Contraception in the United States Before 1860 Essay

October 14, 2020 by Essay Writer

In times of agricultural society, when men were farmers and their wives milked cows, which their children then drove to pasture, most families believed that “the more children, the better” (Boyer et al. 287). By 1800, the US faced one of the highest birth rates the country ever had – an average woman bore approximately 7.04 children. When the United States moved away from an agricultural society, children became less economically valuable and wanted, and many families simply could not afford them; that is when contraception gained its widespread popularity, lowering fertility rates to the value of 5.02 in 1850, and less than 4 in 1900 (Boyer et al. 287).

The Forms of Contraception that Existed before 1860

Although the statistics provided above proves that Americans tried to limit the number of children they had, no organized birth control policy existed in those times. Moreover, the topic of contraception and family planning was considered as the taboo (“Family Life” par. 8). It was rarely discussed, women could hardly talk about it with their doctors since those were males, and Americans who wanted to control the size of their families had not many possibilities to get to know about the ways to do this. However, in 1831, two important books in this area were published: Knowlton’s The Private Companion of Young Married Couple, which focused on the importance of birth control and family planning, and Owen’s Moral Physiology that contained frank discussion about contraception (Ciment 228). Gradually, the topic became much less the taboo.

The primary methods of contraception men used were withholding ejaculation and so-called withdrawal technique (Ciment 231). Women practiced numerous techniques, from the rhythm method, which was hardly reliable since people did not know for sure when ovulation occurred, to ineffective barrier methods, such as diaphragms, cervical caps, or vaginal sponges (Ciment 231). As for condoms, they also existed but were too expensive at first, which is why it was hard for many people to buy them (Ciment 231). The last birth-control method was abortion. Actually, people at that time did not see any difference between abortion and contraception, and it was “a largely tolerated practice” in many states (Ciment 231).

The Reasons for Contraception in the Nineteenth Century

By 1800, America had one of the highest birth rates, and an average woman had up to seven or eight children, excluding stillbirths and miscarriages (Boyer et al. 287). Actually, every married woman “had become pregnant as often as possible” (Boyer et al. 287). At that time, with the farm economy, children from early age helped on the farm and then, after getting older, started their own families and took care of their parents. When at the beginning of the 1800s, American society transformed from an agricultural to industrialized one, the need for many children who could help their parents on the farm gradually disappeared (Ciment 228). As farmers became merchants, and many new professions began to appear, fathers could no longer make their children begin to work at the age of six or seven. A significant concern of the lack of “children’s economic value” appeared (Ciment 228). Moreover, the whole conception of the family changed. Upper- and middle-class women were supposed to dedicate themselves to motherhood and household, which made their husbands the only earners in the families. That led to the fact that many families simply could not afford many children.

As for the working class, children and women still worked at factories. Children were preferred because they were “more manageable, cheaper, and less likely to strike” (“Child Labor in U.S. History” par. 1). So, the factory owners considered them as the cheap labor force and paid meager salaries. As the result, money that a child could possibly earn did not cover the costs needed to raise and feed him or her. The things became even harder when the first child labor laws appeared (“Child Labor in U.S. History” par. 1). Surely, for the society as such those laws were beneficial, but for an average working class father those meant only one thing – his child could no longer bring income into the family. Even though once children reached their working age they began to support their working parents, there was no economic value of a large family anymore. Therefore, birth control and contraception were the only possible ways for the families of the working class to survive economically.

To conclude, even though a topic of birth control and contraception was considered as the taboo at the beginning of the 1800s, and the majority of contraception methods people could use were inefficient and unreliable, the fertility rates showed that Americans actually managed to control the number of children in their families. Moreover, they had no better option than to limit the number of children they had since the US economy faced significant changes in the nineteenth century, moving from an agricultural to industrialized society, and many people simply could not afford large families, which had no economic benefits anymore.

Works Cited

Boyer, Paul, Clifford Clark, Joseph Kett, Neal Salisbury and Harvard Sitkoff. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. Vol. 1. Boston, Massachusetts: Cengage Learning, 2008. Print.

Child Labor in U.S. History n.d. Web.

Ciment, James. Social Issues in America: An Encyclopedia. New York, New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Family Life: Courtship and Marriage n.d. Web.

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