The ancients mistrusted love and promises; they thought that abiding unions must be guaranteed by some tangible security, property. For this reason, the purchase price of a wife was regarded as a forfeit or deposit which the husband was doomed to lose in case of divorce or desertion. Once the purchase price of a bride had been paid, many tribes permitted the husband’s brand to be burned upon her. Africans still buy their wives. A love wife, or a white man’s wife, they compare to a cat because she costs nothing.
The bride shows were occasions for dressing up and decorating daughters for public exhibition with the idea of their bringing higher prices as wives. But they were not sold as animals—among the later tribes such a wife was not transferable. Neither was her purchase always just a cold-blooded money transaction; service was equivalent to cash in the purchase of a wife. If an otherwise desirable man could not pay for his wife, he could be adopted as a son by the girl’s father and then could marry. And if a poor man sought a wife and could not meet the price demanded by a grasping father, the elders would often bring pressure to bear upon the father which would result in a modification of his demands, or else there might be an elopement.
As civilization progressed, fathers did not like to appear to sell their daughters, and so, while continuing to accept the bride purchase price, they initiated the custom of giving the pair valuable presents which about equaled the purchase money. And upon the later discontinuance of payment for the bride, these presents became the bride’s dowry.
The idea of a dowry was to convey the impression of the bride’s independence, to suggest far removal from the times of slave wives and property companions. A man could not divorce a dowered wife without paying back the dowry in full. Among some tribes a mutual deposit was made with the parents of both bride and groom to be forfeited in case either deserted the other, in reality a marriage bond. During the period of transition from purchase to dowry, if the wife were purchased, the children belonged to the father; if not, they belonged to the wife’s family.