Historical Trends in Marriage Formation, United States 1850

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Historical Trends in Marriage Formation, United States 1850

Transcript Of Historical Trends in Marriage Formation, United States 1850

Historical Trends in Marriage Formation, United States 1850 – 1990
Catherine A. Fitch Steven Ruggles Department of History University of Minnesota 614 Social Science Building 267-19th Avenue South Minneapolis, MN 55455

The dramatic rise of marriage age and decline in proportion marrying since the 1960s have captured the attention of both academics and the media. It is sometimes forgotten that the 1960s were an exceptional period with respect to marriage behavior. This essay puts recent changes in marriage patterns into historical perspective by assessing trends and differentials in U.S. marriage behavior over the very long run. Like the studies of Rogers and Thornton (1985) and Haines (1996), our aim is mainly descriptive. We have expanded on the work of these authors in three dimensions. First, through the use of new data sources and new methods we have extended the series of basic measures of marriage formation backward to the mid-nineteenth century and forward to 1999. Second, we present more precise measures of marital behavior than previous studies of long-run trends in marriage formation. In particular, we present a consistent series of estimates for median age at first marriage, distribution of first marriage age, and proportion never marrying from 1850 through 1998 for nativeborn whites and from 1870 through 1990 for blacks. Finally, we examine occupational differences in marriage formation between 1850 and 1990.
Data and Methods The United States was very late to gather vital statistics on marriage; it
was not until 1920 that marriage data were systematically collected from all the states. Even today, the data collected from marriage certificates provides a poor source for studying differentials in marriage patterns because some states gather very limited information. For example, sixteen states do not inquire about the race of the bride and groom. Published tabulations of data from marriage

certificates are also highly limited in scope and frequency. For the period after 1990, the National Center for Health Statistics has published no marriage statistics except raw counts of the monthly number of marriages in each state.
Accordingly, analysis of trends and differentials in marriage patterns in the United States must rely on census and survey tabulations of marital status by age. Such data allow calculation of two key measures of marriage behavior: the indirect median age at marriage and the proportion never marrying. We prefer the indirect median measure of marriage to the singulate mean age at marriage (SMAM) widely used by historians, because it provides more precise period estimates when marriage age is changing rapidly (Fitch 1998). The indirect median yields an unbiased age-independent measure of age at first marriage.1 As described by Shryock and Seigal, the indirect median is calculated in three steps. Step 1 estimates the proportion of people who will ever marry during their lifetime, we calculate this figure as the proportion of persons aged 45-54 who are not married, separated, widowed, or divorced. Secondly, we calculate one-half of the proportion who will ever marry. The third and final step determines the current age of people at this half-way point through interpolation. For example, if we calculate that 90 percent of people will eventually marry, one half of this proportion is 45 percent; the median age at marriage, then, is the age at which 45 percent of the population has married. We also measure the age at which ten, twenty-five, and seventy-five percent of the population have married according to the same methodology (Shryock and Seigel 1971; US Bureau of the Census 1975).

This analysis is based on the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS). The IPUMS consists of individual-level national samples of census data from 1850 to 1990 (with the exception of 1890 and 1930). When possible, we have used published tables from the 1890 and 1930 Census to fill these gaps.2 Because of rapid changes over the past decade, we have also included data from the 1999 Current Population Survey (CPS).3
In the 1850, 1860 and 1870 census years, the census did not inquire about marital status. Fortunately, we do not need to know the exact marital status of individuals in order to compute the basic measures of nuptiality; we simply estimate the proportion of persons who were never-married (single) and the proportion who are ever-married (including the married, divorced, and widowed population) for each age. As part of the IPUMS, we created family interrelationship variables that use a probabilistic approach to identify spouses and children within the household, based on seventeen characteristics such as surname, sequence of enumeration, age, and birthplace (Ruggles and Sobek 1998). We use this information on the presence of a spouse or children to infer ever-married status for persons under age fifty-four. The American census has always been taken on a de jure basis, so spouses are ordinarily listed as present in their usual place of residence even if they are temporarily absent. Widowed persons usually can be identified by the presence of children. The childless widowed or divorced population, however, cannot be identified in this way. Moreover, some never-married persons living with children are incorrectly identified as ever married. Analysis of the 1880 census suggests that this

slippage has minor effects on estimates of marriage age, and requires only modest adjustments of age-specific proportions married (Fitch 1998).
Unlike previous studies, our analysis excludes persons born outside the United States. Our main measure, the indirect median age at first marriage, is based on the concept of a synthetic cohort: age differences in the proportion ever-married are treated as if they were changes over the life course. We need to know the marital status of the population at each age, but at the peak marriage ages many foreign-born immigrants had not yet arrived. If there were any association between marital status and immigration, the problem would be compounded. Thus, because the foreign-born spent part of their life outside of the area of observation, they can bias the results of synthetic cohort measures.
In addition, for the period prior to 1870 our analysis excludes blacks. Although most slaves entered enduring marital unions, formal marriage was prohibited, and the 1850 and 1860 censuses did not enumerate the slave population with sufficient detail to study marriage patterns. Moreover, the free black population is subject to the same sort of biases as the foreign-born, and the samples of free blacks are too small to produce conclusive results.4
Marriage age before 1850 In one of the landmark essays of historical demography, John Hajnal
(1965) revealed that the historic marriage pattern of Western Europe differed dramatically from that of other parts of Europe and from the rest of the world. This "European Marriage Pattern," as Hajnal termed it, was characterized by very late marriage for both men and women and by high proportions of individuals

never marrying. At least as far back as the eighteenth century, Hajnal demonstrated, the mean age at first marriage for western-European women generally varied from 24 to 27, and for men from 26 to 30. About a sixth of the European population never got married at all.
Hajnal explained the European marriage pattern by reference to the economic system, land availability, and family. Before the Industrial Revolution, western-European couples were generally required to achieve economic independence before they were allowed to marry. In other parts of Europe and elsewhere in the World, Hajnal maintained, such economic independence was not a prerequisite to marriage; in many areas young couples were incorporated into large joint-family households together with parents and married siblings. This kind of family was exceedingly rare in Western Europe. Instead, couples often delayed marriage until the prospective bridegroom inherited the family farm. Decreasing land availability significantly constrained the economic opportunities of young couples. The problem was compounded when mortality began to decline in the late nineteenth century, since the previous generation stayed alive longer and an increasing number of siblings survived to adulthood (Hajnal 1965).
According to the consensus of scholarly opinion, the timing and rate of marriage in the United States differed from that of Western Europe from the outset, even though the bulk of immigrants came from Western Europe. Observers as early as Ben Franklin noted the distinction between the European colonies in North America and European marriage patterns. After a discussion of births, deaths, and marriages in the colonies, Franklin concluded

Hence marriages in America are more general and more generally early, than in Europe. And if it is reckoned there, that there is but one marriage per annum among one hundred persons, perhaps we may here reckon two; and if in Europe they have but four Births to a marriage (many of the marriages being late) we may here reckon eight. (Franklin 1755, quoted in Haines 1996:16) The difference, according to Franklin and later scholars, was not the adaptation of a non-Western European model of family and economic structure (incorporating young couples into large households) but instead the bountiful economic opportunity offered young men either through cheap land or from wage labor in urban areas (Easterlin 1976; Landale 1989a, 1989b; Leet 1977; Yasuba 1961). We lack sufficient reliable data for the colonial period or for the United States as a whole before 1850 to make confident generalizations about either age at first marriage or about proportions never marrying. There are scattered estimates of marriage age from particular communities, mainly in New England, which suggest a mean age at marriage of perhaps 25.5 for men and 22.0 for women in the eighteenth century (Wells 1992, Haines 1996). These figures, however, are seriously biased downwards by methodological problems. The problems with the colonial estimates are twofold. First, unlike the measures of marriage age used by Hajnal and others (including the SMAM and indirect median), the measures of marriage age used in the colonial studies are not age-independent. Because of very high fertility and high mortality (by modern standards) in the colonial period, the population was extremely young. Compared with the age-independent measure of marriage age used by Hajnal, this problem alone would bias the colonial estimates of age at marriage

downward by at least half a year, and perhaps as much as a year. Second, the colonial estimates are subject to severe migration censoring, a technical problem Ruggles has explored in detail (Ruggles 1992, 1999). We expect that migration censoring could bias the colonial estimates of marriage age downward by an additional one to three years.
For these reasons, we do not believe that the existing evidence for North America before 1850 is sufficient to confirm Franklin’s hypothesis. If anything, we think the fragmentary colonial evidence suggests a broad similarity between North America and Western Europe.
Median age at marriage among whites, 1850-1998 Figure 1 shows our estimates of median age at first marriage for native-
born whites from 1850 through 1999 (Table 1a in the appendix presents the underlying statistics). In 1850, native-born white men married at a median age of 25.3 and women at 21.3. These figures are somewhat lower than Hajnal’s figures cited above, but that is partly because we are measuring the median rather than the mean, and median age at marriage is generally about a year and a half earlier than the mean age. Using Hajnal’s method (1953), we estimate that the mean age at marriage for white Americans was 26.6 for men and 22.9 for women in 1850. Thus, marriage age for men in the mid-nineteenth century was close to the European marriage pattern, but for women it was probably slightly younger. For both men and women, marriage in mid-nineteenth century America generally took place at a significantly later age than in most countries outside of Western Europe (Haines 1996; Hajnal 1965).

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Figure 1. Median Age at First Marriage: Native-born Whites by Sex, 1850 - 1999
28 27 26
25 24 23
22 Women
21 20 19 18
1850 1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 Year
Median age at marriage remained stable for white women from 1850 through 1870 but dropped noticeably for men after the Civil War. By 1890, however, marriage age for whites of both sexes rose still further to a peak of about 26 years for men and 22 for women. In a study of regional differences in the timing and incidence of marriage, Hacker reports a sharp decline in marriage age between 1860 and 1870 among Southern men and an increase among Southern women, presumably due to high wartime mortality (Hacker 1999). Other researchers argue that the increase in age at first marriage at the end of the century was related to declining availability of land, which restricted opportunities for family formation (Easterlin 1976; Landale 1989a, 1989b; Leet 1977; Yasuba 1961).

During the early decades of the twentieth century, marriage age among whites dropped substantially for men and somewhat less dramatically for women. Overall, white male age at first marriage fell by about two years between 1890 and 1930. This is probably associated with the growth of well-paid wage labor employment for men. In the rapidly industrializing economy, young white men increasing could find jobs that provided sufficient income to support a family.
There was a slight uptick in marriage age for whites during the depression, but after World War II there was an unprecedented marriage boom. The median age at marriage fell by 2.3 years for white men and 1.5 years for white women in just two decades. By 1960, median age at marriage was just 22 for white men and under 20 for white women. Again, this change was driven at least in part by the post-war economic expansion which increased opportunities for young men dramatically, especially in contrast with their depression-era childhood (Easterlin 1980).
The most dramatic changes in white marriage age have occurred in the decades since 1960. White female age at first marriage has been rising by about one year per decade for the past 39 years. The increase for men started a decade later than it did for women, but since 1970 the trend has been virtually the same. By 1999, marriage age for both men and women actually exceeded the peak reached at the turn of the century.
Median age at marriage among blacks, 1870-1998 The long run trends in marriage age among blacks, shown in Figure 2
(and recorded in Table 1b of the appendix), differ dramatically from those of
AgeMarriageMarriage AgeWomenEurope