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"Because they are too menny..." Children, Mothers and Fertility Decline: The Evidence from Working-Class Autobiographies of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

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  • Jane Humphries

    (University of Oxford)

Abstract

Accounts of the British fertility decline have turned on the rise of the male breadwinner family, which by placing the responsibility for supporting women and children on men converted them to a preference for smaller families. This paper uses working-class autobiography of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to develop understanding of sources of income and patterns of dependency and to illuminate the motives towards smaller families. Even before 1800 fathers’ duties were to work hard to support their families, but male responsibilities did not extend to stretching male wages to cover the variable demands of smaller or larger families. Mothers often sacrificed their own diets and wellbeing to stretch resources. Yet for them children were supports as well as burdens. Sons could earn more than their mothers and surrendered their earnings willingly. Through the family, resources were transferred from older working children to younger dependent siblings. Children’s diets and schooling were eroded by the appearance of new babies and their entry into early work prompted by the burden of dependency. Their experiences as family members and child workers were recycled with a lag into recognition of the costs of larger families and slowly and imperfectly into agreement about the need for fertility control.

Suggested Citation

  • Jane Humphries, 2006. ""Because they are too menny..." Children, Mothers and Fertility Decline: The Evidence from Working-Class Autobiographies of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries," Oxford University Economic and Social History Series _064, Economics Group, Nuffield College, University of Oxford.
  • Handle: RePEc:nuf:esohwp:_064
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    File URL: http://www.economics.ox.ac.uk/materials/papers/2238/64humphries.pdf
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    References listed on IDEAS

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