Family Life: Courtship and Marriage

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Family Life: Courtship and Marriage


Changing Morality. In the eighteenth century some 10 percent of American brides arrived at the altar already pregnant with their first child, a level unequaled until the late twentieth century. In rural New England during the 1780s and 1790s as many as one-third of all young women were pregnant at the time they were married. Most people felt that so long as the couple married, there was little shame in premarital pregnancies. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, however, this attitude underwent a significant change. By 1840 there were fewer than one in five premarital pregnancies in most New England towns, and by 1860 the rate had dropped to one in twenty. With the rise of the sentimental domestic ideal, which held American womanhood as an example of purity, Americans now set much stricter moral and sexual codes.

Courtship. The typical courtship began in church or at a family celebration. While in the past parents often chose their childrens spouses with an eye to increasing the familys wealth or landholdings, by the mid nineteenth century most young people, and many parents, believed that men and women should marry for love. This romantic idea of love based on mutual attraction was reinforced by sentimental poetry and short stories in magazines such as the Ladies Repository and Godeys Ladys Book. Permission from parents was still important,

but young people often followed their own inclinations, even in the South, where parents still exercised greater control over their childrens lives. Most young people frowned on flirtations. The notion that someone would make up to a person of the opposite sex without serious intentions of marriage was considered fast, not to say disreputable. Although this rule applied to both men and women, criticism of the female flirt was sharper.

Engagement and Marriage. Long engagements were common; it was not considered proper for a young couple to marry until the man could support his wife in a decent home and until the bride had collected her bridal clothes and established her trousseau, which included such important items as bedding, linens, curtains, and kitchen-ware. Engagements could be broken off for several reasons, usually misunderstandings, jealousies, or the discovery that ones partner was not compatible. Before 1860 the typical couple was married at the brides home in the presence of immediate family members and a few close friends. During the 1860s and 1870s middle-class weddings became more elaborate. The brides family often sent engraved invitations to a wide range of relatives and acquaintances. Church weddings became more common because the typical family parlor could not hold all the guests, and weddings were often followed by lavish receptions. Many middle-class brides who could afford

to do so wore flowing white gowns and veils, a style that originated with wealthy women in the 1830s. American brides and grooms married somewhat later than their European counterparts. By 1860 most Americans were in their early to mid twenties when they married, with the average age somewhat lower in the South. Slave women married in their late teens and began their child-bearing years around the age of nineteen.

Divorce. Although divorce statistics are incomplete, it had become easier to obtain a divorce by the middle of the nineteenth century. By that time most states had passed laws that allowed a couple to obtain a divorce in a court of law, instead of having to petition the state legislature as in the past. Beginning in 1839 some states began passing laws that allowed married women to keep their own property and earnings, making it easier for a woman to support herself after her marriage was dissolved. During the nineteenth century the divorce rate in the United States grew more rapidly than in European countries, but the number of divorces was small in comparison to statistics for the United States in the twentieth century.

Contraception. The nationwide birth rate in the United States declined from seven or eight children per family around 1800 to five or six by the Civil War. (Average family size was somewhat higher among southerners, both black and white.) Although these statistics suggest that Americans were deliberately limiting the size of their families, there is little information available on the methods they employed. The topic was considered taboo, even obscene. Contraception was rarely discussed in diaries or letters, and Americans who wanted to practice birth control found it difficult to learn about the options available to them. The few books and pamphlets that were available became even harder to obtain after the passage of the Comstock Law in 1873. The primary target of this law, which made it illegal to send obscene materials through the U.S. mail, was publications discussing methods of birth control. Presumably, Americans practiced the same contraceptive methods that were prevalent in Europe, including male withdrawal, the rhythm method, abstinence, or various crude and ineffective barrier methods (early versions of condoms and diaphragms). Most women also knew that intensive breastfeeding would often inhibit conception.

Abortion. Abortion was also used as a birth-control method. Around 1840 the abortion rate began to increase dramatically, not only among poor unmarried women, but also among the more affluent married women. Many Americans believed that prior to quickening, the first sign of movement or life in an unborn fetus, the removal of an obstruction or stoppage was not an abortion. In fact, such early-term abortions were legal in nearly all states, and some states had no laws against abortion at any stage of a womans pregnancy. Beginning in the mid 1850s there was a nationwide movement to make abortions illegal; these laws were directed mainly at abortionists and motivated largely on the high incidence of deaths from botched instrumental abortions. Between 1860 and 1880 at least forty states and territories passed new abortion laws, most banning abortion at any stage. Many people continued to believe that ending a pregnancy before quickening was not an abortion. Rural women usually resorted to home remedies, including herbal infusions and douches, while young women in cities and towns were more likely to risk their lives by resorting to abortionists.

Childbirth. Beginning around 1820, more and more upper-class and middle-class women, particularly in urban areas, were attended by male physicians during childbirth. Yet midwives continued to deliver most babies. (Even in 1910 midwives attended the births of nearly half the babies born nationwide.) Most babies were born at home. Hospital births occurred only in cases of extreme emergency. A few upper-class women were beginning to try new birthing methods, including the use of drugs such as ether and morphine to make labor easier. Puerperal fever, an infection caused by inadequate sanitation measures during childbirth, took the lives of many women. The death rate from this disease dropped gradually after the 1880s.


Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: Womans Sphere in New England, 1780-1834 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977);

Carl N. Degler, At Odds: Woman and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980);

Daniel E. Sutherland, The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860-1876 (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).

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Family Life: Courtship and Marriage

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