Monthly Archives: December 2015

How Genealogy Debunks Myths About History, #1: Marriage

My explorations in genealogy have led me to question a lot of conventional wisdom about the lives of people in earlier eras. One of the assumptions I had was that until fairly recently, most people married before age 30. There might have been the occasional confirmed bachelor or spinster aunt, but they were unusual. In the course of my research, however, I have come across many, many people who did not fit that mold.

Among the siblings of my great grandparents, for example, there are very few who fit the stereotype. Eliminating all who died as children or became priests or nuns, and all those for whom I am not certain whether or not they ever married, there are 22, 14 women and 8 men. All were born between 1865 and 1900, most in the 1870s or 1880s. Of those 22, only 5, 3 women and 2 men, married before the age of 30. 3 women and 3 men married for the first time in their thirties. One woman and one man did so in their forties, and one woman at the age of 51. 6 women and 2 men never married. Just 23% of my admittedly small and not particularly scientific sample married before age 30, 21% of the women and 25% of the men. 41% married later (36% of the women and 50% of the men) and 36% never married (43% of the women and 25% of the men).

Even if my ancestors’ siblings skewed my sample by being particularly slow to marry, those are some pretty surprising numbers, and in my experience these proportions are not particularly odd. In researching many families, not just my own, it seems nearly every set of siblings has at least one who never married, and it is not all that rare to come across someone who married for the first time in their 30s or 40s, women as well as men.

Genealogical research also contests the stereotype of the sad spinster, wasting away wishing for a husband. For example, one of the never married women in my sample, my great grandfather’s sister Augusta, played a major role in their father’s publishing business. She also lived well into her eighties, outliving all her siblings, and worked in the business at least into her sixties. Augusta’s first cousin Louise also never married, and, like many never married women I have come across in the course of my research, she traveled a great deal. She crossed the Atlantic so many times that I stopped documenting her trips.

I would be interested to know if other genealogy buffs have noticed similar patterns, or if they even started with the same assumptions. When we see statistics about marriage, they usually focus on averages. We tend to forget, or at least it seems I do, that average does not necessarily mean typical, and that most people are not average. One of the things I love about genealogy is that it forces you to look at individual lives instead of aggregates. It turns out the past had much more variety and nuance than statistics and stereotypes may lead us to believe.

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