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Long Term Marriage Patterns in the United States from Colonial Times tothe Present

  • Michael R. Haines

Marriage in colonial North America was notable for being early (for women) and marked by low percentages never marrying. This was different from the distinctive northwest European pattern of late marriage and high proportions never married late in life. But the underlying neolocal family formation behavior was the same in both colonial North America and the areas of origin of this population. Thus, Malthus was correct. Abundant resources rather than basic behavioral differences made early and extensive marriage possible in the colonies. Between 1800 and the present there have been long cycles in nuptiality. Since about 1800, female age at first marriage rose from relatively low levels to a peak around 1900. Thereupon a gradual decline commenced with a trough being reached about 1960 at the height of the baby boom. There then began another rapid upswing in female marriage age. Proportions never married at ages 45-54 replicated these cycles with a lag of about 20-30 years. Since 1880 (when comprehensive census data became available), male nuptiality patterns have generally paralleled those of women. Male marriage ages were higher than those of females with proportions never marrying also usually higher. Considerations of differentials by race and ethnicity are important in looking at the American experience over time. Black ages at marriage have, for example, moved from being lower to being higher than those for whites. More work is needed in the period 1800 to 1880 when we lack comprehensive census, vital, and other data.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Historical Working Papers with number 0080.

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Date of creation: Mar 1996
Date of revision:
Publication status: published as The History of the Family, Vol. 1, No. 1, (1996)
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberhi:0080
Note: DAE
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  1. Warren Sanderson, 1979. "Quantitative aspects of marriage, fertility and family limitation in nineteenth century America: Another application of the coale specifications," Demography, Springer, vol. 16(3), pages 339-358, August.
  2. Michael R. Haines & Avery M. Guest, 1995. "Fertility and Marriage in New York State in the Era of the Civil War," NBER Historical Working Papers 0070, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Sundstrom, William A. & David, Paul A., 1988. "Old-age security motives, labor markets, and farm family fertility in antebellum American," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 25(2), pages 164-197, April.
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