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 entering what we would now consider middle age.
In reality, this view better represents the mid-19th century, when high infant mortality rates combined with farm families needing many workers.
Let’s look at family demographics on the eve of World War I.
Family Size in 1910
During the 19th century, most families had seven children, but by 1900, the average had dropped to 3.5, according to the 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 overseas.
Health Is More Important Than the Law
Some people decided that women’s health was more important than following 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 was tired of seeing women’s health suffer because of miscarriages, multiple births and both illegal and self-induced abortions. Her own mother died as a consequence of having 18 pregnancies, 11 of which resulted in live births.
Sanger wrote 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.
“Woman must have her freedom, the fundamental freedom of choosing whether or not she will be a mother and how many children she will have,” Sanger said. “Regardless of what man’s attitude may be, that problem is hers — and before it can be his, it is hers alone.”
Byrne, as well as Sanger’s husband, were arrested for educating others on sex and birth control.
Life Expectancy in 1910
Life expectancy for men was 49 years in 1910 and 52 years for women. 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 it factors in infant mortality rates. When infant morality rates are high, life expectancy is brought down.
In reality, if a person lived into adulthood, he or she had a reasonable expectation of living to be 60 years old or older.
“In 1900, life expectancy for someone who made it to her 20th birthday was about 63,” Priceonomics explains. “In 1998, this number rose to 78. So while life expectancy from birth increased 28 years from 1900 to 1998, life expectancy from age 20 only increased 15 years.”
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 or blood loss.
Starting in 1900, infant mortality rates began to decline, decreasing 13 percent in the 1910s alone.
“… the death rate for all age groups under 55 decreased between 1900 and 1911,” an American Statistical Association journal article said in 1915. “The greatest decrease was for the age group 1 to 4 years, the per cent [sic], of decrease falling off with each succeeding age group until the period from 55 to 64 years was reached, this and the next group showing a small increase. The death rate above 75 years was practically the same in each period.”
Updated: 15 October 2020
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