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A dowry is a gift of money or valuables given by the bride's family to the groom and the newly formed household at the time of their marriage. It has been an ancient and widespread practice. Often, the dowry is reciprocated with a bride price given from the groom and his family to the bride. The original intent sas to help with expenses in the creation of the new family, help bond the families of the new couple, and provide a support for the bride in case of future problems such as widowhood or divorce.

Today, the practice has decreased in developed countries and urban areas. In areas where it persists, especially in India, China, and Africa, there is controversy over the role it plays in domestic violence and the abuse of women, with debate over how dowries should be legislated. The United States has developed it's own unique version of the dowry in the application of Hope Chests. The Hope Chest includes not only material items, such as quilts, linens, and utensils, but also represents the hope the girl has that her preparation will make her a good wife. Such preparation includes not only material wealth but wisdom from her mother with regards to conjugal love and parenting, her own internal character development, and her purity as she prepares to offer herself as a virgin bride to her new husband.


A dowry is a gift given by the bride's family to the groom and the newly formed household at the time of their marriage.[1] Historically most societies have had brides go to their husband's families, and often women could not legally own property. The husband would be primarily responsible for the economic prosperity of the household, while women would care for children and the household needs. When a woman or girl married into a family that was agricultural, she often was welcomed as another worker. In families that were more prestigious, however, she may have been viewed as another mouth to feed, and the dowry was an important sign of her gratitude for becoming a member of her husband's family. The earliest dowries were usually land entitlements, but later were attached to sentimental and decorative items as well as various commodities and even later to money.

A DESERT FLOWER. "Somewhere in the Sahara" lived this child of the Desert until she came to Biskra, the "Garden of Allah," to earn her dowry as a dancer. One would imagine that she is dreaming of some turbaned knight left behind and counting the days until she may return to her natal tent.

The size of the necessary dowry was directly proportional to the groom's social status, thus making it virtually impossible for lower class women to marry into upper class families. It is recorded that in Roman times, some families would mortgage their house in order to provide a suitable dowry. In cases where a woman's family was too poor to afford a dowry, she may have been forbidden from ever marrying, or became a concubine to a richer man who could afford to support a large household.

Conversely, the similar custom of property given to the bride by the groom and his family has been called a "dower" or bride price. This gift has been traditionally used to show the love of the family toward their daughter and gratitude to the family of the girl for "giving" her to the husband's family.

In either case, the bride has usually been entitled to her dowry or dower in the event of widowhood, hence the terms "dowry" and "dower" are sometimes confused. The children of the bride were also traditionally included in inheritance of the dowry, and often this provided the only support such children had where there were other children by other women involved.

The Ancient World

The dowry is described in the oldest records, such as the Code of Hammurabi, as a pre-existing custom, where it prescribed only regulations for how the dowry was to be handled. The code also included regulations for a bride price. If a woman died without sons, her husband had to refund the dowry but could deduct the value of the bride price; the dowry normally having been the larger of the sums. It marks the first record of long-lasting customs, such as the wife being entitled to her dowry at her husband's death. Her dowry was inheritable only by her own children, not by her husband's children by other women.

Dowries have been part of civil law in almost all countries, Europe included. Dowries were important components of ancient Greek and Roman marriages. In Homeric times, the usual Greek practice was of a bride price. When dowries were practiced in classical times, there would also be a (smaller) bride price being given by the groom to the bride's family.

Ancient Romans and Athenian Greeks did not allow women to own property. A widow needed a male relative to administer her estate that would included the dowry. The Roman Tacitus noted that among the Germans, the practice was the reverse: a groom settled a dower on the bride. Ancient Egyptian culture did not use dowry until after they were under the Greek and Roman influence. Women in Egypt had always been legally allowed to own property and manage their own affairs, so probably they had less need of this type of provision.


With the advent of Christianity and religious orders, women brought their dowries with them when they became nuns, as they were becoming the "bride" of Christ.

Dowry in Europe continued through Victorian England.[2] It was seen as an early payment of her inheritance, and as such only daughters who had not received their dowry were entitled to part of the estate when their parents died. If a couple died without children, the dowry reverted to the bride's family.

Failure to provide a customary, or agreed-upon, dowry could call off a marriage. William Shakespeare made use of this in King Lear—one of Cordelia's wooers ceases to woo her on hearing that King Lear will give her no dowry—and Measure for Measure—Claudio and Juliet's premarital sex was brought about by their families' wrangling over dowry after the betrothal, and Angelo's motive for forswearing his betrothal with Mariana is the loss of her dowry at sea.

Folklorists often interpret Cinderella and its variants as competition between the stepmother and the stepdaughter for resources, which may include the need to provide a dowry. Gioacchino Rossini's opera La Cenerentola, makes this economic basis explicit: Don Magnifico wishes to make his own daughters' dowry larger, to attract a grander match, which is impossible if he must provide a third dowry.[3] Providing dowries for poor women was regarded as a form of charity. The custom of Christmas stockings springs from a legend of St. Nicholas, in which he threw gold into the stockings of three poor sisters, thus providing for their dowries. St. Elizabeth of Portugal and St. Martin de Porres were particularly noted for providing such dowries, and the Archconfraternity of the Annunciation, a Roman charity dedicated to providing dowries, received the entire estate of Pope Urban VII.

One common penalty of the time for the kidnapping and rape of unmarried women was that the abductor or rapist had to provide the woman's dowry.

In some parts of Europe, land dowries were common. In Grafschaft Bentheim, for instance, it was not uncommon for people who had no sons to give a land dowry to their new son-in-law with the stipulation attached that with the land comes the family name whence it came, thus a condition of the land dowry was that the groom would take on the family name of his bride.

In Europe it is still common for the bride's family to pay for the majority of the wedding costs.


The origins of the dowry custom in India is lost in antiquity, although there is some evidence for it being practiced prior to 300 B.C.E. among what became the upper castes such as the Brahmins and Kshatriyas. It is unknown if it was brought with the conquering armies and mass marriages of Alexander the Great, or if it was practiced prior to that. The earliest dowries were usually of land. The advent of Buddhism in India, with Ashoka the compassionate began a period of the influence of Buddhist law on a large part of India. Under Buddhist law, women had rights and could own property, therefore dowries served no purpose. When Muslims came to power in large parts of India in the eighth century, they did not approve the practice of dowry. They were not adamant, however, and as Hindu areas increased, the Brahmin castes increasingly isolated themselves and continued and popularized the practice of dowry once again.

The Indian dowry system became more widespread under the colonial rule of the British Empire, and with the increased urbanization that developed. Some poorer families were not prepared for the new expenses involved, and some social problems developed as they tried to cope with this new demand.

In India, although illegal, the dowry practice is still common. It is especially common in arranged marriages and rural areas and widely recognized as a traditional ritual of marriage. The country is largely divided religiously with a majority of Hindus and the largest minority being Muslim. There are separate laws involving each religious background, including Christians and Sikhs. Demanding dowry has been prohibited by law for all since 1961, but many loopholes in the law provide opportunities for many instances of dowry practices actually being sanctioned by the law.

The woman may be provided for by a dowry, but she may also come back to the courts to present her continued need and collect more dowry later. The government of India made several laws detailing severe punishment to anyone demanding dowry and a law in the Indian Penal Code (Section 498A). While this gives a boost to a woman and her family, it also may put a man and his family in a great disadvantage. Misuse of this law by women in urban India and several incidents of extortion of money from the husband by the wife and her family have come to light.

Another serious problem comes from a related practice as a result of extortion from the husband and/or his family. This involves the practice of SATI, or self-immolation of the bride upon becoming a widow. In this practice a wife seeks to emulate a legendary faithful and loving wife who showed her devotion to her husband by jumping on her husband's funeral pyre and dying there together with him. In modern India, often this immolation is not voluntary, but imposed by the husband and his family as punishment for not being able to provide continued dowry. In 1999 there were about 6,000 reported dowry deaths or bride burning(s) where the husband and his family were shown to have murdered the wife because of lack of dowry.

A more pervasive and socially impacting problem arises when the bride's dowry and wedding expenses are so exorbitant, her family goes into a huge debt trap. In rural areas, families sell their land holdings, while the urban poor sell their houses.

Increasing education, awareness, and compassion have reduced dowry practice. In some areas, notably West Bengal, it has virtually been wiped out. This type of awareness is the biggest factor in ending forced dowries, as the Bengalis (residents of West Bengal) were Great Britain's first colony on the subcontinent and benefited most from the education system of the English. The Bengalis were particularly interested in inheriting that system based on the compassion and heroism of Lord Bentik of the East India Company. He had been alerted to the sati custom and asked by the Muslim Raj to help eliminate it when he heard of an upcoming immolation of great political impact. It was a perfect opportunity to research the topic and prevent ongoing cruelty, so he became famous for his 450 mile ride on horseback to save the Queen of Johdpur from her sati immolation. Naturally, many people were moved by the heroism, and it became fashionable to emulate British custom. Thus the practice of dowry was eradicated in West Bengal.


Ancient China has been a patriarchal society influenced by Confucian ethics and traditions. Confucian ethics dictates that the man should provide for his family, yet the dowry is left under some control of the wife. The priorities of where the dowry money should be spent by the wife are dictated by Confucian rule, and are quite specific as to who is first, who is next, and so on.

The bride price was and still is far more important and to the onset of the acceptance of the marriage arrangements and is usually larger than the dowry. A family would not "lose face" if they could not come up with dowry, but the man's family would be very embarrassed if they could not produce the bride price.

In the traditional Chinese society, dowry is a symbol of social status as well as affection from the bride's family. The parading of the dowry during the traditional Chinese wedding procession from the bride's home to the groom's home was and is still to some extent important in the various rituals.

The Cultural Revolutionunder Mao's reign, was a time of tumultuous change. Both the dowry and the bride price were denounced as being feudalistic and materialistic, thus degrading morals, and traditional Chinese weddings that were associated with dowry and bride price became nearly extinct. Due to the Chinese economic reform, there was a resurgence of traditional Chinese weddings and along with it, both the dowry and the bride price have re-emerged in China since the 1980s.

South America

Although dowry and bride price has been practiced by many indigenous tribes, since the Spanish colonization of most of South America and the Portuguese colonization of Brazil, the practice has changed inexorably toward those of Spain and Portugal. Spanish law differs significantly from English law, in terms of dowry the remnant of Roman Law can be seen. In many countries, dowry is still honored as a contractual obligation for the benefit of the wife. This has not been the case in England and most of her colonies for a few hundred years.

Catholicism was a state church of Spain during the colonial years, and as they administer marriages the bride price has been incorporated into the ceremony in terms of a symbol of 13 gold coins that represent the sincerity of the groom to provide for his new wife. Thirteen represents Jesus and the 12 disciples, and after the presentation of the gift, the Priest wraps a cloth around the hand of each in a figure eight pattern to bind them together.


Dowry and bride price has been part of various societies within the continent. Modernization has influenced the practice, and there is much current debate on whether it is good or bad. As tribal practices vary widely, and many laws are still pending, it is hard to draw any universal patterns. Even the Islamic community seems divided in that some do continue this cultural practice, while others claim it is opposite to the true faith one should show in Islam.

The United States

Marriage has traditionally been a state issue in the United States, not under the federal legal system. Dowry has not been included in the civil law in all of states except Louisiana, which is heavily influenced by the Napoleonic Code and Roman Civil Law. Historically, Louisiana is used to dowries and King Louis XIV paid for dowries of some 25 ladies in Louisiana during their French colonial period. Recognition of dowry rights means that the contract holds in court, and the full power of the law will protect a woman's right to collect that is proscribed circumstances.

In the United States, the dowry system continues in an unique way. The Hope Chest, or Glory Chest as it is called in the Australian outback, was a method to provide a type of dowry for the daughter while pioneering the frontier. In the United Kingdom, it is often known as the Bottom Drawer, a place where things are stored to prepare for the future. In the difficult situation presented by the westward movement in the United States in the 1800s, the mother would teach her daughter how to make the things she would need to start up her household. Together they made items like quilts, aprons, pillow cases and collect china ware, pots and anything that would have functional or sentimental value for the preparation of the girl's future marriage and home. These items would fill the chest, and often became precious heirlooms for many generations.

"A ready hand and heart, my girl, that's what we're making, not just a hope chest, a hope that you're prepared for any eventuality." This represented a mother's expression to her daughter on the frontier by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the popular "Little House on the Prairie" series. She herself records that by the time she was a woman, she had more than a dozen quilts in her chest. The popular movie How to Make an American Quilt portrays some of the atmosphere of a "hope chest," where a community of elder women help a younger woman prepare for the responsibilities involved in her future family, not only with skills and material things, but also through sharing the lessons they have learned.

The hope chest has remained a popular practice through the 1950s, especially in the Midwest. Except for some rural areas, the tradition died out during the 1960s to the year 2000. There is some resurgence in the custom in the twenty-first century and activity on the internet to help provide networks of goods and services and ideas for all types of Hope Chests. The Hope Chest has become something more than a practical preparation for married life, beyond the property aspects of a "dowry." This movement serves to help a young woman stay chaste, understand her value, and prepare various skills and attitudes to help her be ready to offer to her prospective husband and family.


  1. Definition of "dowry", Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 11, 2007.
  2. Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace, To Marry An English Lord, Workman Publishing Company, Inc. ISBN 0894809393.
  3. Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales And Their Tellers, Farrar Straus & Giroux. ISBN 0374159017.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Ember, Carol R, and Melvin Ember. Cultural Anthropology. New Jersey: Pearson, Prentis Hall, 2004. ISBN 0131116363
  • Kaplan, Marion A (ed.). Marriage Bargain: Women and Dowries in European History. Institute for Research in History, 1984. ISBN 0866563113
  • MacColl, Gail and Carol McD. Wallace. To Marry an English Lord or, How Anglomania Really Got Started. Workman Publishing Company, 1989. ISBN 0894809393
  • Nair P. T. Marriage and Dowry in India. South Asia Books, 1978. ISBN 0883869071
  • Oldenburg, Veena Talwar. Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime. Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0195150716
  • Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1995. ISBN 0374159017

External links

All links retrieved January 30, 2024.


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