Not long ago I reported on the census of 1790. I noted that the census takers highlighted counties where there were more women than men. What struck me was how few such counties there were, considering that the men were frequently doing things like dying in the Revolutionary War. Mostly it was the other way around — more men than women. (I was also struck by the number of slaves in places like Yonkers and Vermont.)

As usual, your comments were a good deal more interesting and insightful than mine.

Mike Schiffer writes: “You should consider just how many women used to die in childbirth. Prior to antisepsis — and by this period, with doctors going straight from doing autopsies to delivering babies without washing — each pregnancy was a life-threatening condition. And without contraception, women tended to go through many of them. War and revolution were dangerous, but they were temporary conditions. Bearing six or eight or ten children more than evened the odds of dying before one’s time.”

And from Jay McInnis: “I may be able to shed some light on what life was like back then. I live in a small town (Francestown, N.H., incorporated 1796, I think). In the town history there is an excerpt from a local farmer’s diary. He describes how, during a cold snap in the winter, he stayed up all night going from room to room keeping the fires in his fireplaces going. This in addition to his regular chores during the day. I know from other sources that the typical house back then required about 16 to 18 cords of wood each winter, so this was no small task. As if that weren’t bad enough, all those fireplaces would only keep those drafty, uninsulated houses about 10 to 20 degrees above outside ambient temperature. (For you city folks, a cord is a volume of wood 4’x4’x8′. I think it weighs about a ton.)

“Two points to all this: 1.) Anybody who got what we would consider a minor illness under these conditions would probably be looking at a visit from the Grim Reaper. This would doubtless account for some of the population fluctuations you noticed, and 2.) A workload like this must have made the owning of slaves or indentured servants very tempting to those who could afford them (the rich folks needed to get that 16 – 18 cords in too!).

“Another thing you notice in the old town cemeteries is that a man is often buried alongside three or four or more wives. The reason is that the childbirth mortality (and infant mortality) back in those days was staggering. So the men would periodically go off to wars or other adventures, and get themselves killed, leading to a surplus of women. The surviving men would come back, make whoopee with the wives who would then die in childbirth, leading to a surplus of men (who presumably would become surly and start another war).

“Kinda makes you glad you live in the late Twentieth Century, doesn’t it.”

Sure does.



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