Family Life in the 18th Century
Marriage, children, economic circumstances and social status were closely linked during the 1700s. The majority of families were what the famed English author Daniel Defoe termed “the middling class” or the middle class, a status of family that was non-existent before the 18th century. During the 1600s people were either wealthy and privileged or utterly poor and there was no in-between whatsoever. The rise of the middle class began during the 18th century and its impact upon family was enormous.
Women and men of the upper classes did not marry for love. Instead, they married strictly for financial and social reasons. Women who wished to continue living within a wealthy household simply did not marry a man of the middle or lower class. A self-respecting gentleman didn’t even consider marrying a woman from a poor family. It was unlikely she would possess the social graces and dowry required to marry into such a society. Moreover, rumors would abound as to why a wealthy young man would wed a girl of such poor means. Perhaps he had gotten her “in the family way” and was inclined to do right by her? Such humiliation could never be visited upon his family.
The middle class on the other hand could marry whomever they liked. It wasn’t sensible for a middle-class women to marry a poor man since her children would be raised in poverty, yet if her happiness depended upon it, her family was unlikely to intervene. There was no need to marry for social status or wealth since the middle class did not possess either.
Yet the concept of the middle class was still one of privilege. Up until the 18th century childhood, like the middle class, did not exist. The lower class worked hard to eke out a living and their children were expected to work alongside them. School was a privilege that only the upper class could afford. And well into the 18th century childhood still did not exist for the lower class.
The Industrial Revolution set into motion incredible changes in 1700s society. The vast majority of people who worked inside of the new factories producing items such as farm equipment, clothing and toys were of the lower class. Not surprisingly, lower class children also worked inside of these factories earning far less than their parents’ meager wage. Children labored as hard as their parents, often carrying heavy loads of materials or sitting at industrial machines for countless hours inside of deplorable factory conditions. Had the term “sweatshop” been coined at that time, then it would indeed have described the factories where these lower class families labored.
The middle and upper classes however did not set foot inside of a factory. Children of the middle class began to attend school for the first time in history. Only famers’ children took time away from school for significant periods in order to assist with the sowing and harvesting of crops during the summer and autumn months.
The dominant household figure was the father. It was he who determined whether or not his wife could work outside the home or whether or not his children were to attend school. He owned all of the family’s property and money. Divorce was exceedingly rare since women who left their husbands had no viable means of survival. Mothers usually remained at home, keeping a hearth and producing several children. Their job was not an easy one. Mothers cleaned the house, made clothing for their families by hand, cooked, minded the children, tended a garden and generally tried to please their husbands. Womens’ social status was well below that of mens’ and they seldom questioned any of their husbands’ decisions.
Yet many upper and middle class families were quite content during the 18th century. The Industrial Revolution generated excitement about new technologies meant to make life easier. Marriages were usually harmonious, children were treated kindly and a belief in God was extremely important. The inherent goodness in people provided a solid backbone for families and produced a law-abiding and civilized society in which families flourished.