The stereotype is that people who lived in the early 20th, century were ignorant of how the reproductive system works, had large families, and died when they were entering what we would now consider middle age.
In reality, this view better represents the mid-19th century, when high infant mortality rates and farms that need many workers combined to boost family size.
Let’s take a look at what family demographics looked like on the eve of World War One.
Family Size in 1910
During the 19th century, the average family contained seven children. By 1900, the average had dropped to three. (Source: CDC)
Artificial forms of birth control were available, and natural methods were well known, but the sale of birth-control devices and birth-control education were illegal in the U.S. and Canada.
So how did couples control family size if birth control was illegal? Couples had to obtain things like condoms and diaphragms illegally, often importing them from other countries.
Some people decided that women’s health was more important than the law.
One of these pioneers was nurse Margaret Sanger and her sister, nurse Ethel Byrne, who opened a family planning clinic in 1916. Sanger had written articles on limiting family size two years earlier. This illegal act caused her to temporarily flee the U.S. for Britain but she returned when one of her children died.
Sanger was tired of seeing women’s health suffer because of miscarriages, multiple childbirths and both illegal and self-induced abortions. Her own mother had died as a consequence of having 18 pregnancies, 11 of which resulted in live births.
The sister, as well as Sanger’s husband, were arrested for educating others on sex and birth control.
Life Expectancy in 1910
In 1910, life expectancy for men was 49 and for women 52. By the end of the decade, this had increased to 54 for men and 66 for women. Life expectancy for blacks was as much as 20 years less than for whites.
However, life expectancy is misleading because the rates include infant mortality rates. Infant morality rates were so high, it brought down life expectancy.
In reality, if a person lived into adulthood, they had a reasonable expectation of living into their 60s and beyond.
If a person reached the age of 65 during the 1910s, he or she was expected to live an average of 12 more years. If a person reached 84, four more years could be expected. (Source: Elderweb)
Infant Mortality Rates
In 1900, infant mortality was 100 babies per 1,000 births. In some U.S. cities, mortality rates were 30 percent. Mothers died at the rate of 6-9 per 1,000 births with most deaths associated with infection, blood poisoning and blood loss.
Starting in 1900, infant mortality rates began to decline. During the 1910s, it decreased 13 percent. (Source: CDC)
These changes were brought about by a number of factors including smaller family size, improved sanitation, germ theory, medical innovations and access to medical care.
How large of a family were you born into? Leave a comment below.
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