A dowry (also known as trousseau or tocher) is the money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to her new husband. Compare bride price, which is paid to the bride's parents, and dower, which is property settled on the bride herself by the groom at the time of marriage. The same culture may simultaneously practice both dowry and bride price. The dowry is an ancient custom, and its existence may well predate records of it.
It is described in the oldest records, such as the Code of Hammurabi as a pre-existing custom, prescribing only regulations for how it was to be handled and 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 would normally have 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 as part of her dower, her dowry being inheritable only by her own children, not by her husband's children by other women, and a woman not being entitled to a (subsequent) inheritance if her father had provided her dowry in marriage.
One of the basic functions of a dowry has been to serve as a form of protection for the wife against the very real possibility of ill treatment by her husband and his family. In other words, the dowry provides an incentive to the husband not to harm the wife.
Dowry was widely practiced in Europe at all times and also in India. In Homeric times, the usual Greek practice was to give a brideprice, and dowries were also exchanged in the later classical time (5th century BC). Ancient Romans also practiced dowry, though Tacitus notes that the Germanic tribes practiced the reverse custom of the dower.
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 in 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 the fairy tale Cinderella as the 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.
One common penalty for the kidnapping and rape of an unmarried woman was that the abductor or rapist had to provide the woman's dowry, which was until the late 20th century the wreath money, or the breach of promise. (See raptio and bride kidnapping.)
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 in 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. The French crown provided dowries for many of the women who were persuaded to settle New France, and they were known as filles du roy (daughters of the king).
In some parts of Europe, land dowries were common. In Grafschaft Bentheim, for instance, parents who had no sons might give a land dowry to their new son-in-law, with the condition that he take the surname of his bride. The Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay), which is one of the biggest cities in the world, and the city of Tangiers, in Morrocco, were given as a dowry by the Portuguese crown to the British when King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland married Catherine of Braganza, a princess of Portugal in 1661.
In Victorian England, it was seen as an early payment of her inheritance, such that only daughters who had not received their dowry were entitled to part of the estate when their parents died, and if the couple died without children, the dowry was returned to the bride's family.
In Europe and Western culture in general it is still common for the bride's family to pay for the majority of the wedding costs.
In India, where Bride burning and dowry deaths are commonplace, the payment of a dowry was prohibited under The 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act in Indian civil law and subsequently by Sections 304B and 498a of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).