How Many Children? The Family Size Debate a Hundred Years Ago

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, April 15, 1912:  I didn’t study hardly any at all this evening. I did have a very bad streak of laziness.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Since Grandma didn’t have much to say a hundred years ago today, I’m going to go off on a tangent.

Many families were larger in 1912 than they are today. I came across the following Letter to the Editor in the April 1912 issue of Good Housekeeping that is very illuminating regarding the discussion about family size and family planning a hundred years ago:

How Many Children?

Mr. Editor—While I have never suffered from ill-health, particularly, nor was it impossible financially to have children when we were first married, yet I think parents should be in such circumstances they can bring up children without feeling that they are a burden. Plenty there are who try to take care of three or four children, sometimes more, and do their own housekeeping, and I say, it’s an injustice to the children. One or the other suffers, usually the children.

It was several years before we were able to have a child, and three years later, when I had fully regained my strength, I had another. That is all we feel we can properly educate and support. Those who preach that each family should have four children are, to my mind, very wrong. Have a dozen if you can bring them up respectably—and if as poor as church mice, none.

New York                                                                   A.M.

12 Responses

  1. I so love that Grandma admits to having “a very bad streak of laziness”. It made me chuckle :-)

  2. Caring for 3 or 4 children AND doing their own housework! Horrors. I wonder how they recommended limiting family size in those pre-birth control days…abstain until menopause?

    • Your comment made me wonder when Margaret Sanger began her work. According to Wikipedia, she opened the first birth control clinic in the US in 1916.

  3. My paternal grandmother married in 1919 and had six children. She had one about every four years without birth control, just the way nature played the card. My maternal grandmother married in her late thirties, had only two children, one just a few days sly of her 43rd birthday. Looking through census records, I often wonder how women handle raising large families, and if there were discussions with their husbands about controlling the number of children through abstinence, etc.

    • It would be really interesting to know how couples discussed such issues back then. In my family I was surprised how many woman had children in their mid-forties. At first I thought that a previous family genealogist had made an error in compiling the data–now I believe that the dates were right and that the women had their last child when they were 45+.

      • My mother was 48 when she had me. People often mistook her to be my grandmother – I liked my unique status.

        • It’s awesome that you valued your mother’s unique status when you were young. Both you and your mother sound like awesome people.

  4. If most took this writer to the Editor’s advice – many of us would not be here today. People did what they could, when they could and they were strong at heart, mind and body for their generations survived. My mother did her own housework and others and raised 8 respectable children with no wealth.

  5. Two of my husband’s grandparents and one of mine were only children. They were born in 1895, 1900 and 1906. I’ve often wondered what their parents used for birth control, but I was told it was impolite to inquire about such things. :)

    • When looking my family tree, I also see lots of big gaps. I often wonder if it was planned–or if there had been infants that died. Grandma was the 3rd of 4 children. The three girls were born in 1888, 1892, and 1895–then there was an 11 year gap before their brother was born in 1906. There were only two children in my grandfather’s family–and they were 12 years apart!

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