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History of Marriage in America: 1800s and Early 1900s

Updated on January 13, 2016
To the western world Prince Albert and Queen Victoria were role models for a happy marriage during the 19th century.
To the western world Prince Albert and Queen Victoria were role models for a happy marriage during the 19th century. | Source

This history of marriage in America in the 1800s and early 1900s provides insight into the views and roles of husbands and wives during this time period. We also discuss age at marriage statistics, sex and sexuality in marriage, and societal expectations of husbands and wives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Statistics: Age at First Marriage

Many people who think about the 19th and early 20th centuries mistakenly believe that American men and women were most commonly married in their teens. But this is not so. According to the U.S. Decennial Census American Community Survey (2010), the median age at first marriage for American women in 1890 was about 23.5. Age at first marriage for men was about 26.5.

Economics played a factor in preparing for marriage and it often included getting an education and paying for college. Middle-class men usually married after going to college and working a few years, and middle-class women often left college when they got married.


Common Views of Marriage

This true story from the late 1890s provides a great example of a young woman's view of her life as she heads toward marriage.

Young men and women looked forward to being married for a number of reasons:

  • First, it was the ultimate symbol of adulthood. In the 1800s and early 1900s people looked forward to being grown up. They received the respect of society as an adult, contributed to society, and made their own decisions. Unlike now, where it is fashionable for adults well into their 40s to delay adulthood.
  • Women knew they would be financially provided for for the rest of their lives in their roles as housewives, protected from the outside world, and be viewed as having filled society's ultimate role for woman: as a loving companion to man and one who truly made a house into a warm, welcoming home.
  • The couple enjoyed being showered with presents. In the 1800s it became customary to expect that wealthier guests would bring an appropriately lavish gift such as dinnerware, silver, lace material, or crystal. The new couple would be able to begin decorating their home and the gifts served as ties of remembrance to friends who cared enough to give a lovely gift to the wedded couple.
  • Men looked forward to marriage because it provided for them a companion who would give them a happy respite from the harsh realities of the working world, and also provided for them a permanent sexual companion. Since sex before marriage was fiercely looked down upon, marriage represented to men acceptable and healthy sexual release.


A Victorian husband and wife with their baby
A Victorian husband and wife with their baby

Ads in Women's Magazines in 1890s

Sex and Sexuality in Marriage

The 19th and early 20th centuries were a time of modesty. While it was accepted that sex is part of a healthy marriage, women were encouraged to sometimes resist the urges of their husbands so that their men remember that they are not sexual objects, but Christian women deserving of respect. Sex was viewed ultimately as a tool for procreation, but the medical community's wisdom was that sex kept the humours in balance and therefore harmony in the home.


The Duties of a Good Wife

In industrialized society, a good wife was responsible for cooking for her family, decorating the home, sewing clothes, draperies, and blankets. She also cleaned the house and did laundry. If her husband could afford to hire help, the wife would get a break from some of the duties. During this time period in history, being a housewife was quite special, as homemaking became an art form.

A good wife would try to provide children to her husband if he wanted them. And if a married couple had children, the wife would watch them and teach them manners. This way of living was part of a society that expected everyone behave by certain standards of etiquette. And in the marriage the wife was expected to be of good temperament so that the marital home would be happy.


The Duties of a Good Husband

A husband was first and foremost the leader of the home. He was the ultimate decision maker even though he usually consulted his wife. He provided for his wife, and children, if they had any. He was the protector responsible for the safety of his family. The husband corrected and punished his children when they behaved badly.

He was a role model for the type of man his son should become and for the type of man his daughter would aim to marry. Although a husband was expected to be a disciplinarian he was also expected to practice level-headedness and have an even temperament with his wife and children.


The Cultural Results of Married Life in the 1800s and Early 1900s

The history of marriage from this time period enriched not only the men and women that lived during the time, but their offspring for generations to come. The morality, sense of refinement, household cultivation, and proper rearing of children are still facets of life that are especially important to married middle and upper-class Americans and Britons today.

Getting married is and always has been a step in life to look forward to
Getting married is and always has been a step in life to look forward to
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