Why family size fell dramatically in 19th-century US, Europe

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The number of children a woman in America has in her lifetime declined during the past two centuries, and it's not just because of the birth control pill.

Historians are closing in on the socio-economic and cultural factors in family downsizing, a trend also found in most of Western Europe.

"There are two reasons fertility rates can decline," said J. David Hacker, a SUNY Binghamton historian. "One explanation is that marriage declines. Not as many women get married, and if they do marry, they do so at a later age, so that there is less time to have children. The second explanation is that people consciously try to limit having children, which was revolutionary in the 19th century."

According to most census estimates, an American woman had on average seven to eight children in 1800. By 1900 the number dropped to about 3.5. That has fallen to slightly more than two today. Birth rates fell first in New England, and then among pioneers as they headed west. Internationally, France led the way to smaller families.

Reconstructing the intricacies of census data has been difficult for dates prior to 1933, when the National Birth Registration system was put into place. With grant money from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Hacker is taking a closer look at long-term census trends thanks to a new database developed by the Minnesota Population Center.

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