The Changing European Family

A number of changes occurred in European family life in the second half of the nineteenth century. The roles of women and attitudes towards children changed considerably, and adolescence was suddenly considered a distinct stage of life. (Previously, all children were thought to be "little adults" who simply aged without significant internal biological changes.) Even attitudes towards marriage and premarital sex changed.

Marriage and Sex: In earlier times, most marriages had been prearranged by families. It was not uncommon for a younger woman to be betrothed to an older man and marriage was preceded by a lengthy courtship. By 1850, this pattern changed dramatically, and romantic love became the dominant factor in determining one’s mate. Couples were suddenly more likely to come from different towns and be more nearly the same age.

Economic factors were more important to the middle classes than to the working class. Dowers and elaborate prenuptial agreements were commonplace in France, where marriage was seen as one of life’s most crucial financial transactions. One writer commented that "Marriage is in general a means of increasing one’s credit and one’s fortune and of insuring one’s success in the world. Because of the preoccupation with money, many middle class Frenchmen married relatively late in life after they were economically sound. They tended to marry women much younger and less sexually experienced than they. The differences often became a source of tension.

The romantic life of a young woman was supervised carefully by her mother who guarded her marriage prospects (and her virginity) like a family jewel. At one point, an Italian insurance firm offered insurance to guarantee a young lady’s chastity. (It was not a success.) Middle class morality demanded that both parties observe strict fidelity and a stern moral code after marriage. Boys were carefully watched too, but not as carefully as girls. By adolescence, most had considerable sexual experience, usually at the hands of prostitutes or with the maids of the house.

Sexual experimentation before marriage was also commonplace; as were illegitimate births. By the 1840’s one child in three was born outside wedlock in large cities. The poor often saw nothing wrong with children outside of marriage. One young woman from Bavaria, when asked why she kept dropping kids said, "Its O.K. to make babies…. The King has ok’d it!" Specific details on sex, pregnancy, and marriage are not readily available, as these were questions that were not raised in proper company. But statistics indicate that by the last half of the nineteenth century, the rate of illegitimacy was reversed, and more babies were born to married mothers. There is some argument that the puritanical moral code of the time may have been responsible. Even so, a high percentage of brides walked down the aisle with a child in the womb, as many as one in three in some areas. It is safe to assume that unmarried couples used precautionary measures such as condoms and diaphragms to prevent pregnancy; so the rate of pregnancy is not necessarily a good indicator of the degree of sex outside of marriage.

Prostitution was exceptionally common. Over 155,000 women were registered as prostitutes in Paris between 1871 and 1903, with over six times that number suspected. They were visited by men of all stations in life, primarily middle and upper class men, who had the necessary wherewithal. A detailed account of affairs with prostitutes is contained in My Secret Life, an eleven volume autobiography of an Englishmen who tried almost everything. He began young with a maid, and gradually became obsessed with sex and with acting out his sexual fantasies, usually with prostitutes. The book is obviously atypical, but even so, it is safe to assume that men of the upper classes who could afford them often purchased sex before and after marriage. There was obviously a double standard, as these same men closely guarded their daughters from the very conduct in which they engaged with lower class women.

Kinship and Family Life: Kinship ties became very important, and newlyweds often lived near (but not with) their parents. For many married couples, extended family ties were more important than ties to friends. Families were there to help in case of sickness, unemployment, death, old age, etc. In the even of a death, relatives frequently assisted with the cost of funerals, carriages, special clothes, etc., knowing full well that the day would come when they would themselves be in need of assistance. At other times, a poor couple might take in an aged relative who cooked and tended to children so that the wife could work outside the home. Family dinners were often affairs for extended family; outgrown clothes were frequently handed down to other members, and large family groups often lived in the same neighborhood, although not in the same house.

Increasingly, husbands were expected to be wage earners in factories and offices while wives stayed home and managed the house and raised the children. Seldom did married couples live where they worked (the exception being the occasional retail shop). Women worked outside the home only if the family were poor and needed two incomes. It was considered "a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs if the wife had to work to help maintain the home." Married women also faced great discrimination when they were forced to work. Well paying jobs were off limits to women, and if she did find a job, her wage was frequently less that of a man, even if she performed the same work. Wives were subordinate to their husbands by law, and lacked many legal rights. As stated by William Blackstone, the famous British jurist: "In law husband and wife are one person, and the husband is that person." The wife in England had no legal identity or right to own property in her own name. Even her wages belonged to her husband.

The legal and societal suppression of women led a number of them to rebel, demanding equality of the sexes and the same rights as men. Some of these nineteenth century feminists campaigned for equal women’s rights. They argued that unmarried women and widows simply could not survive on the inadequate income available to them. They achieved some successes. In 1882, Parliament passed a law giving English married women full property rights; however progress was slow elsewhere. Women also followed the socialist path, arguing that the liberation of working class women would come only with the liberation of the entire working class through revolution. They also made some progress, especially in Germany, where the socialist movement was most effectively organized.

Although home and children were the primary concern of the nineteenth century wife, her control and influence over them became increasingly strong. In England, the wife typically managed the household finances; in many families the husband gave all his earnings to the wife to manage. She in turn gave him an allowance for beer, tobacco, union dues, carfare, etc. All domestic decisions, including schooling and religious instruction for the children were made by the wife.

In many ways, housekeeping was a full time job with no time left for outside employment. Such extra money as she might earn came from taking in boarders or working in the "sweat industries." Part of her obligation at home was to pamper her husband, allowing him to eat meat while she ate bread, and allowing him to sit by the fire while she washed the dishes from the meal. Her guidance of the household went hand in glove with the emotional attachment to the home and family that soon developed. Home was the warm shelter from the cold cruel urban world outside. Said one child of the slums in the early 1900’s:

Home, however poor, was the focus of all love and interests, a sure fortress against a horrible world. Songs about its beauties were ever on people’s lips. "Home sweet home," first heard in the 1870’s had become "almost a second national anthem." Few walls in lower working class houses lacked "mottoes"—colored strips of paper about nine inches wide and eighteen inches in length, attesting to domestic joys: EAST, WEST, HOME’S BEST; BLESS OUR HOME; GOD IS MASTER OF HIS HOUSE; HOME IS THE NEST WHERE ALL IS BEST.

Married couples also developed stronger emotional ties. Marriages were based on attraction and sentiment rather than money and financial advancement. Couples were often seen socializing together in music halls and cafes. Said Gustave Droz in Mr., Mrs., and Baby: (which went through 121 editions)

A husband who is stately and a little bald is all right, but a young husband who loves you and who drinks out of your glass without ceremony is better. Let him, if he ruffles your dress a little and places a kiss on your neck as he passes. Let him, if he undresses you after the ball, laughing like a fool. You have fine spirited qualities, it is true, but your little body is not bad either, and when one loves one loves completely. Behind these follies lies happiness.

Child Rearing: Earlier in Europe, mothers had avoided strong emotional ties to newborn children because of the constant risk of infant death. As the emergence of the family as an important institution grew, so did a growing emotional attachment to children. Women breastfed their own babies rather than hire a wet nurse to do so. A series of specialized book on child rearing and hygiene were published, and fewer babies were abandoned at birth. The practice of swaddling children disappeared completely, as women allowed their babies freedom of movement.

Care and attention was also focused on older children and adolescents, as they too were wrapped in the strong bonds of emotional attachment. Families often had fewer numbers of children largely due to the reduced rate of infant mortality, and often strove to provide their children with opportunities they themselves never had. Married couples frequently used contraceptive devices to reduce the possibility of unwanted pregnancies. At times, the care and concern of parents for their older children became obsessive, so much so that children began to feel trapped and in need of greater independence. Prevailing biological and medical theories led parents to believe that their own emotional characteristics were passed on to their children; therefore they were personally responsible for any abnormality the child presented. This preoccupation was so great that even the moment of conception was thought to be of the utmost importance. Women were cautioned to avoid conception when they were sick, unhappy, or overly tired. If the father was guilty of sexual excesses, the child might be similarly cursed.

The sexual behavior of the child was also a matter of parental concern. Few things caused more horror to a parent than to discover the child masturbating, which represented an act of defiance. Girls were discouraged from riding horses and bicycling because the rhythmic friction of the ride simulated masturbation. Boys were often made to wear trousers with pockets which were shallow and widely separated. In some instances, when the child persisted, there were even surgical options available. After 1905, a number of "restraining devices" were used. This repression of natural sexual urges became a source of unhealthy tension, and resulted in the belief that the mother and child loved each other easily, but relations between father and child were distant and strained. The father was pictured as demanding; expecting the child to succeed where he had not and his love was seen as conditional on that achievement.

The difficult relations between fathers and sons were epitomized in Feodor Dostoevski’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, in which four sons work knowingly or unknowingly to destroy their father. Later, when they are charged with murder, one of them brothers claims to speak for all mankind and screams, "Who doesn’t wish his father dead!"

Sigmund Freud, father of modern psychoanalysis, formulated the most striking analysis of the explosive dynamics of the family. He began his career treating mentally ill patients, and observed that much of their hysteria originated in bitter early childhood experiences which the child had been forced to suppress. When the experiences were recalled and reproduced under hypnosis and therapy, the patient could be made to understand the source of his unhappiness and deal with it. Freud saw an oedipal tension between the father and son, each competing for the mother’s love and affection. He argued that much of human behavior is motivated by unconscious emotional needs which are kept from conscious awareness by various mental devices he called "defense mechanisms." Freud concluded that most unconscious psychological energy was sexual energy which was controlled by rational thinking and moral rules.

The youth of the working class were more successful at breaking away from parental control than their upper middle class counterparts. They often went to work when they reached adolescence, and by the time they were sixteen or seventeen, could bargain for some degree of independence. If they were unable to do so, they could simply move out, live in lodges or boarding houses and support themselves. The middle class youth was left to deal with family hovering and oppression as best he could.