Widowhood and Old Age

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Widowhood and Old Age

The New Elderly In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the percentage of the elderly in the European population grew because people were living longer. By 1850, 10 percent of the European population was over sixty. In southern and eastern Europe—regions characterized by complex, multigenerational households—the elderly frequently lived with their children and grandchildren. In western and northern Europe, the elderly were more likely to live by themselves. As the proportion of the elderly in society increased, the concerns and needs of older people were brought to the center of political debate.

Safety Nets: State Pensions and Insurance Until the late eighteenth century, most elderly people had only their families to support them. Many widows and widowers moved in with their children. Others gave their children their inheritance early as a type of annuity in return for long-term care. Many European countries had pensions for military veterans. Public programs addressing the needs of specific individuals were the norm in the early nineteenth century, but increasingly European nation-states began to guarantee a minimum standard of living for retired civil servants, and then gradually for a larger percentage of the population. In 1853 France began providing pensions for soldiers and government workers when they reached the age of sixty. The Prussian government instituted pensions for factory workers in 1854. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries social-insurance plans for all elderly citizens became popular in many nations. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) of Germany made his government the first to provide this service in 1889. France, Great Britain, and Austria-Hungary followed suit in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Death in the Family The death of a parent or a spouse creates an emotional crisis while also initiating a redefinition of family relationships and kinship connections through the transfer of wealth, memory, and identity from generation to generation. Between 1750 and 1914, unless one were destitute, natural deaths most often occurred at home, usually with the family present. Hospitals were unsanitary and mostly occupied by the indigent. The behavior of survivors had become highly ritualized. After death, the corpse was initially placed in a room (usually the parlor) of the family home, where relatives would gather to mourn the passing. In most regions of Europe the family would then contact the local church or funeral home to arrange for burial and invite friends and members of the extended family to take part in a procession carrying the body to the church and then to the cemetery. Mourning continued after the funeral, with prescribed behavior that differed according to gender and age status. According to etiquette books of the period, widows were expected to undergo stages of mourning that could last several years. Widows who did not wear special black dresses, often trimmed with black crape and jewelry composed of jet (black glass or coal), risked social condemnation. After the period of high mourning (usually twelve months) had ended, widows wore simple black dresses with less crape. A widow entering the half mourning period (generally between one and two years after her husband’s death) could lighten her wardrobe by wearing shades of black, grey, lavender, and mauve. The mourning period for widowers was significantly shorter, generally six months.

Widows and Widowers During 1750–1914 women tended to outlive men. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, close to 20 percent of all women might have been widows at any given time, and the widow’s financial situation could be difficult. Laws varied from region to region, but in most European traditions the family estate, including property that the husband brought into the marriage, went to a husband’s descendants, not his widow, unless the husband had specifically dictated otherwise before his death. Sometimes widows stood to lose legal custody of their children. In some places maternal and paternal family members could assemble and agree to give widows control over their children and her property, granting the widow some economic stability in her old age. Many other poor widows found it too difficult to survive alone and remarried out of financial necessity.


John Morley, Death, Heaven and the Victorians (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971).

Jill Quadagno, Aging in Early Industrial Society: Work, Family, and Social Policy in Nineteenth-Century England (New York: Academic Press, 1982).

Peter Stearns, Old Age in European Society: The Case of France (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1976).

David Troyansky, Old Age in the Old Regime: Image and Experience in Eighteenth-Century France (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989).