"Long Term Marriage Patterns in the United States from Colonial Times tothe Present"

Michael R. Haines

NBER Historical Working Paper No. 80
Issued in March 1996
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

Marriage in colonial North America was notable for being early (for women) and marked by low percentages never marrying. This was different from the distinctive northwest European pattern of late marriage and high proportions never married late in life. But the underlying neolocal family formation behavior was the same in both colonial North America and the areas of origin of this population. Thus, Malthus was correct. Abundant resources rather than basic behavioral differences made early and extensive marriage possible in the colonies. Between 1800 and the present there have been long cycles in nuptiality. Since about 1800, female age at first marriage rose from relatively low levels to a peak around 1900. Thereupon a gradual decline commenced with a trough being reached about 1960 at the height of the baby boom. There then began another rapid upswing in female marriage age. Proportions never married at ages 45-54 replicated these cycles with a lag of about 20-30 years. Since 1880 (when comprehensive census data became available), male nuptiality patterns have generally paralleled those of women. Male marriage ages were higher than those of females with proportions never marrying also usually higher. Considerations of differentials by race and ethnicity are important in looking at the American experience over time. Black ages at marriage have, for example, moved from being lower to being higher than those for whites. More work is needed in the period 1800 to 1880 when we lack comprehensive census, vital, and other data.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/h0080

Published: The History of the Family, Vol. 1, No. 1, (1996)

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