37.1main - Journal of Interdisciplinary History...

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ROCKING THE CRADLE Gloria L. Main Rocking the Cradle: Downsizing the New England Family Sometime around the year 1800, if not be- fore, couples throughout New England began talking to each other about the desirability of postponing children. Why they did so is something of a mystery, but the consequences of those con- versations are unmistakable: The median size of completed fami- lies in the region halved for cohorts marrying between 1790 and 1840. The number of children per family fell in the rural interior as well as in crowded coastal communities. How couples in the period actually managed to control family size is also a mystery, because no magic pills or rubber condoms were then available. No one at the time even understood the physiology of human repro- duction. People obtained their health information from gossip or folklore, and women shared recipes for herbal “remedies.” The timing of ovulation was utterly unknown even to university- trained doctors. Any rhythm method was necessarily based on false assumptions and any success with it based on luck. The only con- traceptive barriers available in the early decades of the nineteenth century were clumsy sheaths made of animal organs used by city prostitutes and their customers. Their unsavory connotations aroused disgust and revulsion among the respectable few who knew about them, yet no acceptable alternatives existed. 1 Ordinary families living in New England’s countryside who avoided or terminated pregnancies did so without the aid of any new contraceptive technology or medical knowledge. Neither were they being encouraged in their efforts by media campaigns or government-funded clinics, as more recently in Asia and else- where. Consequently, it was far more difªcult to prevent babies in the New England of 1800 than it is today in Bangladesh. 2 Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xxxvii:1 (Summer, 2006), 35–58. Gloria L. Main is Professor of History, University of Colorado. She is the author of Peoples of Spacious Lands: Families and Cultures in Colonial New England (Cambridge, Mass., 2001); To- bacco Colony: Life in Early Maryland, 1650–1720 (Princeton, 1982); “Naming Children in Early New England,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XXVII (1996), 1–27. © 2006 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Inc. 1 John C. Caldwell, “The Delayed Western Fertility Decline: An Examination of English- Speaking Countries,” Population and Development Review, XXV (1999), 479–513; Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca, 1994). 2 Susan E. Klepp, “Lost, Hidden, Obstructed, and Repressed: Contraceptive and Abortive
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Given the technological obstacles to controlling fertility and the apparent unlikelihood of people deliberately foregoing sexual pleasure at a time when farming was still the dominant way of life, New England’s claim to a precocious modernity invites scrutiny. Until recently, child/woman ratios calculated from federal census
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37.1main - Journal of Interdisciplinary History...

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