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New Ideas About Family

As much of Europe experienced industrialization and urbanization during the nineteenth century, ideas and values concerning the family unit changed. Things were bound to change. After all, at the turn of the nineteenth century, the family unit still often existed as an economic institution whose purpose was to work the family farm or work in the family’s cottage industry. The lifestyle of the rural family unit hadn’t changed much since the Middle Ages, and the urban family unit, particularly in an industrialized Europe, remained a relatively new development. Changes within the family were due in large part to the emergence of new classes, especially the solidified middle class that accompanied industrialization. The changes included ideas about sex and marriage, gender roles, children, education, money, and morality.

An Emerging Middle Class

The true middle class emerged during the nineteenth century in Europe. Unlike the middle class of modern America, characterized by comfortable but modest living conditions, the nineteenth-century European middle class included the most successful businessmen, bankers, and industrialists who were very wealthy, and the middle- of-the-road accountants, lawyers, merchants, engineers, managers, government employees, and industrialists who had yet to strike it rich. At the bottom were the small business owners, small-scale merchants, and other workers who used their brains rather than their backs for a living. Even schoolteachers and nurses worked their way up into the middle class. Perhaps the unifying characteristic of the new middle class was the use of their minds for their living and the general lifestyle they enjoyed.

The nineteenth-century middle class enjoyed a reasonable amount of disposable income that it spent on good food and domestic servants, both luxuries never before available to many of the middle class. The middle class also used the new surplus income for socializing. The middle class, the upper echelon more than the bottom, threw dinner parties and enjoyed “cultured” activities such as the opera and the theater. As the nineteenth century wore on, fashion became increasingly important to the middle class. The middle class also spent more and more money on their children’s education.

Would You Believe?

The number of servants employed by middle-class families served as a sort of status symbol, much the way automobiles serve as a status symbol today.

The nineteenth-century middle class developed a sense of morality and family values. The commitment to family and moral living was shared by both the middle and working classes, but the working class had a necessary commitment to frugal living that was lost on the middle class.

Despite the rise of social drinking by both men and women, drunkenness and heavy drinking were frowned upon. Temperance movements frequently moved through the predominantly Protestant areas of Europe. The champions of the temperance movements blamed alcohol for nearly all of society’s woes and advocated abstinence. The middle class looked down on promiscuity, too.

As a Matter of Fact

The Victorian Age spanned from 1837 to 1901, the years of Queen Victoria's reign in Britain, and marked the pinnacle of British culture and industry. During this age, a set of moral standards emerged, often referred to as Victorian Morality, often viewed as a reflection of Victoria when in fact Victoria was probably a reflection of her times. The concept of Victorian Morality is something of a paradox. While the Age did see an increased emphasis on public improvement, morality, restraint, and frugal living, a strict class system existed throughout the United Kingdom, particularly overseas. Though Christianity was generally accepted by Europeans in the Victorian Age, not everyone attended church. Nevertheless, religion played a significant role in shaping Victorian Morality.

A change in the reasons people married in the nineteenth century allowed for a strict view of promiscuity. For centuries, Europeans at the upper end of the socioeconomic scale married for financial or political reasons and participated in arranged marriages. Poorer Europeans often waited relatively late to marry, until the man of the house had enough money to support a family.

With the financial opportunities available to both the middle and working classes in the nineteenth century, people married earlier than ever before. The fall of financial considerations and changes in the conditions of marriage also saw the rise of romantic

notions of marriage. When people had typically waited until their late twenties to marry, society often chose to ignore promiscuity. When people began to marry earlier, promiscuity became an evil condemned by many. Along the same lines, sexual conduct of children and teenagers became a real concern for families who valued their fine reputations. Men and women often repressed their children’s sexuality in rather drastic ways. In extreme cases, boys seldom were left alone and girls were forbidden from riding bicycles or from riding horses in any way other than side-saddle.

Would You Believe?

Despite the new emphasis on morality, sexual experimentation flourished, evidenced by the large number of illegitimate births early in the first half of the nineteenth century. Illegitimacy did seem to decline after 1850, though.

Women's Changing Roles

The roles and status of women changed over the course of the nineteenth century, particularly after 1850 when industrialization had swept over the continent. These changes occurred both in and out of the family unit. Statistics show that most women of the nineteenth century married. For an unmarried woman, the place to find a husband was the city.

Droves of rural girls moved to the city to find employment and a husband, often taking jobs as maids. The rise of the middle class provided plenty of opportunity for those seeking jobs in the domestic services. An unfortunate side effect of the increase in young women working in other households was the surprising number of incidents of sexual harassment and abuse of these workers. Young, unmarried women often faced abuse and exploitation in the world’s oldest profession, too. Prostitution, despite the sweeping morality, thrived in European cities and provided employment for women who couldn’t find work elsewhere.

In the early part of the century, women often continued to work after they married. Before the nineteenth century, many wives helped provide for the family unit. As Europe’s population became more and more urban and industrial, the husband more and more became the sole bread winner as economic conditions picked up after 1850. Especially among the middle class, the woman was expected to be at home with the children while the man worked to provide for the family.

This ideal contributed to a very rigid division of labor in European cities. When women, married or otherwise, sought employment, they often had no options other than domestic work, teaching schoolchildren, or working in the sweated industries. The sexual division of labor had created a situation in which the better jobs simply were not available to women. Furthermore, in any decent jobs available to both men and women, women received markedly lower wages. Chivalry may have been dead, but misogyny was alive and well. The lack of financial opportunities was mirrored by the lack of educational opportunities and the lack of legal rights for women in many places, too.

Define Your Terms

Sweated refers to labor that requires long hours of work in unsanitary conditions for low wages. 

Frequently, women were the legal property of their husbands or, at the very least, their incomes were.

Many women rebelled against the oppressive

Would You Believe?

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, even liberal and forward-thinking men championed women's rights issues.

The father of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, was outspoken in favor of granting women the right to vote.

nature of the male-dominated nineteenth century. Socialism looked especially good to many women, who agreed that marriage equated to legalized prostitution. Several women’s organizations, socialist and otherwise, formed to fight for equal rights, equal financial opportunities, and the right to vote. While many women did have almost complete control of the household, this wasn’t enough for many. Women’s groups demanded to be allowed the opportunity to be doctors, lawyers, and other professions limited almost entirely to men.

New Attitudes Toward Children

During the Middle Ages and the few centuries that followed, families had attitudes about children that might seem shocking today. The infant mortality rate was high across Europe until the last few hundred years or so. Poor diet of the mother, a lack of hygiene, rudimentary medical knowledge, and generally unhealthy living conditions made childbirth tricky even for wealthy Europeans. The odds were only about 50/50 that a child would survive infancy, and just slightly better that an infant would survive past toddlerhood. Once a child reached age 10 or so, he or she was in good shape.

Because the survival rate for those children that survived childbirth remained relatively low, parents rarely developed deep emotional ties to their children. Evidence of emotional distance between parent and child can be found in a few examples of life prior to the nineteenth century. Wealthy women rarely breastfed their own children and instead hired wet nurses to do that for them. Also, the use of swaddling clothes, or tightly wrapped cloth that restricted all movement of an infant, to comfort children reduced the amount of time that women held their children. A child in swaddling clothes could be laid down to suckle a cloth dipped in milk while the mother worked or did chores.

By the end of the nineteenth century, evidence clearly showed that earlier trends in childrearing had fallen away. One of the biggest pieces of evidence relates to family size. Nineteenth-century families, especially within the middle class, had fewer children than families of centuries before. In previous centuries, more pregnancies resulted in better odds that several children would survive to adulthood. In the nineteenth century, families had fewer children so that they could devote the necessary attention to them. In centuries past, especially in rural areas, many families had several children to help in the fields and around the house. Especially in urban settings, extra children were no longer necessary for helping to provide income for the family.

The attention given to children also serves as evidence of deeper emotional ties. Families with extra income made the commitment to providing clothing, good diets, medical care, and education for their children. Mothers took better care of infants because they better understood infants’ needs, and because they had better odds of surviving. Many women even breastfed their own children. This may be partially responsible for the deeper attachment to children. The fact that many women ran the household rather than working also helps explain the new attachment to the children. While the number of abandoned children and orphans remained high compared to modern standards, the numbers declined during the late nineteenth century.

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The concern for children's health often led to repression and overprotection of them. Many natural tendencies and curiosities, especially of a sexual nature, were carefully guarded against, even with medical procedures. Circumcisions, for example, often were recommended to discourage masturbation among boys.

The concern for children did reach interesting extremes. For example, many parents believed that the moment of conception and the moment of childbirth were pivotal moments in children’s lives. Therefore, parents often tried to conceive while both parents were happy and healthy.

The Least You Need to Know

In the years following 1815, ideas of socialism spread across Europe. Socialists believed society should exist for the good of all and not just for the good of the elite, who owned virtually all the wealth in Europe.

The rise of socialism must be considered in the context of the Industrial Revolution. The industrialization of Europe left workers feeling exploited because the industrialists grew rich after selling the goods produced by the workers.

The most influential of all socialists were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who, in 1848, published The Communist Manifesto.

Socialism and labor went hand in hand throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Socialist intellectuals often were frustrated with workers who were reluctant to sign on to radical ideology.

A new middle class emerged in Europe as an effect of industrialization and urbanization. The middle-class values emphasized hard work, discipline, and moral living. The role of women in the workplace and in the home changed, and children grew far more important to the family unit.

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