With one of the kitchen novelties was “I wonder if you know what this is for?” With a blue enamel stew pan was “A blue dish for blue Mondays, with the hope that the prevailing tint in your life may be rose color.”
Politics were touched upon in
     This jelly mold is not of gold, but may it grace your kitchen:
     And if McKinley gets the chair, may jelly you be rich in.
With one of the three egg beaters was: “A woman and a dog and a walnut tree—and an egg; the more you beat them the better they be—it is said.” Another verse told how and when to use the gift of a cake turner. “When the bread is all dough and Biddy is gone, just put on your apron and cap and a smile, walk out to the pantry; with sweet, quiet grace, take a crock off the shelf, and a cup, not too large. Then with the best flour mix one egg or two, and some milk—if ’tis sour add soda enough to sweeten the same; but should it be sweet, use good baking powder. Now stir up your batter and be sure and don’t forget that salt gives the flavor all men like best. On your hot, well-greased griddle, drop a spoonful or two of this superfine mixture, then when ready to turn take hold of me gently and slide underneath. Then turn very quickly your precious pancake and if it’s not beautiful you may give me the ‘shake.’” With another present was:
     Showers in October turn the leaves all gold,
     Showers in December make all our noses cold,
     Here’s a gay, green sprinkler to catch the April showers
     May they herald summer sunshine and fill your world with flowers.
With a dish pan was:
     Needles and pins, needles and pins,
     That is the way the old proverb begins,
     But truer by far this new version I ween,
     Though never in books, old and wise it is seen.
     Dust rags and brooms, dish pans for you,
     When a girl marries she finds plenty to do.
A little verse signed Martha Jane read:
     Coffee is the staff of life,
     I’ve heard my papa say:
     So if you’d be a happy wife,
     Use coffee every day.

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