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I'm looking into my ancestry, and I found out that my great-great-grandfather, born in 1897, was one of fourteen children!

Now I know that even for the period this is a large number of children to have, but not exceedingly so. Therefore, my question is what were the main motivations to have so many children?

Was it a lack of understanding about how conception occurs, lack of contraception (which doesn't really make a lot of sense considering that withdrawal could still be employed), or simply a desire to maintain a legacy?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – T.E.D. Sep 1 '17 at 20:05
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    My Great Grandfather had 14 children. My grandfather was the second to the youngest and one of three of the children who lived passed the age of 35. My great grandfather was relatively prosperous. I have a picture of him at a White House reception ( among fifty business leaders). I think if his kids were hit so hard by disease, the life expectancy alone favored large families in the Victorian Age. – JMS Nov 4 '17 at 2:46
  • with no tv they were bored so they had a lot of sex. – ed.hank Nov 4 '17 at 16:28
  • @ed.hank doubt it to be honest. With working hours being what they were people had less time for that kind of thing – Charlie Nov 4 '17 at 21:59
  • just a theory, i would be curious to know now that you mention it. :) – ed.hank Nov 4 '17 at 22:04
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There is a name in the medical community for those who rely on withdrawal as a contraception method - such people are referred to as "parents". Your average high school health textbook will give you the success rate for various types of pre-modern contraception. (Remember that artificial contraception was illegal in some countries).

Childhood mortality rate could run over 50% and the only way of ensuring a safe and healthy retirement was to have lots of children. There was no welfare state to offer you a pension. If you wanted to eat after you were too old to work, the only option was to have enough children to make it likely that one of them would survive and be wealthy enough to support you.

If your family is very poor, then the marginal cost of raising a child is small; it doesn't take that much more money to support a family of 14 than a family of 12 - and few people could save any money, so 2 children didn't create more wealth than 12. Just less love.

There are also strong psychological reasons - Cursory research on modern single motherhood in poverty suggests that the love of a child is one of the few things that is assured in a world where little can be controlled.

Two additional points based on comments - I don't have research to back this up.

  • Women had no legal right to refuse their husbands (in most countries). Men had no obligation to raise children. This creates a perverse incentive.
  • There is some evidence that women miscarried over 50% of the time, and that miscarriage is related to mother's starvation. I suspect that as a rough approximation 50% of pregnancies miscarried, 50% of births died, and 50% of those who made it to 1 year, didn't make it to five. As someone else has pointed out, it may be that Victorian's didn't decide to have larger families, they just had access to more food and more wealth and more of the children they had survived. That is a hypothesis that could be tested, by someone with better medical history skills than mine.
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    Upvoted. One could argue the current human body evolved (is designed) for a world without modern medicine, where your genes' best chance for long-term survival was to get you to pop out as many babies as physiology allows to try to overcome the death rate. If there were ever humans capable of avoiding pregnancy through their own efforts, those offending genes were fished out of the gene pool long ago. Devices completely independent of genetics are pretty much required. – T.E.D. Aug 30 '17 at 20:02
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    For information: This Gapminder page leads to a flash-based chart that can show average children-per-woman against time (among other things). For the UK, it was mostly level around five from 1800 to 1880, then dropped steadily to just below two prior to WWII. For the US, it dropped more-or-less steadily from seven in 1800 to two prior to 1940 (both had a post-war upswing). – TripeHound Aug 31 '17 at 8:18
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    As regards your comments on "withdrawal" , I would only ask that you look at the 19th century demography of France. Inescapably, it does appear that millions must have practised abstention, for their birth figures to have been so much lower than the rest of Europe. And this may, in turn, have had something to do with the French system of land inheritance. Emile Zola does touch on the matter in his novel La Terre. – WS2 Sep 4 '17 at 22:04
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    Another reason to add is that most people during that time (particularly in the US) were farmers, so the more children you had, the more people you had helping run the farm and feed the family. Also, there wasn't really a concept of single serving. When you were hungry, you slaughtered a pig, which has a lot of meat, so the economics worked out better as well. Another reason was religion. Christianity was fervently followed during the period and there are many passages where it praises children. openbible.info/topics/having_a_baby – Tombo Aug 27 '18 at 17:09
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You are right to say that 14 children is larger than most families of the period, particularly if they all had the same mother. Death in childbirth was not uncommon at that time. One of my Victorian ancestors had 12 siblings, all with the same mother. Another ancestor was one of 11 children, but the father had re-married after his first wife died in childbirth.

In neither case did all the children survive to be adults. And that is one reason that people had large families in Victorian times. Child mortality rates were often extremely high, particularly in urban areas. Only 40 per cent of children born in the 1850's would reach their 60th birthday.

Since children would normally be expected to provide for their parents in their old age, having a large family was often the only way to provide for their own future.

Although various methods of contraception were available, actually promoting the use of these methods was illegal, as demonstrated in the famous trial of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh. That said, discussions of the subject in the context of wider social issues do seem to have been acceptable.

Condoms, vaginal sponges and douches seem to have been the primary methods of artificial contraception in Victorian Britain, assuming that people were actually able to obtain them and find out how to use them effectively.

Of course, there were many that preached simple abstinence (or indeed the withdrawal method) as a "morally acceptable" method of family planning. This is probably also a significant factor in the prevalence of large families at that time.

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    Your second paragraph is a touch misleading. Childhood mortality is just children who don't live past 5 years old, but your text reads as if childhood mortality is related to not living to 60. I think it'd be useful to show the actual childhood mortality rates as well. – JBC Sep 1 '17 at 14:29
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    @JBC The paragraph is about survival to adulthood (as per first sentence), but if you're interested, you can find some example figures for child and infant mortality in Victorian England here. – sempaiscuba Sep 1 '17 at 14:39
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    As many are pointing out the high mortality rate was the cause of many children and also some interesting customs -- I think it was not uncommon to name a child after an older sibling who had died, which is unusual now. – Jeff Sep 2 '17 at 19:55
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    @Jeff Yes, far from uncommon. And it can be a real challenge for modern family historians! – sempaiscuba Sep 2 '17 at 21:10
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One influence on families in "Victorian" times was Queen Victoria herself. She had nine children, despite having been an "only" child. This was despite the fact that she had access to any birth control that was available. She was nicknamed the "Grandmother of Europe" because of her 42 grandchildren, but that represents an average of "only" 4.7 children to each of her children. She was more prolific than her immediate ancestors or descendants.

Men's fashions, in England, are often set by the king (the practice of leaving the bottom button of your jacket unbuttoned was due to one English king), and the reigning queen helped set the "fashion" in another area. Victoria lived from 1819 to 1901 (reigned from 1837 to 1901) so her example lasted a long time.

A comparison of population growth rates in Europe showed that "England and Wales" had higher growth rates than other European countries between 1800-1900. Queen Victoria might not have affected the behavior of "other nations" but the OP is from the UK, so this answer is for the UK only.

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    Do you have any evidence that the average number of children increased during Victorian times? That's basically what you're arguing - that Queen Victoria having a large number of children made it fashionable to have larger families than people had previously. – R.M. Aug 30 '17 at 23:14
  • Also, even if fertility increased in Victorian times, that it was due to Queen Victoria, and not other factors, and not in other nations. – congusbongus Aug 31 '17 at 0:07
  • @congusbongus: The OP is from the UK, so his ancestors would not have been affected by "not in other nations." My answer (and I believe his question) was for the UK only.I edited the answer to make this clear. – Tom Au Aug 31 '17 at 0:24
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    No, what I meant was the increase in fertility was not also observed in similar nations, which would be evidence against the cause being Queen Victoria. – congusbongus Aug 31 '17 at 0:36
  • @congusbongus; i found (and linked) a table that basically proves your point. England's population growth rate "slowed down" just a little during the time of Queen Victoria, but remained significantly higher than most other European countries. My point is the Queen Victoria was an "argument" against the slowness that took place in other countries. As in, "The Queen has many children, so why not us?" – Tom Au Aug 31 '17 at 2:18
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This is a case of survivorship bias.

Your great-...-greatparents had lots of children so some survived and some of those who survived had lots of children, and of those some had children and some survived etc. It looks like everybody's grand-...-parents had a lot of children because those who did not have lots of children do not have descendants to be curious about how many children their grand-...-parents had.

There were a lot of people who did not have children at all, and a lot who did not have children who survived, else the population of England would have quintupled every 35 years instead of doubling every 35 years (and immigration from Europe and Ireland is included in this doubling).

  • I think that this is an excellent answer as it makes you reconsider your initial assumptions, but it might also be wrong. What were the actual statistics for median family size in the Victorian era? – DrMcCleod Sep 1 '17 at 20:17
  • "Women who married in England in the 1860s bore an average of more than six children while their granddaughters who married in the 1910s bore fewer than three children" the key is "women who married" :) quite a lot did not marry at all ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3865739 – Emil Perhinschi Sep 2 '17 at 19:22
  • This is a good point, but I don't think it's the only thing going on. – Ben Crowell Sep 5 '17 at 3:09
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    @DrMcCleod: I don't believe details on median family size is relevant. After just a few generations, nearly everyone alive is going to be a descendant of at least one person amongst the most fecund a hundred years earlier; from simple statistics. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 27 '18 at 2:36
  • I've been googling for answers to the question "how many descendants living today does the average person born in year X have" and the answers available are uniformly bad. What seems clear is that most people born in year X (for say X < 1900) have no living descendants today (that is, their line died out, usually very quickly), while a few have very many; therefore, if someone is known to have at least one living descendant (you), the chances are that they have many living descendants. – Michael Kay Apr 6 at 21:19
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There is a strong correlation between women's equality, specifically access to education, and the number of children they bear. See for example this article. There is a nice chart further down which displays the correlation.

There is no need for access to specific contraceptives in order to avoid having 14 children (maybe condoms are helpful, but careful cycle tracking will do the job). Newer research shows that for example the drop in children per woman which coincided with the advent of hormonal contraception in the 1960s is actually not caused by the improved contraception but instead largely a result of improving women's self-determination. The typical educated woman appears rather uninterested in having 14 children. If nothing else (like a significant chance to die in one of these births) it likely interferes with her education and career.

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    Quite apart from the cost of bringing up fourteen children, in a ten-bedroom house with six bathrooms, and two mini-busses to get them to school, and seeing them all through university! For many 19th century families every child represented a pair of hands that could be put to work from the age of 10 or 12. Bearing children could be profitable. That's hardly the case today! – WS2 Sep 4 '17 at 21:51
  • @WS2: Yes, there are many socio-economic reasons to have fewer children in wealthier societies, which have been alaborated in the other answers. But the degree of education and self-determination of women appears to play a separate role. Of course they correlate strongly with other factors, so any attempt to determine the degree of influence that self-determination alone has must carefully eliminate the role of other influcences in the data. The famous example is the strong correlation of the number of children with the number of storks (birds who bring children in fairy tales). – Peter - Reinstate Monica Sep 5 '17 at 8:11
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    Not sure this answers the question. – Mark C. Wallace Nov 7 '17 at 17:14
  • @MarkC.Wallace Oh, I thought the answer is clear by inference: The reason Victorian women had so many children is that they had a low degree of self-determination, compared to societies (like the current industrial ones) where women have fewer children. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Nov 8 '17 at 5:58
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It was not entirely the case that couples in Victorian times had more children than their ancestors a few generations earlier (although better general health and well being perhaps did improve fertility).

However it was the case during the Victorian period that improvements in nutrition, health, sanitation etc ensured that far more children survived the critically dangerous years of infancy.

My third-great grandparents Robert and Susan Mackender, of Lakenheath, Suffolk had ten children between 1822 and 1845. I do not know how many of them survived infancy. However my great-grandparents, John Benjamin and Mary Hunt of Swanton Abbott, Norfolk had fourteen children between 1868 and 1895 all of whom survived into adulthood.

  • Actually Jacob and Eliza's first child, also Jacob, died in January 1874 just four weeks old. – TheMathemagician Sep 1 '17 at 16:31
  • @TheMathemagician Well spotted. Actually I did have that information but didn't notice when I briefly consulted my charts. They also lost another one, Jemima aged 3. So that family was not a good example to select. Instead I will offer you some other great-grandparents, Ben and Mary Hunt, of Swanton Abbott, who had fourteen children between 1868 and 1895 all of whom definitely survived into adulthood - and a picture of the whole family hangs on my wall as I write. – WS2 Sep 1 '17 at 18:23
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    Pre and post Semmelweis -- maybe not a coincidence. Also pre and post Pasteur. – Jeff Sep 2 '17 at 19:57
  • @Jeff There are plenty of demographic statistics around. The interesting thing about 19th century birth rates in Europe, is that whereas in Britain, Germany and most other countries they soared, in France (notwithstanding Pasteur's influence) the picture is quite different. From by far the largest 18th century population of any country in western Europe, by the 20th, France had been overtaken by both Britain and Germany. And in Britain's case, it was after exporting millions of souls to North America and its colonies elsewhere. – WS2 Sep 3 '17 at 16:20
  • @WS2: If fewer kids died young, I am not sure that this would immediately affect the number of kids people had unless it was that people chose to have "replacement kids." I would guess that people continued have kids at the same rate until it was noticed that more kids were sticking around; I can't imagine that Semmelweis and Pasteur did not significantly reduce deaths in children. – Jeff Sep 3 '17 at 18:18
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Well, I doubt any father of 10 or more kids was a Military Historian, or Genetic Biologist who take a futuristic guess and predict that in the next 100 yrs there 'will be Massive Wars', either this country's soil or somewhere else implying that at least 3 or 5 of their grandkids will die in War, or, alternatively a biological futuristic guess might forecast a massive plague, like another Black death, typhoid fever, malaria, or tuberculosis, or polio, diseases that could easily wipe out at least 10 more grandchildren or great-grandchildren. So in anticipation of all these futuristic bleak times...you simply 'have to have alot of kids'...to they make it over the Goalpost of life's obstacles.

  • Your first line seems to contradict the last... – Lars Bosteen Nov 7 '17 at 22:06
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I just have a hard time with the question of continual pregnancies when infant mortality rates were so high. In the ages before antibiotics, pasteurization and clean water, etc., EVERYONE knew the chances of a baby's survival could be 50/50. With birth control either not available or ineffective, the only recourse was abstention. Yet, people of child bearing age continued to have sex leading to multiple births, knowing some children probably would not survive. I am certain there was grief, but not enough to avoid more babies in the only way guaranteed to work. It seems to me people must have accepted infant and child death much more matter of factly than we do today. Perhaps in many homes it was a calculated decision to have as many babies as possible... to counteract the mortality rate, or, in the case of the poor, to ensure there were enough hands to work, or, in the case of rich and aristocratic families, to carry on the family name and dynasty.

Child death, when it inevitably occurred, was "God's will"... the rationale people still hang onto today. With women becoming pregnant every one to three years from the age of 22 to 42, there didn't seem to be a lot of time for grieving dead children. You simply kept getting pregnant, come what may. I cannot help but find this disturbing. I thank God for living in an age of better health care, choices and enlightenment.

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    Hi Jackie and welcome to History SE. Adding sources and links to your answer would improve it. You'll also find the Help Centre useful. – Lars Bosteen Aug 26 '18 at 23:58
  • My wife had a miscarriage prior to our two children. Total time pregnant about 23 months. She often has said she can not imagine being pregnant for the 8 to 10+ years to have such a large family as many did historically. – Matt Balent Aug 27 '18 at 14:57
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Complementing other answers. Are you judging people of the past by your own modern standards?

Did a child represent a commitment, hard work or a sacrifice? Yes, but: as said above, feeding 6 is not much more expensive than feeding 5. Even today, people with 6 children say the same - expenses are not linear in many aspects - economies of scale with food, shared clothing, toys and books, help from the older children (e.g. no paid babysitter for the younger ones), more good willingness from people around. There is no reason for this to be less true in Victorian times.

Moreover, even with no children, keeping the house and cooking was a full time job without modern appliances.

I always find funny when modern feminists throw ready-to-cook chicken breast meat in the microwave and after 10 min they eat and complain "in the past women could not leave the kitchen! Patriarchy! oppression!". But my great-grandmother could not buy chicken meat, the only way to eat meat was to buy a live chicken (at least the shop boy would strangle it for you), and then pluck the feathers manually, open it to clean the viscera, and then start to cook - after the husband cut the wood for the wood oven. Sunday's pasta with chicken would require work since Thursday, as there were not ready pasta to buy, she had to buy flour, then mix, ferment, cut and dry the pasta into spaghetti format before cooking.

when the women married, they already knew "wife, housekeeper and mother" properly done was a full time job from day one - and unless they had money to hire servants to do the work, anything else was unthinkable. Every girlish dream of prince charming would involve this full time job, or what else? To starve? To find a pot of gold in the garden?

other expenses? medicine was mostly doctor visits and charity hospitals. There were not insurance plans paid per capita - no expensive antibiotics and vaccination, no Xray, MRI scans, no medical insurance premiums. And it was out of reach of many people anyway, does not matter how many children you have. Few people had money to private education, even for one child. Most depended on public, church, or charity schools, or even would go with no or little formal schooling. Today every child has a predictable price tag: (food + school + medical insurance + expensive toys ), but for most of the human story it was just another mouth and another hand - that would start to be useful quite early, not at 25 after college.

Having children was not such a hard decision as today, and many more things were clearly out of control anyway - or at least we like to think we are in control today.

one christian aspect that we lost today is the yuk-factor of contraception that was common before. When a married couple has sex while being open to conception, they are trusting each other with their lives, by accepting the live-long commitment to a new child, and trusting the other to be around to help. Sex with contraception is just mutual pleasure, expecting love to grow without every lovemaking being a repeated act of life commitment and trust. Contraception smacks of 'un-trust' - if you really loves her/him, you do not expect to be together? To raise the children together? Don't you trust her/him? Why do you have your own plans without him/her, aren't you a married man/woman? This must have a lot to do with the astronomic level of divorce today.

Obviously they knew that withdrawal was not reliable, but condoms existed. They were not so available or well known mostly because most people would not want it.

And, which standard is saner? Past or Present? Do you really believe in 200 years of peace, prosperity, and 1.5 child/woman? Aren't you living in a society that can not even keep itself in existence in the long term, and criticizing past societies which survived and grew under harsher conditions?

BTW: it may be interesting to know that the catholic church does not have a definitive opinion about contraception outside of marriage. Humane Vitae only deals with contraception in the marriage context. Obviously if one is already fornicating, it is not so relevant to discuss if there is another associated sin or not.

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