Population, Control of

views updated


fertility increase: 1750–1850
fertility decline in the late nineteenth century

The population of Europe underwent two major shifts during the long nineteenth century. First, a population explosion occurred from about 1750 to 1850. During these decades moral reformers, especially in England and France, seeking to control the population of the poor, criticized women who had more children than they could afford, or who bore them out of wedlock. Then, starting around 1880, fertility declined as people sought to control their family size; at the same time, politicians in many countries decried alleged depopulation.

fertility increase: 1750–1850

The population of Europe expanded from 1750 to 1850 largely because of an increase in the birthrate. Religious moralists and economists, most notably Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), believed that the population would expand in accord with the available supply of resources. He assumed that the population would be controlled by limited natural resources and a high age at marriage. But the natural ceiling on population growth did not materialize, and rapid population growth went hand in hand with changes in the economy and culture. Malthus, and the moral reformers in his wake, confined discussion of birth control to preaching abstinence.

The European birthrate increased, even though some men and women sought to control conception. With the lack of safe, efficacious, and affordable barrier contraception, abstinence and coitus interuptus were the main forms of birth control, but a man's withdrawal depended on his needs, his respect for the woman, and whether it was a companionate relationship. Although condoms had been known throughout the eighteenth century, not until after the vulcanization of rubber in 1844 did their use spread, mainly to prostitutes and their clients concerned about venereal disease.

Women tried their own means of contraception. Some inserted a sponge or pessary or douched with various herbs. These methods had limited success, with the vaginal sponge—reputedly used by noble women, the bourgeoisie, and prostitutes—being the most efficacious. Under church teaching, some relied on a woman's "safe period," miscalculated in midmonth, just between the menses. Abortion, although illegal, was the form of family planning of last resort. Abortion techniques were dangerous, and included tightly binding the abdomen, jumping from high places, taking hot baths, and ingesting particular herbs and chemicals. If noninvasive techniques failed, desperate women resorted to the insertion of a sharp instrument with the hopes that it would dislodge the contents of the uterus without perforation. They could try to do this themselves, with the help of a friend, an abortionist, or a midwife.

Some women attempted abortion before their fifth month of pregnancy, yet many attempted it later, after quickening (the sensation of fetal movement) when a woman might be sure she was pregnant; this was as true of nobility in England as it was of the poor shopwoman in France or the Italian peasant. If abortion failed, the truly desperate resorted to infanticide. Poor, single, unwed, or widowed women, alone in the cities or countryside, without community resources or networks, were those most often prosecuted for infanticide. There is no way of knowing how many infanticides actually occurred.

Late marriages had been another means of population control, and this marriage pattern prevailed in the north and west of Europe, across all socioeconomic levels, and decreased toward the southern and eastern regions of Europe. People delayed marriage until they could establish independent households. In northern and western Europe, the average age of first marriage for men was over twenty-six and that for women was over twenty-three years, giving a woman about twenty fertile years. In France, where population growth was not as high as in other countries, the average age of marriage was higher. Women's age of marriage was more significant than men's but would only control marital fertility and not non-marital fertility or pregnancies that resulted in marriage. Russia did not follow the western European marriage typography. Women in Russian villages usually married before they turned twenty, resulting in more reproductive years.

A sound economic basis was expected for family formation, and in northern and western Europe this usually meant marriage was delayed until a man could obtain land or earn an independent living. Again, the pattern for Russia differed; sons did not separate from their fathers' households. They wed young, but a high mortality in part offset high fertility. These checks on population, whether by contraception, abstinence, or late marriage, were offset by better diets. A woman's fertility, in part, is based on the number of calories and types of nutrients she consumes in relation to her work.

Historians relate social and sexual practices resulting in more children to the transition to capitalism; but it is difficult to determine if an increase in the birthrate led to economic changes, or the reverse. Industrialization developed in different stages in various places in western Europe starting around the mid-eighteenth century. The relationship of family size to beginning industrialization is complex. Some historians argue that population pressure spurred industrial development, which in turn caused an increase in population. Families that engaged in some industrial production relied on their labor in manufacturing more than on obtaining land to farm. They tended to have a lower age at marriage; thus the woman could have more reproductive years within marriage and more children. Moreover, a family gaining most of its living from industry would benefit from more children, which meant more laborers. The major drawback to having many children was the life-cycle poverty that ensued when a woman had several young, nonproductive children at home.

Cultural, religious, and community factors also played a role in reducing the age of marriage and increasing the number of children per family. Ideas about the ideal number of children for a completed family, the birth intervals between children, and even breastfeeding may have changed, resulting in more children. There is some evidence that families wanted a certain number of children, depending on their economy, culture, and occupation; when families reached an ideal size, couples stopped having children. The ideal family size among certain groups of the population, such as those working in industry, may have increased. In some places, spacing childbirth every two years was pronounced biologically "natural." Women achieved this spacing by abstinence, miscarriages (induced or spontaneous), or by breastfeeding. Some cultures established taboos, such as prohibiting sexual intercourse when a mother was lactating. These cultural practices may have shifted, resulting in more births.

Although childbirth was supposed to follow marriage, conception often preceded it. When the family economy was predicated on the number of working hands, some families and communities tacitly condoned prebridal fertility. In small, endogamous, rural communities, kin and neighbors knew who was courting whom. When the woman became pregnant, community pressure could force a marriage. With development of the market economy and increased migration, especially of men, the ability of the family and community to enforce marriages broke down. Knowing he could escape marriage, a man might exercise less sexual restraint.

The number of births outside of legal marriage, generally called the illegitimacy rate, greatly increased during this time period, in some places more than others. The religion of an area was not generally a factor. In areas of high religiosity, a woman who was pregnant outside of marriage could go to a nearby city to have the baby, thus inflating urban statistics and showing few ex-nuptial births in a highly religious area. Historians have advanced several hypotheses to explain why an increasing proportion of women had babies outside of marriage. The most compelling explanation relates to change in the economy and community, as well as the increased vulnerability of women to men's advances and seduction. Increased male migration to commercial centers transformed what in the past might have been a prebridal pregnancy into an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Single mothers maintained that the man had promised them marriage but then abandoned them as soon as they became pregnant. Men were freer to seduce and abandon or neglect coitus interruptus than they had been. Having a child out-of-wedlock was often a result of their traditional behavior in more modern times.


Mortality was one form of population control; mortality rates throughout the century remained high, decreasing only at the end of that century, and even then mostly in western and northern Europe. Diseases and epidemics decimated large segments of the population, and until the end of the nineteenth century famine caused suffering and death in the rural regions of Europe, especially during "the hungry forties" of 1846 to 1848.

Infant and child mortality was especially high and did not significantly decline until the beginning of the twentieth century. One in four infants might have died before his first birthday, and one child in two before her fifth birthday. Yet, many women could have seen ten, or more, of their children live to adulthood. The underserved populations experienced a higher likelihood of infant and child mortality. In the mid-nineteenth century, the number of deaths of babies under one year was the lowest in France and the United Kingdom, where fewer than one in five babies born were expected to die. It was higher in Italy and Germany, where almost a quarter of all live births died. In Russia, almost a third of all babies born could be expected to die within their first year. Until the twentieth century, there was little medical protection against childhood diseases, and no cures either. Sending infants out to wet nurses was a largely unintended form of population control. Many women could not, or would not, keep their newborns, often sending them to wet nurses, where they had a higher mortality rate than among those who stayed with their mothers. Many destitute and unwed mothers (in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, or Russia) abandoned their babies at a foundling shelter and authorities shipped them out to wet nurses. The mortality of abandoned children remained significantly higher than that of all other children. In England, in a system known as "baby farming," working mothers of ex-nuptial children paid another, nonlactating woman a fee to take their babies.

Mortality rates remained a measure of population control until the end of the nineteenth century because advances in medicine and modern ideas of public hygiene became known and accepted only then. These changes began in the northern and western areas of Europe, leaving high mortality in the eastern and southern regions.

fertility decline in the late nineteenth century

There is no historical certainty about why the fertility decline occurred. Some historians postulate that it began with the upper classes. Other evidence, however, disputes that diffusion theory and sees family limitation occurring in different communities at different times, according to community cultural norms and occupation-related concerns.

The term fertility decline indicates a decline in population growth, but not in total population. Nations, obsessed with economic and military competition, examined their numbers vis-à-vis those of other countries. French politicians, for example, looked at their own numbers in comparison with those of Germany. Whereas the population of France increased by 3 percent, that of Germany, since unification in 1871, increased by 20 percent. This meant that politicians were putting pressure on women to have more and healthier babies, for national strength. France had the greatest decline in both marital and nonmarital fertility, but the fertility decline occurred in all countries of western Europe starting around the 1880s. The decline in the number of births was only partly a result of delayed marriages or increased age in first marriage.

Technological innovations played only a small part in the fertility decline. In the 1880s condoms became more widespread, although they remained expensive and were associated with illicit sex. Other barrier contraceptions such as pessaries, diaphragms, cervical caps, suppositories, and sponges became efficacious and acceptable, especially among the middle and upper classes, spawning dissemination of birth control information. But it was only after 1920 that barrier contraception became affordable and available to all socioeconomic groups. Although men and women still practiced abstinence, coitus interruptus, and abortion, they increasingly sought barrier contraception. Except for the condom, all these technologies gave the woman control over conception, and their use speaks to women's increasing role in sexuality and family planning.

Contraception became a household word at the end of the nineteenth century, especially in England with the 1877 trial of Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant for publishing information about

birth control. At the same time, the neo-Malthusian movement fostered family planning. Unlike Malthus, who advocated delayed marriages and moral restraint, the neo-Malthusians wanted to teach the poor how to use contraceptive devices. Neo-Malthusians were not necessarily arguing for women's choice; they generally lectured the poor on limiting their number of children to result in healthier workers.

New technologies for birth control did, however, contribute to family planning and the fertility decline, but families adopted birth control less because of new techniques and technologies, and more because of changing economic and social conditions. The shifting nature of industrialization to larger-scale industries requiring less child labor toward the end of the nineteenth century changed the economic value of children and favored small families among both the middle classes and the workers. The passage of effective child labor protection laws in the 1870s in England, France, and Germany, and the compulsory primary education laws of the 1880s in the same countries, also changed the economic value of children. According to one theory, since children could not work as many hours and had to attend school, they became economic liabilities rather than the economic assets they had been. Moreover, the depression of the same decades created economic uncertainty and material hardships, so parents who already had several children wanted to prevent more births.

The depression of 1880s, especially in England and France, along with the desire to maintain a certain quality of life despite an increased cost of living and diminished resources also led couples to limit the number of children. This was a middle-class rationale, based on the increasing cost of ensuring the educational, professional, and business success of their children. English and French parents believed that they could maintain their status and even secure a better life if they had fewer children. This was especially true in the rapidly growing urban areas. Furthermore, lower infant mortality led people to limit the number of children born, since each child would have a greater chance of survival.

Cultural changes toward the end of the century, including new concepts of motherhood, more affective parenting, and greater equality between husbands and wives may also have contributed to population control. Women, who bore the burden of childbirth and most of the burdens of childrearing, may have wanted most to limit family size, and were able to do so. The emphasis on the quality of nurturing that began with educated elites became culturally diffused. Having fewer children, and nurturing them, became the mark of civilization for all social groups. Evidence that working-class women emulated middle-class attitudes about family planning is sparser than evidence that they adopted family planning to fit their changing economic lives. Some families thought that having more than three children was immoral as well as materially unsound.

The development of feminism and the idea of women's individualism led to rhetoric about women's independence and led some women to take more control in family planning. Although few feminists advocated birth control, a rhetoric of family planning developed. Some male politicians and doctors condemned the nascent birth control movement, because they thought that birth control would lead to "female sexual excess" disrupting the social order and male control. In some countries where doctors adopted the "family planning" agenda, rather than use language about women's sexual freedom, they used terms that would give the men some aspect of control. In other areas, doctors eschewed the birth control movement and it remained subversive and against the national interests.

By 1914, in a merging of the public rhetoric and women's private lives, ideas of population control dominated the political-medical discourse. The history is complex and replete with paradoxes and contradictions, as traditional customs adapted to modern attitudes and practices, not without tension.

See alsoDemography; Feminism; Malthus, Thomas Robert; Welfare.


Banks, Joseph Ambrose. Prosperity and Parenthood: A Study of Family Planning among the Victorian Middle Classes. London, 1954.

Banks, Joseph Ambrose, and Olive Banks. Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England. New York, 1964.

Coale, Ansley J., and Susan Cotts Watkins, eds. The Decline of Fertility in Europe. Princeton, N.J., 1986.

Cole, Joshua. The Power of Large Numbers: Population, Politics, and Gender in Nineteenth-Century France. Ithaca, N.Y., 2000.

Dupâquier, Jacques, E. Helin, P. Laslett, et al., eds. Marriage and Remarriage in Populations of the Past. New York, 1981.

Gillis, John, Louise Tilly, and David Levine, eds. The European Experience of Declining Fertility, 1850–1970: The Quiet Revolution. Oxford, U.K., 1992.

Hajnal, John. "European Marriage Patterns in Perspective." In Population in History: Essays in Historical Demography, edited by David Victor Glass and David Edward Charles Eversley, 101–143. London, 1965.

Levine, David. Reproducing Families: The Political Economy of English Population History. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

McLaren, Angus. Sexuality and Social Order: The Debate over the Fertility of Women and Workers in France, 1770–1920. New York, 1983.

Szreter, Simon. Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain, 1860–1940. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Tilly, Charles, ed. Historical Studies of Changing Fertility. Princeton, N.J., 1978.

Rachel G. Fuchs

About this article

Population, Control of

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article