The Business of Dowries

Most of what I knew about Jewish dowries, prior to researching the Einstein novel, came from the stories of Shalom Aleichem, via Tevye the milkman and Fiddler on the Roof.  I extend my gratitude and acknowledgment to Marion Kaplan and her book The Making of the Jewish Middle Class for furthering my education.

Some of Pauline Einstein’s objections to Albert’s love for Mileva Maric can be understood in terms of the German Jewish system of dowries.  The Jews of Imperial Germany, including the Einsteins, were predominantly middle class, interested in concentrating capital and creating economic and social alliances through marriages.  Not until after WW I, with the entrance of women into the workforce and inflation decimating middle-class savings, was the Jewish system of arranged marriages and parental control seriously challenged by the notion of companionate marriage.  At the time Albert and Mileva wanted to marry, 1901,  parental control via the dowry was the norm, among both Jews and members of the German bourgeoisie.  Those parents who chose to bow to the more popular romantic notions arranged situations for their children to meet appropriate partners, then denied that these marriages had been arranged.  The appropriate partners had, of course, been researched and a private investigator sometimes hired if the intended was not already known to the family by fortune and reputation.

Where Jews had for many years been limited by law to commerce and business, it makes particular sense that they would concern themselves with amalgamating finances and also tend to financial security where there was little security to be found for them elsewhere.  They also tended to marry within their group, by choice, but also by necessity given anti-Semitism. 

The dowry, which might include cash, real estate, jewels, and stocks, transferred property to the bride from her family at the time of her marriage. Its size indicated both social class and status, excluding those from lower ranks of society.  It bought security for women who were not educated and not expected to contribute to the economic prosperity of the new household.  While the woman might choose to invest her dowry in the husband’s business—as Pauline Einstein did, losing it to her husband’s poor business acumen—this was not required.  

The bride remained passive, sometimes ignorant of ongoing arrangements until she was informed that a young suitor would be coming to visit. The groom, particularly if he was older, might participate.  If the parties found one another agreeable, an engagement might be enacted on the spot, the financial arrangements having already been negotiated.

If a young woman’s parents were deceased, her brothers took charge of arranging her marriage.  Discharging this responsibility was regarded as a necessary moral prerequiste to their own marriages.

Familial, friendship, business and professional networks might be used to find appropriate partners, sometimes crossing national borders. 

Matchmakers were hired in the event a family had no appropriate connections.  The matchmakers specialized in a particular financial class and geography and worked for a percentage of the dowry. 

Advertising in local Jewish newspapers was an option for those who chose not to consult matchmakers.  The size of the dowry indicated the type of person sought.  For example 75,000 marks would attract a lawyer, doctor, or independent businessman, the price being adjusted to the locality.  A Berlin professional might command more.  A well-off shopkeeper with an income of 10,000 marks annually, would command a dowry of 30,000 marks.  20,000 marks would buy a mid-level civil servant—as Einstein eventually became when he was hired at the Patent Office in Bern.  5,000 marks got a woman a craftsman, and 2,000 bought her an elderly, well-situated gentleman, aka an old man.

In addition to bringing the dowry, there were certain qualifications for the woman, the primary one being her age.  After twenty-three a woman was no longer considered desirable.  Pauline Einstein was married at eighteen to the twenty-nine-year-old Hermann.  Albert, their oldest, was born four years later.  (Jews were the foremost practitioners of birth control in that era, Zurich, Switzerland being the center of that industry, 250 km from Albert’s birthplace in Ulm, Germany.)  Hence, when Pauline Einstein complained that Mileva was too old at twenty-five, it wasn’t only because Albert was four years younger. 

If a woman’s dowry was too small, she might be forced to move from the city (desirable) to the country (undesirable) to find a partner.  She might be forced to marry an older man, a widower with children, or an Eastern European Jew, all undesirable.  The worst fate a woman could suffer was to be mated to an American. 

What a strange twist history imposes, when Jewish women without dowries and sent to America, escaped the death camps in post-Imperial Germany. 


About Nancy Pinard

Professionally-speaking, Nancy Pinard is an author-educator who spends her days writing, teaching, reading, and researching for her writing and teaching. She is the author of two published novels, Shadow Dancing and Butterfly Soup, and numerous short stories. She has taught the craft of fiction writing in many venues including Sinclair Community College, University of Dayton Life-Long Learning Institute, Antioch Writers' Workshop, Mad Anthony Writers' Workshop, and Molasses Pond Writers' Workshop. Personally, her faith is what sustains, inspires, and motivates her to continue to explore meaning through literature. "You are right in demanding that an artist approach his work consciously, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist." — Anton Chekov to Alexei Suvorin, October 27, 1888
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