History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: 18th Century Society and Economy

Marriage and family Click here for audio

Hogarth's Shortly After the Marriage: clergyman retreating, wife lounging, husband exhausted
William Hogarth, Shortly After the Marriage (1743)

As population grew, patterns of marriage and family life also changed.

marriage patterns

Whereas in the 17th century couples had married later in life, because they had to wait to inherit or earn their living, by 1750 they were marrying earlier. One reason was that cottage (or domestic) industry had many poorer people earning money by working at home, for example making woolen yarn or cloth. People needed only a house and a loom to support a family, so they could be independent earlier in life.

illegitimacy explosion

Sexual trends also changed. Before 1750, pre-marital sex was frequent but usually occurred between people who were already engaged. Thus there were few illegitimate children, although many were conceived before their parents were actually married. But beginning around 1750, the number of illegitimate children born in Europe began to increase, from 3% of births in 1750 to 20% by 1850. This was for three reasons:
1) Greater social mobility meant that more young people moved away from home, from the village or town where everyone knew them. Thus they moved away from the social constraints of family, church, and peers. With fewer restrictions, couples engaged in sex without responsibility for the outcome, including children.
2) Unwed mothers were rejected by society. So if an unmarried woman were pregnant, the father would be under no compunction to marry her, and no one was there to force him to acknowledge the child. There was no village or peer network to care for the baby as the mother worked, and many unwed mothers became prostitutes, often leaving their babies to foundling hospitals or orphanages as they tried to survive. 50% of children left in foundling hospitals or like places died.
3) New sentimental ideas about love encouraged the idea that young people should "follow their heart" rather than the wishes of their elders when selecting a mate. People who chose poorly ended up with illegitimate children.


The mortality rates for children did not change that much during this period. I think that more children could have lived longer, given the changes in diet (next section),

picture of baby
Detail from William Hogarth, Gerard Anne Edwards in His Cradle (1733)
but that the poor care of illegitimate children prevented this from happening. Only about half of all children born lived to adulthood. This has caused historians to believe that people tried not to love their children too much, because the grief of losing half of them would be too great.

Documents indicate, however, that this was not the case, and that most people loved their children deeply.

Poor people tended to breastfeed their children, which helped space the kids about 2-3 years apart. The rich used wet-nurses (often with the best intentions -- country air, etc.) but many found their children undernourished. Infanticide was common. Wet nurses would kill a weak child, especially an older child, in order to have room to take on more small babies who would consume less breastmilk. Sometimes parents who couldn't afford another mouth to feed would "overlay" their baby, smothering it in bed (a crime that was hard to prove). Even children who were well cared-for were subject to diseases and such.

4. Food & Medicine ->