Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Birth Control in the First Half of the 19th Century*

Dan Allosso
Charles Knowlton believed that his enemies’ big objection to The Fruits of Philosophy, which he published in 1831 and was imprisoned for in 1833, wasn’t so much that it gave people the power to reduce the sizes of their families, but that he had claimed in his “Philosophical Proem” that religion should have nothing to say about the matter.  He was jailed for three months at hard labor, Charles said, “ostensibly, for diffusing scientific knowledge of practical utility; but, really, for giving thee a small pill in connection with it, slyly wrapped up, which thou canst not swallow.”  Other freethinkers, such as Abner Kneeland and Robert Dale Owen, focused on the idea that by giving regular people the ability to limit family sizes, they were instigating a major social change.  By reducing the number of poor wage-workers, they said, families would become better able to demand higher wages and the money they earned would go farther toward giving all children the nourishment and educations they needed.  Most freethinkers agreed that it was important to give everybody the right to choose, and that the social reforms they supported would be advanced by effective family planning.

So was Knowlton’s method effective?  Should he be remembered as an early champion of the idea of choice, or as someone who actually helped people change the sizes of their families in ways that led to social change?  Either way, he was ahead of his time and helped move American society from its Calvinist roots toward the world we live in today, where for most people the choice to have children and how many to have is just assumed to be a private, family decision.

Since Charles lived in Massachusetts, we can get some idea of the immediate effects of The Fruits of Philosophy.  In the early 1900s, Vital Records books were published for every town in the state, listing all the births, marriages, and deaths from the late eighteenth century up to 1849.  Charles arrived in Ashfield (population about 1800) in 1832, so by comparing families in the generation before his arrival with families in the generation after, we may get a glimpse of the impact of his ideas.  Not everyone in Ashfield took Knowlton’s advice, of course.  But Charles’s enemies believed he was showing his book to everyone he could, so it’s probably fair to say a lot of people knew of it.

Before Charles Knowlton arrived in Ashfield, the largest family in town had eleven children.  Women married at an average age of twenty-one, and the average family had seven children.  Most women continued having children until they were forty years old, if they lived that long, and had a baby every couple of years from marriage to menopause.  Fourteen families in town had only two or three children, and this was usually explained by the illness or death of a parent.  Eleven families had eight or more children. 

In the generation after 1832, when Charles was Ashfield’s leading doctor, women continued marrying at twenty-one, on average.  And most Ashfield women continued having children until age forty, but they had only half as many.  The average family size in Ashfield dropped to 3.5 children.  Thirty-nine families had only two or three children, and no families had more than seven kids. 

Before Charles arrived, most Ashfield families had from five to nine children.  After Charles came to town, most Ashfield families had from two to four.  On this basis, we can conclude The Fruits of Philosophy was effective in reducing family sizes in Ashfield, through some combination of its radical ideas and its practical birth control method.  Some of this decrease could be accounted for by saying women were gaining more control over their reproductive rights and more power in their families, even without using Knowlton’s method—but we’d still have to give Charles a lot of credit for introducing that idea of choice into the lives of Ashfield women. 


*A synopsis of Chapter 29 of my forthcoming book, The Infidel Body-Snatcher and the Fruits of His Philosophy: A Biography of Dr. Charles Knowlton, which you can look for in the spring.


Eric B. Schultz said...

Interesting and good post, Dan. I think a jury would buy motive and intent. But I wonder about opportunity? Without turning this into an R-rated blog, was there some technology coming available in the first half of the 19th century that would "allow" for the choice of smaller families? If not, a parallel explanation might be Klein's (in "A Population History of the United States") who suggests that pre-1860, increasingly limited land resources along the Eastern Seaboard led to later marriages, which then led to a decline in marital fertility. The phenomenon was evident in NE as early as the late 18th century, but not evident among those who headed to the frontier. (P.S.--Looking forward to the arrival of your book!)

Unknown said...

Thanks, Eric! Yes, I think the medical consensus is that the technique Knowlton described in Fruits of Philosophy WAS actually very effective. Nowadays we tend to think anything less than 100% is no good, which I think colors our reaction to 19th c. birth control tech.

The traditional approach to population history, I think, suffers a bit from the very sparse coverage (except for three books that are well-known in Women's Studies circles) of early family planning. It IS true, of course, that immigration and high western birth rates swamped the decreases, but I think it's still important to look at who had lots of kids and who didn't. It was really pretty easy (at least until the Specie Circular) for "excess" sons to move west, and cities grew alarmingly. Knowlton was successfully prosecuted in Taunton and Lowell, two early industrial centers. He and Robert Dale Owen weren't so much saying that population should be reduced, as that family sizes should be under the control of the parents.

The demographic research I've done in New England also suggests the "later marriage, declining Yankee fertility" theory is flawed. For example, where Knowlton lived, comparing the generation before with the one after his time there, people married at the same ages, and (even more significant) continued childbearing into their forties as before; they just had about half as many kids.

hcr said...

A different angle: from your photo, it looks like this book was quite small. Is that right? Small enough to be passed hand to hand, secretly? Or hidden in a pocket?

Unknown said...

YES!! Unlike Robert Dale Owen's Moral Physiology, the first three editions of Fruits of Philosophy were palm-sized, and sold for fifty cents. They could be easily hidden or passed from hand to hand without people catching on. I didn't learn this until I actually SAW the books, in spite of Knowlton always saying how he'd been jailed for selling "a little book." Sometimes you've just gotta be there.

Eric B. Schultz said...

Thanks, Dan. There is NO question that I learned something new today. (Searching ebay now for "Fruits of Philosophy"!) In about 1946 my 13-year old future mother walked into the Taunton Public Library and asked for "Lady Chatterley's Lover"; she was not given hard time like Knowles, but the appalled head librarian did call my grandmother. Some places apparently never change. (P.S.--My grandmother, who was far ahead of her time, said, "Give it to her. She won't understand what's going on." My grandmother was right.)