Why study the family? In preparing the unit I had three general aims. The first was to develop ways in which the significance of changes in the family, occurring in the 19th century, could help students understand the institution of the family and their own families. These aims are addressed in Section I. Secondly, I wanted to introduce them to some of the reasons why historians consider the family a fit subject for serious study today. Finally, I hoped to show in an historical context that social concern over the family is not a new phenomenon. This third aim I hoped to achieve by discovering how 19th-century observers, especially those in Connecticut, dealt with their awareness that the family was changing. If met, these goals should help students, who are all members of some form of family, to see themselves as part of the historical process. In addition, they will come in contact with some exciting new history, both as to content and method, which may spark their interest in the continuing work of historians. Also, both teachers and students will have a fresh way of approaching the study of 19th century society.
The most significant observable change in the 19th-century American family is its reduction in size between 1800 and 1900. In concrete terms, historians observe, the American woman of 1800 bore, on the average, seven or eight children; the American woman of 1900 bore three or four. Historians who are struck by the significance of this change assert that a full understanding of why and how this halving of the birth rate occurred would provide us with a better understanding of the nature of American society in the 19th century, which they perceive as largely a response to the more familiar changes of industrialization and urbanization, as reflected in the lives of ordinary people. These aims are addressed in Section II.
In reading some of the work of historians who focus on this issue, I wondered what relation their conclusions bore to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the 19th-century people whose lives they were examining. Were these people aware of the change? If so, how did they react to it? Are historians imputing motives and reactions to them that they did not in fact have? It appeared to me that if this were the case, there would be an additional insight to be gained, at least by more advanced students, into the nature of historical study. Students who tend to think of history as a dead enterprize, fixed in its interpretations, might begin to discover one principal truth that historians agree upon, that the interests of the present moment influence what historians choose to study and may, as well, influence their interpretations.
Historians point out that the dramatic change in family size was a national phenomenon in the 19th century. A native born American woman living in the 19th century, whether on the farm or in the city, in the northeast or in the west, was having fewer children than a woman in the colonial period. And by the end of the century she was having, on the average, fewer children than a woman at the century’s midpoint. Was this national trend true in Connecticut? I assumed that it was, and by studying it in the Connecticut context I believe that our students can make use of local history to explore the ramifications of a nation-wide phenomenon.
Determining fertility decline is complicated. Demographic historians, who study past population changes, need to determine how many children a woman who lived through her child-bearing years bore. The technical term for this is “completed fertility.” Ideally, they want to determine the completed fertility for every woman who lived during the period of study, and to compare their findings to similar data for another period.
Such evidence is next to impossible to obtain, given the high rate of mobility in the 19th century. People moved from town to town and in and out of state, leaving the record of their vital statistics in a hundred different places.
Some studies have been carried out on groups of American women through the method of “family reconstitution.” To reconstitute a family it is necessary to piece together records of birth, marriages, and births of children, which can be done for individuals who cooperate by staying put and leaving their records in one place. Demographic historians assume that what is true for one group is likely to be true for others in the society. Thus, they generalize from their findings. The result of their findings have given general support to the view that American women progressively bore fewer children in the 19th century.
Connecticut has not been a focus for much demographic research, although the findings for Massachusetts probably reflect similar trends in Connecticut since both states shared a common cultural heritage and a common set of cultural beliefs in the 19th century.
Since the basic research on fertility trends has not been done for Connecticut, I have suggested ways in which students could carry out some of this research on their own. Though family reconstitution on a large scale would be impossible, students could attempt limited studies by using the published genealogies of important families, which can be found in most public libraries. Also, students can study their own families and, though they are not likely to be able to go as far back as the 19th century, the findings can give some significant results, especially if they can trace the family back three or four generations to immigrant origins.
Another method of studying fertility patterns is through “aggregate analysis” and for this type of approach printed census returns can be used.
Though the 19th century census returns do not always give the same information from decade to decade, some returns do give figures which can be used. When the census counts the number of women of childbearing age and the number of children between the ages of zero and nine, the information necessary for determining, on the average, how many children each woman in the society bore is found by simply dividing the number of children by the number of women.
Though this method does not reveal the number of children that any given woman bore, when used for a number of decades, it determines whether there was a general percentage decrease or increase in the number of children being born. By conducting such research students can exercise their mathematical skills, increase their ability to read statistics, and handle new types of primary sources. Extra interest and immediacy lies in their ability to make use of their own families for testing historical generalizations. They can also contribute to our general understanding of whether and to what degree the population in Connecticut changed in relation to changes in the rest of the nation.