“How I shall get along when I have got half a dozen or 10 children, I can’t devise,” fretted the New Jersey colonist Esther Edwards Burr after her child’s birth in 1756. Narcissa Whitman, a pioneer in Oregon a century later, might have recognised these concerns. She knew first-hand the consequences of mothering a large brood. “My dear parents,” she wrote in a rare but affectionate missive back to New York in 1845, “I have now a family of 11 children. This makes me feel as if I could not write a letter.”

Modern demographers know that, over the past 400 years, fertility rates have changed significantly in Europe and North America. The numbers dropped dramatically from an average of seven or eight children among settlers in 17th and 18th-century North America, or four or five in Britain, to 2.2 or lower in both places in the 20th century. The demographers culled and amassed their numbers mainly from sources including local censuses, family histories, wills, church records, and then, since the 19th century, from national surveys. They call this remarkable historical transformation the fertility transition.

Of all the factors affecting women’s experiences of motherhood since the 17th century, surely none has had a greater impact than plunging fertility rates. If there is an overarching story to be told about mothering, the change from larger to smaller families is as close as we might get.

But understanding what these changes may have felt like is tricky. It wasn’t easy for a mother to keep a diary or to write a letter – thus leaving a record for us to read now – when there were “half a dozen or 10 children” on hand. Perhaps that is why the history of the fertility transition has, for the most part, faded from view.

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Despite this, there can be little doubt that the fall in family sizes triggered a radical change in emphasis – from child bearing to child rearing. Once, a woman expected to bear many babies, her body marked by multiple pregnancies and births. If her infants survived, she mothered an assemblage of children, and her attention was distracted and divided. Seventeenth-century colonial American women typically married in their late teens and gave birth every 18 months to two years – regarded as a sign of God-given prosperity. In England, where economic life was often less certain, women married later and gave birth every two to three years.

A group of settlers in the colony of Jamestown, Virginia, 1609. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
A group of settlers in the colony of Jamestown, Virginia, 1609. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Writing in the 1780s, Esther Atlee of Pennsylvania noted her poor mood on being pregnant yet again. “I cannot account for a glooming which too frequently comes over me,” she noted. “If I had some relief in my family affairs… I should be much easier.” The pregnancy nudged the number of her children into double figures.

Mary Vial Holyoke, who married into a New England family in 1759, spent the majority of the first 23 years of her married life either pregnant or nursing. Only three of her children survived to adulthood. Mary was a second wife. Her predecessor carried an infant to term but both died within months.

Revolutionary breeding

By the early 19th century, the landscape was changing. Women were increasingly expected to bear just a few children – and to mother them more intensively. Among the middle classes, increasingly sentimental notions of motherhood celebrated tender mother-infant bonds and individual devotion. Nineteenth-century childrearing manuals were a primer in closely attentive parenting. Lydia Sigourney’s much-read Letters to Mothers opened with a cloying, chatty scene: “You are sitting with your child in your arms. So am I. And I have never been as happy before. Have you?”

So what drove these changes? Why were millions of women having fewer children – and revelling in the greater freedom it afforded them? The transformation was, to a large extent, the product of grand sociopolitical forces that swept the west from the 18th century. “Do not you, my friend,” Susanna Hopkins wrote in a letter, “think the person very contracted [small-minded] in his notions who would have us to be nothing more than domesticated animals?” The young Marylander was writing at the beginning of the transformation, in the late 18th-century revolutionary United States.

Hopkins recoiled from older ways that she thought treated women like breeding livestock. The fertility transition began in exactly her generation, when some women had the opportunity to apply the revolution’s radical message of liberty and independence to their personal lives. Sarah Logan Fisher, a Quaker merchant’s wife, remarked on a contemporary’s “sixth child before she is 29”. The implication was clear: this was too many, too early, and too fast.

The rejection of older ways, the sense of enacting new possibilities, seemed as radical and profound as throwing off monarchy. Frenchwomen’s demographic history followed a similarly revolutionary path. Without a revolution of its own, Britain only followed suit in reducing family size by the later 19th century, a change most often associated with industrialisation.

A photo taken on a doorstep in a Liverpool slum, c1895. (Photo by J Burke/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A photo taken on a doorstep in a Liverpool slum, c1895. (Photo by J Burke/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The fertility transition also touched the lives of enslaved black southerners who, in the mid-19th-century United States, began to limit their fertility on winning freedom in the American Civil War. Reproduction had been one of the terrible burdens of enslavement, adding to a slaveholder’s stock and a slave woman’s duress. “You better have the white folks some babies if you didn’t want to be sold,” recalled Alice Douglass, a former Tennessee slave.

Infertile women had often been sold away, but now fertility rates began to fall as freedom became possible for the first time. In 1880s Mobile, Alabama, Caroline Bowers nursed a single infant. Her mother, Lucrecia Perryman, had given birth to five children living under enslavement. Bowers now worked as a laundress and a midwife, activities that let the extended family keep well away from former slave-owners.

The decline in family sizes was accompanied by an increasing emphasis on family planning

On both sides of the Atlantic, the decline in family sizes was accompanied by an increasing emphasis on family planning, long before the advent of the Pill in the 1960s. A strong orientation to the future, requiring self-control on the part of husbands and wives, replaced older notions of God and fate. Plan your children ran the new logic, consider their spacing, assess what you can afford.

Abstention, and the use of abortifacient herbs, were the main means of regulating pregnancy. Rue and savin were used on both sides of the Atlantic, as was rosemary. Seneca snakeroot, a native remedy, was gathered in the American South and shipped to sellers both in England and in northern American cities. Turpentine was popular in African-American communities. In cities, syringes and rubber goods might be bought, if you knew where to shop.

Reshaping the life cycle

Fewer pregnancies brought a radical reshaping of a woman’s life cycle. It meant a shift from continual maternity, layered over with grand-mothering, to just a short number of years being pregnant and caring for children. Once, in places like 17th-century Boston or 18th-century Cornwall, hands-on motherhood had been a permanent and defining adult status. “This is getting to be my normal condition,” wrote one woman, who had nine children in 16 years. But by the 20th century, caring for children had become more like a short moment in many women’s life cycle. Sociologists like Richard Titmuss noticed that women might expect to live another 40 years after raising their children. In 1952, he remarked on their new opportunities for an “emotionally satisfying and independent life”, new outlets after the “responsibilities of child upbringing”.

In the west, fertility rates remained highest where women had least knowledge or power

These “emotionally satisfying” outlets weren’t available to everyone: fertility rates remained high where women had least knowledge or power. Isolated homesteading women in north-west Colorado, an early 20th-century frontier, continued to produce massive families. When asked about birthing as many as 12 children, the comment decades later was often: no big deal. White tenant farmers of North Carolina had on average six children. A sociologist remarked on the “traditional pattern of the glory” of having children as well as “the actual or imagined value of a large number of children”. In the 1860s, the Cree community living on the North American prairies saw a rise in fertility rates – perhaps because of increasingly sedentary lifestyles as the buffalo hunt years came to an end. As the old Cree story went, “we never had more children than we could grab and run with if there was a battle”.

But these were isolated examples in a wider story of greater education, growing opportunities, improving infrastructure – and declining fertility. In 1930s London, a young woman like sewing machinist Doris Hanslow could associate having fewer children with other recent domestic improvements like hot running water or electric lighting or municipal housing. Her mother had eight children in turn-of-the-century Bermondsey. Like other working-class London women of her generation, Doris would have fewer, just two. Large families were decreasingly visible. By the 1940s, less than 10 per cent of British women had five or more children. Asked about ideal family size, a woman interviewed on London’s streets just after the Second World War answered: “One’s enough. You’ve got to bring them up decent, haven’t you.”

Stout, teeming bodies

There were many reasons why a woman would relish having a large family: quiet pride in a stout, teeming body; the pleasing generosity of gathering up a group of children; or the reappearance in a newborn of the looks of a now-grown child. A crop, a little flock, a parcel of children: these were all phrases to describe large families. But the fertility transition opened up a whole new world of opportunities to millions of women across the west. It offered them far greater control over their bodies and their lives.

The story of three generations of Margaret Bowen’s family express this transformation in miniature. Bowen’s grandmother had 12 children; her parents had four in total, carefully spaced three years apart. Margaret herself had a single child, and time to reflect and record. Living in Williamsport in central Pennsylvania in 1855, she mused, of her grandmother: “Having the care of a large family… her sphere of operation was limited.”

Some decades later, probably around 1888, a descendant of colonist Hannah Callender expressed herself somewhat more briskly. Next to the “large family of promising children” celebrated in one of Callender’s letters, she simply pencilled three exclamation marks in the margin. The fertility transition had made her ancestor’s sentiments seem entirely strange and unusual.

Sarah Knott is associate professor of history at Indiana University. She is the author of Mother: An Unconventional History (Penguin Viking, 2019).

This article was first published in the May 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine