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Elesha Coffman


Smaller Families, Bigger Dreams

Limiting family size in early America.

Contrary to what we all learned in tenth-grade health class, making babies is complicated. At least, making babies on a national scale is complicated. To grow its population, a country needs nearly equal numbers of men and women, and they must possess the legal and economic freedom to marry. They should marry young to maximize the childbearing years. The men and women need to be near each other a lot, meaning husbands cannot be absent for months at a time for work or war. Additionally, women must be healthy enough to carry pregnancies to term, and then they and their children need adequate nutrition to survive. A cultural mandate to "be fruitful and multiply" helps, too.

By the second half of the 18th century, the United States had assembled all the ingredients for a sustained baby boom. Yet on the eve of the Revolution, American birthrates began a long decline, about a century before the rates of other Western nations and two centuries before the rates of developing nations. Historian Susan E. Klepp wondered why.

After copious research, she concluded, in Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility & Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820, that the "founding generation of American women (and some men) … rejected the abundant and redundant fertility of the colonial, patriarchal family and replaced it with a sensible, sentimental, and carefully planned family of beloved daughters and sons that freed women to pursue other interests." As a result, whereas the average colonial woman might bear eight or more children, that number stood at seven in 1800, five in 1850, and just three and a half in 1900. Along the way, both womanhood and motherhood were redefined.

In her first chapter, Klepp documents this trend with reference to numerous demographic studies, mostly of New England and the Middle Colonies. She compares these numbers with data from England, which saw a slight rise in birthrates in the late 18th century, and from France, ...

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