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Shall our Daughters have Dowries?

Those who occupy themselves reading that writing on the wall which we call “signs of the times” may ponder awhile the question which Mr. Messinger puts with such plaintive appeal to the parents of this generation: “Shall our daughters have dowries?” But in the very commencement of his argument he abandons the case he has voluntarily taken up, and enters a plea, not for the daughters, but for the young men who may wish to marry the daughters. Also in urging upon parents the duty of endowing their daughters he seems to have lost sight of the fact that “dowry,” in its very spirit and intention, does not propose to care for the husband, but is solely in the interest of the wife.

He asserts, doubtless with accuracy, that the average income of young men is $1,100 a year, and he finds in this fact a sufficient reason for the decrease of marriage among them. It is no reason at all; for a large and sensible proportion of young men do marry and live happily and respectably on $1,100 a year, and those who cannot do so are very clearly portrayed by Mr. Messinger, and very little respected by any sensible young woman.

But it is not to be believed that they form any preponderating or influential part of that army of young men who are the to-morrow of our great republic. Let any reader count, from such young men as are known to him, the number who would divide their $1,100 as Mr. Messinger supposes them to do:—

Dress for self and wife$600
Apartments400
Amusements100

I venture to say the proportion would be very small indeed.

For the majority of young men know that nothing worth having is lost in the sharing. They meet in their own circle some modest, home-making girl whom they love so truly that they can tell her exactly what their income is, and then they find out that their own ideas of economy were crude and extravagant compared with the wondrous ways and means which reveal themselves to a loving woman’s comprehension of the subject. The Oranges, Rutherford, and every suburb of New York are full of pretty little homes supported without worry, and with infinite happiness, upon $1,100 a year, and perhaps, indeed, upon less money.

The difficulty with the class of young men whose case Mr. Messinger pleads is one deserving of no sympathy. It is a difficulty evoked by vanity and self-conceit, of which Fashion and Mrs. Grundy are the bugbears. Why should a young man capable of making only $1,100 a year expect to marry a girl whose parents are rich enough to guard her “from every wind of heaven, lest it visit her face too roughly”? “Is it fair treatment of the expected husband,” Mr. Messinger asks, that a girl “should be habituated to live without work and then be handed over to her husband with nothing but her clothing and bric--brac?” Yes, it is quite fair treatment. If the husband with his $1,100 a year elects to marry a girl not habituated to work, he does it of his own choice: the father of the girl is probably not at all desirous of his alliance; then why should the father deprive himself of the results of his own labor and economy to undo the folly and vanity of the young man’s selection? As for the girl, if she has deliberately preferred her lover to her father, mother, home, and to all the advantages of wealth, she has the desire of her heart. It may be quite fair that she should have this desire, but it may be very unfair that her father, mother, and perhaps her brothers and sisters, should be robbed to make her desire less self-sacrificing to her. For if the young man with his poverty is acceptable to both the daughter and her parents, the latter may be safely trusted to do all that is right in the circumstances.

The most objectionable part of Mr. Messinger’s argument is the servile and mercenary aspect in which it places marriage. “What equality can exist,” he asks, “where one (the man) supplies all the means of subsistence and performs all the labor?” That a husband should provide the means of subsistence is the very Magna Charta of honorable marriage; and nine hundred and ninety-nine men out of a thousand so accept it. It is the precise point on which all true husbands feel the most keenly sensitive. They want no other man—no matter what his relationship or friendship—to support their wives. And under no circumstances does the husband perform all the labor resulting from a marriage. That he may be a true man, a father and a citizen, it is necessary that he have a home; and in the care of the home, in the bringing-forth and the bringing-up of the family, in the constant demands upon her love and sympathy, the wife performs a never-ceasing multitude of duties that tax her heart and her body in every direction,—a labor of love in comparison with which her husband’s daily routine over his “entries” or his “orders” is a trifling drain of vitality. For a wife and mother must keep every faculty and feeling “at attention;” but a clerk over his ledger keeps a dozen faculties on the premises to do the work of one. And in behalf of all true and trusted wives I deny in totality the idea that they go to their husbands with “painful shrinking” for the money necessary to carry on the mutual home, or that there is in any beloved wife’s heart the most fleeting thought of “dependence.” Mr. Messinger does a great and shameful wrong to the majority of husbands and wives by such an assertion.

Indeed, this gentleman’s experience seems to have been an unusually sad one, nine out of ten of his friends having died in early middle age from the undue expenditure of nerve and vital force in their efforts to provide for their families in what they doubtless considered a suitable manner; and he evidently thinks that if their wives had been dowered this result would probably have been averted. It is extremely improbable. The wife’s small income would far more likely have led to a still more extravagant way of living; for the genius of the American is to live for to-day and take care for the morrow when the morrow comes.

In many respects it is the genius of the age. Old forms of thought and action are in a state of transition. No one can tell what to-morrow may bring forth. The social conditions which inspired the fathers of the past to save for their posterity are passing away; and I speak from knowledge when I assert that they were often conditions of domestic misery and wrong, and that growing children suffered much under them. Suppose a father has two daughters and three sons; must he curtail the daughters in the education and pleasures of their youth, must he limit the three boys at home and at college, in order to give a sum of money to some unknown young man who will doubtless vow that his daughter’s heart and person are more than all the world to him? If she be not more than all the world to him, he has no right to marry her; and if she be, what can be added to a gift so precious?

The tendency of the time is to dishonor marriage in every way; but the deepest wrong, the most degrading element that can be introduced, is to make it dependent upon dowries or any other financial consideration. We must remember also that in England, where dowry has been a custom, it was one not particularly affecting those classes whose daughters are likely to marry clerks upon small salaries. It was the provision made by landed gentry for their daughters, and they exacted in return an equally suitable settlement from the expectant husband. If the father gave a sum of money to the bride, the bridegroom generally gave the dower-house, with the furniture, silver, linen, etc., which would make it a proper home for her widowhood. Many a marriage has been broken off because the bridegroom would not make such settlements as the father considered the dower demanded.

Mr. Messinger acknowledges that the cost of living was never so small as at this day, and that the difficulty in the way of young men marrying is “purely one of insane imitation and competition.” But there is no necessity for this insane competition; and why provide an unusual and special remedy for what is purely optional? Nobody compels the young husband to live as if his income was $11,000 instead of $1,100. Of his own free will he sacrifices his life to his vanity, and there is no justice in attempting his relief by dowering his perhaps equally guilty wife out of the results of another man’s industry and economy.

Dowry is an antiquated provision for daughters, behind the genius of the age, incompatible with the dignity of American men and the intelligence and freedom of American women. Besides, there are very likely to be two, three, four, or more daughters in a house; how could a man of moderate means save for all of them? And what would become of the sons? The father who gives his children a loving, sensible mother, who provides them with a comfortable home, and who educates fully all their special faculties, and teaches them the cunning in their ten fingers, dowers his daughters far better than if he gave them money. He has funded for them a provision that neither a bad husband nor an evil fate can squander. He has done his full duty, and every good girl will thankfully so accept it.

As for the young men who could imagine themselves spending, out of $1,100, $700 upon dress and amusements, neither the world, nor any sensible woman in it, will be the worse for their celibacy. For if they take a wife, it will doubtless be some would-be stylish, foolish virgin, whose soft hands are of no earthly use except as ring-stands and glove-stretchers. It is such marriages that are failures. It is in such pretentious homes that love and moderate means cannot live happily together. It is in such weak hands that Pandora’s box shuts, not on hope, but on despair.

The brave, sensible youth does not fear to face life and all its obligations on $1,100 a year. With love it is enough to begin with. Hope, ambition, industry, good fortune, are his sureties for the future. However well educated he may be, he knows that in his own class he will find lovely women equally well educated. They may be teaching, clerking, sewing, but they are his peers. He has no idea of marrying a young lady accustomed to servants and luxury, and the question of dower never occurs to him. The good girl who supplements his industry by her economy, who cheers him with her sympathy, who shares all his thoughts and feelings, and crowns his life with love and consolation, has all the dowry he wants. And this is an opinion founded on a long life of observation,—an opinion that fire cannot burn out of me.




Amelia E. Barr