Digital History>Topics>Private Life

Limiting Births in the Early Republic

Digital History TOPIC ID 134

One of the most hotly debated questions in late eighteenth century America and Europe was whether human beings were capable of improvement. Famous philosophers, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Marquis de Condorcet, argued that people were naturally good and that all of society's problems could be solved by the application of reason. One of these philosophers, an English writer named William Godwin, described the future in particularly glowing terms. He wrote that in the future "there would no longer be a handful of rich and a multitude of poor...There will be no war, no crime, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government. Beside this there will be no disease, anguish, melancholy, or resentment."

Two men who debated the question of human perfectibility were an eccentric English gentleman named Daniel Malthus and his son, an Anglican clergyman, Thomas Robert Malthus. The elder Malthus maintained that human progress was inevitable, but his son disagreed. Young Parson Malthus argued that human perfection was unattainable because human population growth would inevitably exceed the growth of the world's food supply. He asserted on the basis of figures collected by Benjamin Franklin that population tends to increase geometrically (1,2,4,8) while subsistence only grows arithmetically (1,2,3,4). Ultimately population would be held in check by famine, war, and disease.

Malthus's gloomy vision of the future failed to come true because large numbers of people began to limit the number of children through the use of birth control. Nowhere was the limitation of births more striking than in the United States. In 1800, the American birthrate was higher than the birthrate in any European nation. The typical American woman bore an average of 7 children. She had her first child around the age of 23 and proceeded to bear children at two-year intervals until her early 40s. Had the American birth rate remained at this level, the nation's population would have reached 2 billion by 1990.

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, however, Americans began to have fewer children. Between 1800 and 1900 the birth rate fell 40 percent and even more sharply among the middle and upper class. Where the typical American mother bore 7 children in 1800, the average number of children had fallen to three-and-a-half in 1900. And instead of giving birth to her last child at the age of 40 or later, by 1900 the typical American woman bore her last child at the age of 33. The decline of the birth rate is such an important historical breakthrough that it has its own name: the demographic transition.

The sharp decline in birth rates is a phenomenon easier to describe than to explain. The drop in fertility was not the result of sudden improvements in contraceptive devices. The basic birth control techniques used before the Civil War - coitus interruptus (withdrawal), douching, and condoms - were known in ancient times. Ancient Egyptian papyri and the Old Testament describe cervical caps and spermicides, while ancient Greek physicians were aware of the contraceptive effects of douching. Contraception was not unknown in the past, it was simply used haphazardly and ineffectively. Nor was the imposition of limits on birth rates a result of urbanization. Although fertility fell earliest and most rapidly in the urban Northeast, the decline in fertility occurred in all parts of the country, in rural as well as urban areas and in the South and West as well as the Northeast.

What accounted for the declining birth rate? In part, the reduction in fertility reflected the growing realization among parents that in an increasingly commercial and industrial society children were no longer economic assets who could be productively employed in household industries or bound out as apprentices or servants. Instead, children required significant investment in the form of education to prepare them for respectable careers and marriages. The emergence of a self-conscious middle class concerned about social mobility and maintaining an acceptable standard of living also encouraged new limits on family size.

The shrinking size of families was not merely a matter of economics, however. It also reflected a growing desire among women to assert control over their lives. Much of the impetus behind birth control came from women who were weary of an unending cycle of pregnancy, birth, nursing, and new pregnancy. A letter written by a sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe suggests the desperation felt by many women who were single-handedly responsible for bearing and rearing a family's children. "Harriet," her sister observed, "has one baby put out for the winter, the other at home, and number three will be here the middle of January. Poor thing, she bears up wonderfully well...She says she shall not have any more children, she knows for certain for one while."

How did Americans limit births? Periodic abstinence, or what is now known as the rhythm method, was the most widely advocated method of birth control. Unfortunately, knowledge about women's ovulation cycle, menstruation, and conception was largely inaccurate and most advice writers suggested that the "safe period" was the ten days halfway between menstrual periods which is in fact the time when a woman is most likely to conceive.

Other principal methods of contraception included coitus interrruptus - withdrawal prior to ejaculation - and douches of the vagina after intercourse. Less common was the insertion of a sponge soaked in a spermicidal fluid into the vagina. None of these methods, however, were especially effective in preventing conception since each of these techniques can still allow small amounts of semen to reach the vagina. Other popular forms of contraception were heavily influenced by superstition. These included ingestion of teas concocted out of fruitless plants; having a woman engage in violent movements immediately after intercourse; and having intercourse on an inclined plane in order to prevent the sperm from reaching the egg or to prevent the egg from leaving the ovary.

Charles Goodyear's discovery in 1839 of the vulcanization of rubber permitted the mass production of an inexpensive and effective birth control device: the condom. But during the nineteenth century condoms were mainly used for protection against venereal disease, not for birth control.

Given the ineffectuality of other methods of contraception, it is not surprising to learn that abortion was a major method of population control. By 1860, according to one estimate, 20 percent of pregnancies were terminated by abortion, compared to 30 percent today. Some of the popular practices for inducing abortion included taking hot baths, jumping off tables, performing heavy exercises, having someone jump on a pregnant woman's belly, drinking nauseating concoctions, and poking sharp instruments into the uterus.

Why were abortions so widespread during the Victorian age? In part, it reflected the general ignorance of the reproductive process. It was not until 1827 that the existence of the human egg was established. Before that time it was believed by many scientists that the human sperm constituted a miniature person which grew into a baby in the mother's womb. Thus there was no modern notion of a moment of conception when egg and sperm unite.

Furthermore, for most of the nineteenth century, it was difficult to determine whether a woman was pregnant or simply suffering menstrual irregularity. A mother only knew she was pregnant for sure when she could feel the child stir within her. This occurs around the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy and in most jurisdictions abortions prior to this time were not considered crimes. It would not be until the late nineteenth century that most jurisdictions in the United States declared abortions to be criminal offenses.

The decline in the birthrate carried far-reaching consequences for family life. It meant, first of all, that motherhood ended earlier for women. Women underwent the strain of pregnancy less often and had an increasing number of years when young children were no longer their primary responsibility. It also meant that parents were free to devote more emotion to each individual child. Smaller families allowed parents to invest more time and energy as well as more financial resources in the upbringing of their children.

Copyright Digital History 2014