Births and Deaths: Demographic Patterns and Family Structures

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Births and Deaths: Demographic Patterns and Family Structures



Population Trends Historians estimate that between 1700 and 1800 the European population increased from 120 million people to 180 million. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914 the European population had reached 458 million people. This population growth occurred despite the rising average age at first marriage (by 1850, twenty-four for women and twenty-seven for men). The increase was fueled by lower mortality rates arising from better sanitation and improved medical and health care. New foods introduced into Europe also helped people live longer. Nutritious and plentiful new crops from the Americas such as corn and the potato were gradually encorporated into the European diet. Farmers improved agricultural techniques as well, increasing crop yield and thus the food supply. Many political leaders believed that large populations benefited their countries economically and militarily. Until the 1850s and 1860s the populations of nearly all European regions rapidly increased; then population growth began to slow. This new demographic model had occurred in France by 1850, and by 1870 fertility rates were declining throughout Europe. The average Frenchwoman bore 3.38 children in 1850, but by 1900 the rate had fallen to 2.79. In England, the rate fell from 4.95 to 3.40 children, and the Swedish rate fell from 4.27 to 3.91.

The Household. A household is a group of people who live together. They may or may not be biologically related. For the people who reside in them, households serve several important functions, which may change with time and place. Households are economic units; that is, the people who live in them both produce goods and consume them. A household is also a social and cultural unit; economic dependency fosters reciprocal and at times hierarchical relationships. One household may also cooperate with other households to share economic and social tasks. For example, in the nineteenth century agricultural households cooperated with each other during the harvests and at other important periods during the year. Households could be formed in several ways, but by far the most common was marriage. Men and women married for the first time in their mid to late twenties and established a new household unit separate from their parents or other relatives. This pattern was especially common in western and northern Europe. In central, eastern, and southern Europe, some children married at earlier ages and joined complex households that also included their parents or siblings. In this second model, no new household was created; the composition of the original household just changed.


English economist Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) contributed to the Enlightenment debate about the perfectibility of human society with works on poverty and overpopulation. Aware of the population growth that Europe had experienced in the late eighteeth century, he theorized that populations cannot grow without at some point reaching a limit defined by available resources, especially food. When this limit is reached, Malthus argued in his first Essay on Population (1798), populations would naturally decline through starvation and impaired fertility.

I think I may fairly make two postulate.

First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.

Second, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.

These two laws, ever since we had any knowledge of mankind, appear to have been fixed laws of our nature, and, as we have not hitherto seen any alteration in them, we have no right to conclude that they will ever cease to be what they now are, without an immediate act of power in that Being who first arranged the system of the universe, and for the advantage of his creatures, still executes, according to fixed laws, all its various operations....

Assuming then, my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.

Population, when unchecked, increases in geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.

By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal.

This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall some where and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind.

Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand. She has been comparatively sparing in the room and the nourishment necessary to rear them. The germs of existence contained m this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds m the course of a few thousand years. Necessity, that imperious of all pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants, and the race of animals shrunk under this great restrictive law. And the race of man cannot, by any efforts of reason, escape from it. Among plants and animals its effects are waste of seed, sickness, and premature death. Among mankind, misery and vice. The former, misery, is an absolutely necessary consequence of it. Vice is a highly probable consequence, and we therefore see it abundantly pre-vail, but it ought not, perhaps, to be called an absolutely necessary consequence. The ordeal of virtue is to resist all temptation to evil.

This natural inequality of the two powers of population and of production in the earth and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal form the great difficulty that to me appears insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society. All other arguments are of slight and subordinate consideration in comparison of this. I see no way by which man can escape from the weight of this law which pervades all animated nature. No fancied equality, no agrarian regulations in their utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it even for a single century. And it appears, therefore, to be decisive against the possible existence of a society, all the members of which should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and families.

Source : Thomas Robert Malthus, Population: The First Essay (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959), pp. 4–6.

The Diversity of Demographic and Family Systems Historians do not agree on how to characterize household systems and patterns across the different regions of Europe during the industrial era. Some historians believe that the western and northern models (first marriage in the late twenties, nuclear family households of parents and their biological offspring) may have become more common in eastern and southern Europe by the end of the nineteenth century. Others counter that households might just as easily have changed from simple to complex units housing multiple generations depending on local economic circumstances and especially the availability of land and wage labor. Still others identify variations within the same general geographical region. An example from Russia illustrates the difficulty of generalizing about household systems in Europe. In the late nineteenth century Russian male peasants who lived near developing industrial cities such as Moscow tended to marry earlier than urban youths in other parts of Europe. These males maintained their ties to family networks in the countryside, which encouraged earlier marriages than might otherwise have been feasible for youths who lived away from home. Russian males, as a result, profited from the work available in the cities and maintained complex households in the countryside. In central and western Europe households increasingly excluded extended kin (such as aunts, uncles, and cousins). The opposite seems true in parts of the southern, Mediterranean regions of Europe and in eastern Europe, including parts of Russia. This difference may be attributed in part to the relatively late arrival of industrialization in these areas. Perhaps the only safe generalization, which still has many exceptions, is that over the course of the years between 1750 and 1914 the nuclear-family household became increasingly common.


Massimo Livi Bacci, The Population of Europe, translated by Cynthia De Nardi Ipsen and Carl Ipsen (Maiden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000).

D. V. Glass and D. E. C. Eversley, Population and History: Essays in Historical Demography (London: Arnold, 1965).

Peter Laslett, Jean Robin, and Richard Wall, eds., Family Forms in Historic Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).