The Puzzle of the Antebellum Fertility Decline in the United States: New Evidence and Reconsideration

Michael R. Haines, J. David Hacker

NBER Working Paper No. 12571
Issued in October 2006
NBER Program(s):Program on the Development of the American Economy

All nations that can be characterized as developed have undergone the demographic transition from high to low levels of fertility and mortality. Most presently developed nations began their fertility transitions in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. The United States was an exception. Evidence using census-based child-woman ratios suggests that the fertility of the white population of the United States was declining from at least the year 1800. By the end of the antebellum period in 1860, child-woman ratios had declined 33 percent. There is also indication that the free black population was experiencing a fertility transition. This transition was well in advance of significant urbanization, industrialization, and mortality decline and well in advance of every other presently developed nation with the exception of France. This paper uses census data on county-level child-woman ratios to test a variety of explanations on the antebellum American fertility transition. It also uses micro data from the IPUMS files for 1850 and 1860. A number of the explanations, including the land availability hypothesis, the local labor market-child default hypothesis, and the life cycle saving hypothesis, are consistent with the data, but nuptiality, not one of the usual explanations, emerges as likely very important.

download in pdf format
   (149 K)

email paper

Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w12571

Users who downloaded this paper also downloaded* these:
Steckel The Fertility Transition in the United States: Tests of Alternative Hypotheses
Haines h0031 The Use of Historical Census Data for Mortality and Fertility Research
Boustan, Bunten, and Hearey w19041 Urbanization in the United States, 1800-2000
Haines h0056 "The Population of the United States, 1790-1920"
Haines, Craig, and Weiss h0130 "Development, Health, Nutrition, and Mortality: The Case of the 'Antebellum Puzzle' in the United States"
NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us