Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Family Planning: Philadelphia, circa 1800

Christians and Jews were all under the Biblical injunction to go forth and multiply, and American families were large at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Given the mortality rates for children, it is not surprising that husbands and wives wanted to produce enough offspring to assure that some would survive to support them in their old age.

Of course, the result of constant pregnancies was that women died young, worn out by child-bearing. (The maternal death rate circa 1800 in America was about one per every one hundred births; in 2006 it was about 13 in 100,000, the worst rate among the industrialized nations.) Many American women used a traditional method to help preserve their health and strength and still produce babies at regular intervals, one they probably learned from their mothers. The birth records for the children of Rebecca Gratz's grandmother, Rosa Simon, are incomplete, but a pattern may be discerned. She spaced her babies: one every two years, on average. The way a woman could do that was by breastfeeding her infants for the their first year to prevent ovulation.

The pregnancies of Rebecca's mother followed the same pattern as did those of her sisters Richea Hays and Rachel Moses, who breastfed. Only Fanny (Frances) Etting, Rebecca's eldest sister, did not breastfeed and she averaged only sixteen months between her first four children. The fifth through eighth children were spaced about two years apart; there is no information to explain this change.

Nor is there any information which explains how a declining birth rate was achieved in the United States as the nineteenth century went on, but even Rebecca came to think large families, much as she loved her own, were unwise. In 1839, she wrote after a Savannah relation by marriage had given birth to her tenth child: "I do not know whether so many responsibilities are indeed a blessing, considering how little opportunity is afforded of giving each the instruction they need, and the start in the world which even the rougher sex require."

In the depression following the Panic of 1837, Americans in the middle and upper classes saw childrearing as a lengthy educational process which also required all the worldly help that parents could muster to launch a child successfully into an adult career or marriage. Rebecca knew this all too well: two of the nieces and nephews she had raised after her sister Rachel's death had found themselves at the mercy of the hard times. Rebecca Moses was enduring a years-long engagement while her fiance Jonathan Nathan, a young lawyer in New York, tried to find a job which would give him enough income to support a wife. Horace Moses was suffering recurrent periods of unemployment: he had been involved in building railroads, but the money which was supporting the construction had all but dried up.

Both these setbacks were temporary, but the ups and downs of the business cycle in nineteenth-century America, must have created uncertainty and a desire to limit one's "hostages to fortune."

(The 2006 maternal death rate in the United States is from Amnesty International. Rebecca's letter is from the Miriam Moses Cohen Collection, No. 02639, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

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