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American family and demographic patterns and the northwest European model

  • Daniel Scott Smith


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1 Peter, Laslett, ‘Characteristics of the western family considered over time’, Journal of Family History 2 (1977), 90.

2 Hajnal, , ‘Two kinds of pre-industrial household formation system’, in Richard, Wall et al. eds., Family forms in historic Europe (Cambridge, 1983), 65, 69. The formation rules of the contrasting joint household systems are: (a) earlier marriage for men and rather early marriage for women (mean ages at first marriage are under 26 for men and under 21 for women); (b) a young married couple often start life together in a household of which an older couple are in charge; and (c) households with several married couples may split to form two or more households, each containing one or more couples.

3 Also see his ‘European marriage patterns in perspective’, pp. 101–43 in Glass, D. V. and Eversley, D. E. C. eds., Population in history (London, 1963).

4 Simon, Kuznets, Modern economic growth: rate, structure and spread (New Haven, Conn., 1966).

5 Kang, Chao, Man and land in Chinese history: an economic analysis (Stanford, 1986), 89, 2630.

6 A historian from Canada, David Levine, has developed a Marxisant version of the model in a number of studies; see Reproducing families: the political economy of English population history (Cambridge, 1987). Emmanuel Todd, a French sociologist, is responsible for the most sweeping elaboration: The explanation of ideology: family structure and social systems, trans. David, Garrioch (Oxford, 1985).

7 In The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, trans Talcott, Parsons (New York, 1958; orig. pub. 1904–1905), Weber, of course, used the aphorisms of Benjamin Franklin to exemplify post-Calvinist capitalist ethics.

8 Warren, Sanderson, ‘Quantitative aspects of marriage, fertility and family limitation in nineteenth-century America: another application of the Coale specifications’, Demography 16 (1979), 339–58.

9 Cases included are Sturbridge (1780–1799), Northampton (1750–1799), Nantucket (1780–1839), Deerfield (1781–1800), and Hingham (1781–1800) in Massachusetts; middle colony Quakers (1756–1785); Prince George's County Maryland (1750–1800); and Virginia gentry women (1800–1839). From Table 1 (pp. 88–9) in Wells, Robert V., ‘The population of England's colonies in America: old English or new Americans?’, Population Studies 46 (1992), 85102.

10 Yasukichi, Yasuba, Birth rates of the white population of the United States, 1800–1860: an economic study (Baltimore, 1962), 61–2.

11 If the birth record begins in 1700, and the first tabulated marriage cohort begins in 1720, it is obvious that no one who married over age 30 in the 1720–1729 period can enter the calculation. The way around this bias is to organize the early data by birth cohorts. There is, as Steven Ruggles has shown, an opposite bias in studies of marriage age based on the linkage of birth to marriage records; the calculation is biased downward because those who migrate before marriage are typically lost to observation; see his Migration, marriage and mortality: correcting sources of bias in English family reconstitutions’, Population Studies 46 (1992), 507–22.

12 Nor is this difficulty novel. The English radical William Godwin correctly observed that the Hingham, Massachusetts, ratio of marriages to births, which Malthus had cited in favour of his argument for early marriage in America, was well within the values reported for western European populations. However, the child-woman ratio for the town was not attained nationally by the white population until 1870, after more than a half-century of declining child-woman ratios. Godwin was right about the numbers, but quite wrong about the larger picture. Malthus made an empirical mistake, but had the explanation more correctly: an object lesson, if a bit dangerous, for historical demographers today. See Smith, Daniel Scott, ‘Underregistration and bias in probate records: an analysis of data from eighteenth-century Hingham, Massachusetts’, William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 32 (1975), 102–3.

13 As Hajnal notes, a high householder rate for young married men is compatible with a stem-household formation system in which the older couple retires at the time of marriage of the heir.

14 Steven, Ruggles, Prolonged connections: the rise of the extended family in nineteenth-century England and America (Madison, Wisc., 1987), 312.

15 Seward, Rudy Ray, The American family: a demographic history (Beverly Hills, 1978), Table 3.6 (p. 86). For the censuses between 1850 and 1870, Seward had to infer generational depth from a combination of surnames and age differences among household members. It seems likely that the 1880 figure is closer to the mark than the inferred percentages for the 1850 to 1870 censuses.

16 See my ‘Historical change in the household structure of the elderly in economically developed societies’, in Fogel, Robert W. et al. eds., Aging: stability and change in the family (New York, 1981), 107.

17 Morgan, Edmund S., The Puritan family: religion and domestic relations in seventeenth-century New England (New York, 2nd ed., 1966), 79.

18 Entry for April 19, 1788, Diary of John Quincy Adams, eds. Allen, David Grayson et al. (Cambridge, Mass., 1981), vol. ii, p. 393.

19 This phrase, from Genesis 2:24, was repeated in the Anglican marriage ceremony. See The book of common prayer, 1559, ed. John, Booty (Washington, D.C., 1976).

20 The fact that contracts of indentured servants made in England were purchased by others in America make it very unlikely that there would be a kinship tie between master and indentured servant.

21 In England, the average for 62 communities, 1574–1821, was 106.6 males per 100 females; Peter, Laslett, ‘Mean household size in England since the sixteenth century’, in Laslett, ed., Household and family in past-time (Cambridge, 1972), Table 4.13 (p. 152).

22 Galenson, David W., White servitude in colonial America: an economic analysis (New York, 1981), Tables 2.1, 2.2 (pp. 24–5). It is likely that males were more willing than were females to become servants in America because the latter had to serve for a shorter period; ibid., Table 7.1 (p. 104).

23 Ann, Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry in early modern England (New York, 1981), 4, 145.

24 Morgan, Edmund S., American slavery, American freedom: the ordeal of colonial Virginia (New York, 1975), 126–8.

25 Steinfeld, Robert J., The invention of free labor: the employment relation in English and America law and culture, 1350–1870 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1991), 122–72; Bernard, Elbaum, ‘Why apprenticeship persisted in Britain but not in the United States’, Journal of Economic History 49 (1989), 337–49.

26 Figures are from McCusker, John J. and Menard, Russell R., The economy of British America, 1607–1789 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985), pp. 103, 136, 172, 203.

27 Counting slaves as members of their owners' households leads to very high figures for mean household size, as for example that of 43.6 on the island of Tobago in 1770 or 9.5 in South Carolina in 1790. However, mean household size for whites in the latter case was only 5.5; see Rossiter, W. S., A century of population growth (Washington, 1909). See also Wells, Robert V., The population of the British colonies in America before 1776 (Princeton, 1975), 300.

28 Malthus, Thomas Robert, An essay on the principle of population, as it affects the future improvement of society (New York, 1960; orig. pub. 1798), pp. 9, 1112.

29 See, most notably, Yasukichi, Yasuba, Birth rates, and Richard, Easterlin, ‘Population change and farm settlement in the northern United States’, Journal of Economic History 36 (1976), 4575. Variations in the availability of land are not the entire story of American fertility differentials and decline. For a review of the issues, see my “Early” fertility decline in America: a problem in family history’, Journal of Family History 12 (1987), 7384.

30 Domar, Evsey D., ‘The causes of slavery or serfdom: a hypothesis’, Journal of Economic History 30 (1970), 1832. for the value of the Domar hypothesis as a framework for early American history, see Solow, Barbara L., ‘Slavery and colonization’, in Solow, ed., Slavery and the rise of the Atlantic system (New York, 1991), 2143, esp. pp. 3542.

31 For the argument and a discussion of the migration mechanism, see my ‘A Malthusian-frontier interpretation of United States demographic history before c. 1815’, in Woodrow, Borah, Jorge, Hardoy, and Stelter, Gilbert A. eds., Urbanization in the Americas: the background in comparative perspective (Ottawa, 1980), 1524.

32 Smith, D. S., ‘“All in some degree related to each other”: a demographic and comparative resolution of the anomaly of New England kinship’, American Historical Review 94 (1989), 4480.

33 Smith, D. S., ‘Female householding in late 18th-century America and the problem of poverty’, Journal of Social History 28 (forthcoming, Fall, 1994).

34 Bernand, Richard M. and Vinovskis, Maris A., ‘The female school teacher in antebellum America’, Journal of Social History 3 (1977), 332–45; David, Tyack and Elisabeth, Hansot, Learning together: a history of coeducation in American schools (New Haven, Conn., 1990), 4851.

35 Ester, Boserup, The conditions of agricultural growth: the economics of agrarian change under population pressure (Chicago, 1965).

36 The high sex ratio among overseas immigrants ensured that female marriage ages were reduced more dramatically than male; see Jacques, Henripin, La population Canadienne au debut du XVllle siècle (Paris, 1954), 96; Hubert, Charbonneau et al. , Naissance d'une population: les Francois établis au Canada au XVIIe siècle (Montreal, 1987), 71; McInnis, R. M., ‘The fall in fertility in nineteenth-century Canada’ (unpublished paper for IUSSP conference on the peopling of the Americas, Veracruz, Mexico, 1992), 10; and Robert, Ross, ‘The age at marriage of white South Africans, 1700–1951’, in Christopher, Fyfe and David, McMaster eds., African historical demography (Edinburgh, 1981), vol. ii., 487–98.

37 David, Levine, Family formation in an age of nascent capitalism (New York, 1977), 16, 61.

38 See Gutmann, Myron P., Toward the modern economy: early industry in Europe, 1500–1800 (New York, 1988), 115–93; Spagnoli, Paul G., ‘Industrialization, proletarianization, and marriage: a reconsideration’, Journal of Family History 8 (1983), 230–47; Lehning, James R., ‘Nuptiality and rural industry: families and labour in the French countryside’, Journal of Family History 8 (1983), 333–45; Gullickson, Gay L., Spinners and weavers of Auffay: rural industry and the sexual division of labour in a French village, 1750–1850 (Cambridge, 1986), 129–44; and Ulrich, Pfister, ‘Proto-industrialization and demographic change: the canton of Zurich revisited’, Journal of European Economic History 18 (1989), 629–62. More studies have shown that protoindustrialization was associated with population growth than with earlier and more universal marriage. Migration is the obvious source of population increase for small localities. While variation in the number of marriages correlates with price changes indicating protoindustrial activity, these relationships could be driven by migration into and out of the localities so affected rather than by the incidence of marriages in the currently unmarried population. See also Continuity and Change 8 (2), the special issue on protoindustrialization.

39 Greven, Philip J. Jr, Four generations: population, land and family in colonial Andover, Massachusetts (Ithaca, N.Y., 1970); Smith, Daniel Scott, ‘The demographic history of colonial New England’, Journal of Economic History 32 (1972), 176–82.

40 Pope, Clayne L., ‘Households on the American frontier: the distribution of income and wealth in Utah, 1850–1900’, in Galenson, David W. ed., Markets in history: economic studies of the past (New York, 1989), 164–70; Jeremy, Atack and Fred, Bateman, To their own soil: agriculture in the antebellum North (Ames, Iowa, 1987), 92101.

41 Elliott, Vivien Brodsky, ‘Single women in the London marriage market: age, status, and mobility’, in Outhwaite, R. B. ed., Marriage and society: studies in the social history of marriage (New York, 1982), 81100. Even more suggestive in the doubts it raises about the familial mechanisms behind a Malthusian homeostatic regime is Elliott's finding that paternal death forced young women to migrate to London as servants and thereby delayed their entry into marriage. Some 64 per cent of migrant women had lost their fathers by the time of marriage compared to 47 per cent of women native to the high-mortality environment of the city. This micro-level result conflicts, of course, with the Malthusian homeostatic logic that connects higher mortality to the opening of economic niches and thus to earlier marriage of men and, implicitly, consequently of women, and thereupon to a subsequent increase in fertility and population growth. It should be noted that most of the empirical studies of both the Malthusian and the protoindustrial models have dealt with short-term fluctuations and long-term trends rather than individual-level behaviour.

42 Helena, Chojnacka, ‘Nuptiality patterns in an agrarian society’, Population Studies 30 (1976), 203–26; Coale, Ansley J., Barbara, Anderson and Erna, Harm, Human fertility in Russia since the nineteenth century (Princeton, 1979), 147–78.

43 Daniel Little has noted the thinness of evidence available to test the validity of the Malthusian model as applied to the historic Chinese case; see his Understanding peasant China: case studies in the philosophy of social science (New Haven, Conn., 1986), 108–18, 130–6, 143–4. Nuptiality has shown flexibility in Asian societies in recent decades, decreasing substantially in both south and southeast Asia. In India during this century (1901–81), female mean age at first marriage rose from 13.0 to 18.4, and male from 20.4 to 23.4; see Agarwala, S. N., India's population problems (Bombay, 3rd ed., 1985) 99113. Also see Richard, Leete, ‘The post-demographic transition in east and south-east Asia: similarities and contrasts with Europe’, Population Studies 41 (1987), 187206.

44 Klein, Herbert S. and Stanley, Engerman, ‘Fertility differentials between slaves in the United States and the British West Indies: a note on lactation practices and their possible implication’, William and Mary Quarterly, 4rd ser. 35 (1978), 357–74.

45 Fogel, Robert William, Without consent or contact: the rise and fall of American slavery (New York, 1989), 148–51; Malone, Ann Patton, Sweet chariot: slave family and household structure in nineteenth-century Louisiana (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1992), 175–7; Paul, Escott, Slavery remembered: a record of twentieth-century slave narratives (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979), 4653; Brenda, Stevenson, ‘Distress and discord in Virginia slave families, 1830–1860’, in Carol, Bleser ed., In joy and sorrow: women, family, and marriage in the Victorian South, 1830–1900 (New York, 1991), 103–24; and Patrick, Manning, Slavery and African life: occidental, oriental, and African slave trades (Cambridge, 1990), 55.

46 Of course, here is another of the unstated assumptions behind the Malthusian model: marriage was preferable to remaining single and earlier marriage better than later. No doubt this assumption has some validity, since the options open to the unmarried, particularly spinsters, were quite bleak.

47 A valuable comparative study of slavery and serfdom is provided by Peter, Kolchin, Unfree labor: American slavery and Russian serfdom (Cambridge, Mass., 1987). Also see Peter, Laslett, ‘Household and family on the slave plantations of the U.S.A.’, in his Family life and illicit love in earlier generations: essays in historical sociology (Cambridge, 1977), 233–60.

48 For an interesting exception, see Hughes, Sarah S., ‘Slaves for hire: the allocation of black labor in Elizabeth City County, Virginia, 1782–1810’, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser. 35 (1978), 260–86.

49 Cody, Cheryll A., For everything there is a season: the family and demographic lives of enslaved people on the Ball plantations, 1720–1865 (book in manuscript, 1992), Chapter 5.

50 Klein, Herbert S., African slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean (New York, 1986), 168–77.

51 Ralph, Shlomowitz, ‘The squad system on postbellum cotton plantations’, in Burton, Orville Vernon and McMath, Robert C. Jr eds., Towards a new South ? Studies in post-civil war Southern communities (Westport, Conn., 1980), 265–80; and Shaffer, John W., Family and farm: agrarian change and household organization in the Loire valley, 1500–1900 (Albany, N.Y., 1982).

52 Malone, , Sweet Chariot, Table 1.1 (p. 15).

53 Gunnlaugsson, Gísli Ágúst, Family and household in Iceland, 1801–1930 (Uppsala, 1988), and Living arrangements of the elderly in a changing society: the case of Iceland, 1890–1930’, (paper presented at the 1991 SSHA meeting, New Orleans, published in Continuity and Change 8 (1), 1993, pp. 103–25.

54 Steven, Ruggles, ‘Living arrangements of the elderly in America, 1880–1980’, and Richard, Wall, ‘Elderly persons and the members of their households in England and Wales from pre-industrial times to the present day’ (papers presented at the New Orleans meetings of the Social Science History Association, 1991).

55 See my The curious history of theorizing about the history of the Western nuclear family’, Social Science History 17 (3), 1993, 325–53.

56 See my Parental power and marriage patterns: an analysis of historical trends in Hingham, Massachusetts’, Journal of Marriage and the Family 35 (1973), 419–28, and Muriel, Nazzari, Disappearance of the dowry: women, families, and social change in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1600–1900 (Stanford, 1991).

57 For an emphasis on the long-run development of such values, see North, Douglass C., Institutions, institutional change and economic performance (Cambridge, 1990).

* Department of History, University of Illinois at Chicago.

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American family and demographic patterns and the northwest European model

  • Daniel Scott Smith


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