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Why Dowries?

Author

Listed:
  • Maristella Botticini

    (Boston University)

  • Aloysius Siow

    (University of Toronto)

Abstract

Parents transfer wealth to their children in many ways. The dowry is distinctive because it is a large transfer made to a daughter at the time of her marriage. In an insightful essay, Goody (1973) proposed that the dowry is a premortem inheritance to the bride. A daughter obtains a wealth transfer from her parents as her dowry whereas a son obtains his as a bequest. His observation has been confirmed in different dotal (dowry giving) societies. We develop a theory of dowries that explains his observation. Our work builds on Becker's seminal research on marriage markets and the research program on economics of the family (Rosenzweig and Stark 1997). We argue that in virilocal societies, where married daughters leave the parental home and their married brothers do not, altruistic parents use dowries and bequests to solve a free riding problem between siblings. In virilocal societies, married sons continue to work with the family assets after their marriage. If married daughters share in the parents' bequests, the sons will not get the full benefits of their efforts in extending the family wealth. Thus they will supply too little effort. In order to mitigate this free riding problem, altruistic parents give bequests to sons and lump sum payments to daughters. The model predicts that dowry contracts, which may be complicated, should not contain claims on shares of income generated with the family assets. A theory of dowry has to explain its disappearance in previously dotal societies. As the labor market becomes more developed, as the demand for different types of workers grow, children are less likely to work in the same occupation as their parents. They are also less likely to work for or live with their families. The use of bequests to align work incentives within the family becomes less important. Since it is costly to pay a dowry, the demand for dowry (within the family) will fall as the need to use bequests exclusively for sons to align work incentives falls. Instead of the dowry, parents will transfer wealth to both their daughters and sons as bequests. So the development of labor markets will be important in reducing the role of dowries. We test our model of dowries with two types of evidence. The primary source of evidence comes from notarial deeds and the Florentine Catasto (census) of 1427 housed at the State Archives of Florence. The deeds record marriages in the Tuscan town of Cortona and fortyfour villages in its countryside between 1415 and 1436. The Florentine Catasto of 1427 supplied information on the paternal households of the brides and grooms. The model's prediction on contractual form is matched against the terms found in the marriage contracts. We merge the value of dowries from the marriage contracts to family characteristics found in the Catasto to test the model's predictions on family demographics and dowry values. Dotal marriages in medieval Cortona support the model presented here. In general, there is little data on the decline of dowries in a society due to the large time span of historical data needed to track its decline. A singular exception is the insightful study by Nazzari (1991) who studied the decline of dowries in Sao Paulo, Brazil, from 1600 to 1900. Although her theory is different from ours, the factors which Nazzari considered as responsible for the decline of dowries there are consistent with our model.

Suggested Citation

  • Maristella Botticini & Aloysius Siow, 2000. "Why Dowries?," Econometric Society World Congress 2000 Contributed Papers 0200, Econometric Society.
  • Handle: RePEc:ecm:wc2000:0200
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    References listed on IDEAS

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