Last week I posted about the intricacies of 19th century England’s monetary system…okay, who remembers what a groat is?
This week, we’ll look at a related topic, one of great importance to a lot of teen girls in the 19th century: dowries.
So what is a dowry?
A dowry (also referred to as a “marriage portion” or just “portion”) is the money or property that a bride brought into her marriage. Families of wealth and property usually started putting aside money for a daughter’s dowry as soon as she was born (it could later be used to support her if she chose not to marry). Often it represented her share of what she would inherit from her parents on their death, but given to her upon her marriage rather than later.
Usually some part of a bride’s dowry was designated to be her settlement, an amount of money or other assets like an allowance allotted to her for her own personal use so that she would have some independent means…because her dowry pretty much became her husband’s property upon their marriage. Until a series of legal bills over the course of the middle and later century changed it, women had almost no rights in marriage—in fact, they had no separate legal existence, had no legal right to money they earned or inherited, could not sign a contract or make a will. The marriage settlement was intended to give her some independent means in case her husband should die unexpectedly or go bankrupt (assets listed in a marriage settlement could not be seized by her husband’s creditors); and she was able to make a will to designate who would inherit those assets (often younger sons, who wouldn’t inherit much otherwise.)
Okay, I know this is getting kind of dry…so let’s talk about the fun part: what having a good dowry meant.
What it meant, of course, was that a girl whose family had money could pretty much marry whom she pleased. Among the aristocracy, a standard dowry between families of equal importance usually ran between ₤10,000 and ₤30,000. If the potential bride and groom were of different social classes and backgrounds, this could change: a dowry for a girl whose father was, say, a factory owner who’d risen from the lower classes and made his fortune could range as high as ₤60,000 or more if she wanted to marry into the aristocracy…and a lot of aristocrats, especially later in the 19th century, were quite willing to “buy” a wealthy wife to shore up shaky family fortunes or provide for a younger son. Even Queen Victoria wasn’t immune to this…she was quite interested in securing an heiress named Daisy Maynard for her son Leopold, but the girl had other ideas and went on to become the Countess of Warwick (and mistress to one of Victoria’s other sons, the Prince of Wales!) By the end of the 19th century, poverty-stricken aristocrats were eagerly seeking out wealthy American brides who might bring as much as ₤500,000 in exchange for a title.
And dowries weren’t necessarily in cash; they could include houses and other real estate, jewelry, art, or pretty much any other asset agreed upon between the two families. Among the working classes a girl’s dowry could simply be the household linens and crockery she’d need to set up house, or perhaps a sewing machine so that she could earn money at home.