Friday, November 24, 2017

Shockingly young! Surprisingly old! Too young, too old! Well, nothing much actually changing at all. . . Marriage ages then. . . and now. . and what does it all mean?

 Eleanor Randolph Wilson in her wedding dress.  1914.  She was a daughter of President Wilson and would have been about 25 years old at the time this photograph was taken.

This is one of those topics that I started a really long time ago, and then it became sort of bizarrely relevant to current headlines, or maybe not.  

Anyhow, I thought of it, and determined to expand it out a bit, although perhaps I couldn't be doing so at a worse time, given that the current focus on marriage ages has turned sort of bizarre corner in the recent news. 

 Turkish bride and her attendants, 1914.

Indeed, this whole topic has been so much so much in current conversation, that an off line email conversation made me reconsider a lot of this topic, even though doing so makes a person feel a little odd and icky doing so.  But first we will start with what I originally started to start with, which is a link to this:

Median Age at Marriage–Then and Now

This really short article on A Hundred Years Ago has some really interesting information in it.  And some of that really interesting information just isn't what we'd expect.  The entry was part of a series on a century old diary, and its starts out:
 Bridesmaids, 1916.

I knew that the median age a century ago was not 18 years old, but I think that assumption is super common.  Indeed, I think that a lot of people operate under the assumption that back a century, or more, ago people married really young.

Let's take a look at that, and we'll start off with the article we linked in.
I was surprised to learn that in 1910 the median age at first marriage  was 21.6 for females and 25.1 for males.
The median marriage age steadily decreased until the middle of the 20th century. In 1950, it was 20.3 for females and 22.8 for males.
The trend then reversed and by 2007, it had increased to 25.0 for females and 26.7 for males–and preliminary estimates for 2010 suggest that it has continued to climb to about 26 for females and 28 for males.
Let's take a look at that, as I don't think that's what people expect at all.

 An early destination wedding?  A wedding, coming up on a century ago, in the Luray Caverns.

The median age for women was 21.6 in 1910. The same year, the median age for men was 25.1.

At the time the author wrote this entry, 2010, the median age for women was 25.0.  The median age for men was 26.7.  Data suggested that it had crept up a little over 1.7 years for women and 1.3 years for men.

Okay, that is a difference, but is that what you were expecting?

I doubt it, unless you are quite familiar with these statistics.

So, over century, the average age for "first marriages" has gone up a little under four years for women, and a little over 1.5 years for men.  Not that much of a climb.

 Wedding reception, 1907.  Doesn't look all that different from a lot of them you might see in a fancier wedding now.  This one is a bit unusual for the time, and was probably in a higher economic class, as the men are wearing tuxedos, which was not the standard for all weddings until relatively recently.

And that says quite a bit.

Additionally, we might note, the age differences between married couples tends not to be vast, at least for these first marriages. Early on, the men were a little over three years older than the women they married.  Now, a century later, they're almost two years older.  Not much of a change.

Particularly if we consider the vast societal, and moreover economic, changes during that century.

 Polish bride and groom, 1920.

We need, however, to first also take in mind that that these are averages. And as a median is an average, it's possible to arrive at these same results by having big swings in the numbers.  I.e., these numbers may reflect a really tight group, or they may reflect a really broad one.  The numbers themselves don't quite reveal which is which.  I'm taking them to be fairly tight, but I could be well off the mark.

But note, if this is correct, not only is the common assumption "people married so much younger" somewhat open to criticism, the assumption that "people are marrying older and older" is as well.  I suspect that both of those comments are in fact true, in context, but the numbers don't really adequately support it over the past century, and the changes, particularly after other factors are added in, may not actually be statistically significant.

 Portrait of very young Jewish bride, Ottoman Empire, 1870s.

Let's take a table that somebody else has generated and see if it changes things at all:

Year --- Men --- Women
2015 ----29.2 ----27.1
2010 --- 28.2 --- 26.1
2000 --- 26.8 --- 25.1
1990 --- 26.1 --- 23.9
1980 --- 24.7 --- 22.0
1970 --- 23.2 --- 20.8
1960 --- 22.8 --- 20.3
1950 --- 22.8 --- 20.3
1940 --- 24.3 --- 21.5
1930 --- 24.3 --- 21.3
1920 --- 24.6 --- 21.2
1910 --- 25.1 --- 21.6
1900 --- 25.9 --- 21.9
1890 --- 26.1 --- 22.0

Okay, that doesn't take us a lot further back, but it also produces some interesting results.  If we go all the way back to 1890 what we find is that the median age for men was 26.1, and that it then went down a year by 1910.  It continued to go down until 1960, at which time it was 22.8 years.  That really doesn't fit with our picture at all.  If we'd been making this same calculation mid 20th Century, we'd be noting that marriage ages were going down.  Now, if this table is correct, the age for men is 29.2, way up from 1960, and about three years up from 1890.  From 1890 on, however, it took all the way until 1990, 100 hundred years, for the age for men to rise back up to what it had been in 1890.  For that matter, it took from 1890 until 1980 for the age to rise back up to 22.0 years for women, although its climbed dramatically since then. . . maybe.

 Wedding party portrait, 1909.  Again, this couple must have been from an upper economic class, given the dress.

For women ages held fairly steady in the very early 20s, but still hit bottom in 1950 to 1960, when it was just a little over 20 years old.  It's way up to a little over 27 years old now, and that's quite a jump.

So this trend must be universal, going back, sort of kind of.

Not so much.

Let's look at 1850.

In 1850 the average marriage age for men was 28.

Um. . . 28?  Yes, we just climbed up over that in 2010.

And for women it was 26.  We got back to that in 2010 also.

It took us 130 years for the average "first" marriage age to get back to what it had been in 1850.

 Balkan wedding, 1919.  American officer is giving the bride away.

Hmm. . . . .

Now this gets harder and harder to do as you go back further and further, but let's take a look even further back.

 "Francis LeBaron and Mary Wilder during their wedding ceremony, with many guests, in a room, possibly in the magistrate's residence, officiated by a clergyman; includes two remarques, at bottom center is a bust portrait of Mary Wilder, facing left, and on the lower left is a scene with Dr. Francis LeBaron as a physician attending to a sick person."  LoC.

England, 1700s; Women: 25-26; Men: 30
New England, early 1600s; Women: Teens; Men: 26
New England, late 1600s; Women: 20; Men: 25
Pennsylvania Quakers, 1600s; Women: 22; Men: 26
Pennsylvania Quakers, 1700s; Women: 23; Men: 26
Rural South Carolina, 1700s; Women: 19; Men: 22

Wow.  None of this meets our expectations at all.

Basically, if we go back and looked at the United  States and the UK, and we take into account nothing but median ages, things have not really changed all that much.  For the most part, in North America, going back about 300 years, median ages have been in the upper half of the 20s.  Women have generally fallen in the lower half of the 20s.  Ages have climbed in recent years, but they've actually gone up and down over the years.

 Jewish wedding, Ottoman Empire, 1870s.  The families are signing a formal agreement in the context of the wedding.

So what's going on?

Well, in some ways not that much.


The long historical data basically suggests that even over time and change, in European American culture, men tend to get married in the second half of their 20s and women in the first half.

The trend line does move, up and down, and that means that external things influence this.

So what about all the stories to the opposite?

Well, let's consider historical outliers.  But before we do that, let's consider the current outliers in our own statistics.

 Wedding at Episcopal church in Jerusalem, 1940s.

But before we do that, let's remember that when we are dealing with statistics this consistent, the outliers don't make the story.

In other words, there may truly be a lot of nothing going on in this story. Things, quite frankly, may not have changed that much.  Here's an area in which you might truly be able to look back in the past and figure that your life might have played out much the same way.  Or maybe (and at least somewhat probably) not.

Okay.  Outliers in our current statistics.

One thing we're going to have to do in this is look at economics as part of this story, as well as acceptable social conventions.  Indeed, I argued just the other day that our current social conventions are messed up, and I mean it. That taps into this story in a way.

If we look at the current stats, men at age  29.2 and women at 27.1, we have to consider that these statistics would be at least somewhat depressed if we used the 1917 definitions.

 Bedouin wedding procession, early 20th Century.

Up until after World War Two cohabitation was largely illegal in most states and extremely shameful everywhere in European American and European society. The only people you really saw cohabitate tended to be on the far edges of society.  People so down and out that the statistics didn't count for them, or so Bohemian that they didn't.  And in many instances when that occurred the presumption of the Common Law marriage was presumed to exist.

Now, Common Law marriages still exist in most states, I think, but they do not exist in mine per se (we'll recognize common law marriages that are contracted elsewhere).  Common law marriages have never been as common as presumed, but they have been widely recognized at least in societies that use English Common Law.

This matters in terms of our current statistics as quite a few instances of "cohabitation" would either be deemed common law marriages under the pre World War Two law or they'd be regarded as illegal arrangements.  Post World War Two many would still be regarded as common law marriages, at first, or would be regarded as shameful. Now it's become, and in my view its not a good thing, extremely common.

 Chinese wedding party, 1909.

It's so common in fact that what at first was an edgy behavior mostly done by middle class rebellious youth has become pretty widely accepted to the point where the old instances of the common law marriage have come to apply to them in some ways, and indeed in many ways.  Over the last ten years, for example, I knew one cohabitating couple in which at least the female in the arrangement simply introduced the male members as her "husband". That would be sufficient for a common law marriage to be recognized under the old law (they in fact later married).  Another couple I know is engaged, has a child, and have had a very long standing relationship. They're in their early 30s, but the relationship stretches back to their early 20s and would likely have been regarded as a common law marriage, if we looked at it in 1917, or they would have certainly been legally compelled to marry quite early on.  Another couple I know is in their late 30s but again has been living in such an arrangement for a decade or more.  And another one I know has been engaged in it for a shorter period but again have undertaken things that would have caused a common law marriage to have been recognized earlier on.  And to show how even the people who are engaged in such relationships are confused by what they mean, I recently heard a man in one such relationship try to describe another man in one by what he was in relation to the female object of that second union, and ended u using the word "husband".

 This photograph of a native Alaskan wedding party almost certainly depicts a party at a Russian Orthodox wedding service.

The point on this is that this is that, because marriage is a natural institution (people familiar with some bodies of law will be familiar with the term "natural marriage") people tend to re-create its incidents even when they are attempting not to.  So, if we look at the men at age  29.2 and women at 27.1, if we include common law marriages and ersatz, pseudo and near common law marriages, that number is actually lower.  Probably quite a bit lower.

Indeed, we'd have to depress these ages for every decade since the 1970s as this practice became more accepted.  If we did, my guess (and its just that) is that the ages would remain about where they were in 1980.

When we get beyond that, what we tend to find is that we have about a ten year period, from 20 to 30 years age, when "first marriages" are normally contracted for men and women, but that those ages slide around, up and down, for a variety of reasons.

 Bedouin wedding, Syria, 1940s

And I suspect that those reasons are fairly consistent.  Economic and societal reason are primary factors, over the ages, but often very different economic and societal factors.  So the forces that impact this are the same, and different, at the same time.

Currently, we've been seeing the restoration of economic forces that most people in our current era did not experience, but which are a bit of the historical norm, at least for men.  It's taking a long time for men to establish themselves economically now, and indeed due to the entry of women into the work force (which we'll deal with in a minute) its also taking a long time for women to do the same.

This has been going on longer than people recognize and I suspect that its something that can be traced at least back to the 1980s.  And in this context, its interesting to note that marriage ages for men climbed from just about 23 years of age in 1950 to just about 25 years of age in 1980, and then to 26 years of age in 1990.

In 1950 American men still lived in an era when a high school degree, which they normally acquired at age 17 or 18, could gain entry to the work force at a beginning, but real, level.  A bachelor's degree, normally obtained at that time at age 22, guaranteed entry into the white collar world.  By age 22 men had likely more often than not (but not always, these are statistics) met the woman they were likely to marry and by age 22 they were established enough to get married, more often than not.

Now, not all did.  Some married later (and we'll get to that in a moment) and some younger, but you can see how the general trend worked.

 Bride portrait, about 1910.

By the 1980s, however, this was much less the case.  Bachelors degrees that had taken four years now often took five.  And a bachelors degree was a much more dicey proposition in terms of employment.  By 1990 this was even more the case, and by 2000 many bachelors degrees did not guarantee employment at all. So this meant that men who had entered career fields at 22, in the 50s, were not entering them until 25 or 26, at the earliest, a couple of decades later, which pretty much matched the rise in marriage ages.   Now, with even advance degrees like law not offering immediate employment opportunities that stage of life is often pushed off to age 30 or even older.

The concept of somebody being young, we'd note, has also risen.  In 1930 a person who was 30 wasn't a kid.  Now, perhaps they are.

When we look back further this is all the more evident.  If we look at hard economic times, like the 1890s, men and women both pushed the age of marriage back.  When economic times were really good, like the 1950s and 1960s, the opposite was true.  Geographically this is also evident.  When we look at England of the 1700s the average age was about 30, while it was about 26 in North America.  People's prospects were generally better in North America than they were in England.

 Wartime wedding of Australian service members in Jerusalem.

When you add in women, the same is also evident, but the pressures are different.  Up until the 1930s or so, as we've written about before, most women remained in their parents households until they married.  Their labor was needed, but if you look at writings from women of that age, they often strongly desired to get married just to get out of their parents' homes.  While it would be going a ways back, the 1700s, the writings of Jane Austen, who of course was herself a late 18th Century and early 19th Century figure, and an unmarried woman, this comes across well.  In Pride and Prejudice, for example, one figure marries simply because she's a burden on her parents, past the average marriage age (late 20s in the case of the figure in the novel), and wants to keep her own home.  The marriage prospects of all of the Bennet sisters in the novel are of utmost concern to her parents as they will not inherit an estate and will be subject to economic disaster if they do not marry.   The portrayal is dramatic, but not really greatly different from contemporary writings of the time involving people in similar situations.

What this tended to mean is that women always married a bit younger than men, but never as young as some seem to think.  As a rule, prior to mid century, and even some time after that, the fact that their husband was established and they were moving from one domestic employment to another operated in regards to that.  That is, for example, if we look at 1920, they tend to average just over 21 years of age and were marrying men who were just under 25, which would mean that by that time they'd been living as adult women at home, as a rule, for several years and were marrying men who were a couple of years at least into what would likely be their lifetime employment.  Situations vary, but that would have been relatively stable.

 Wedding of officer of the German fighting ship Emden.  The ship grounded early in World War One so I don't know what happened to the subjects.

Figuring out what was going on in 1970, when women hit the floor age, wise at just under 21 is a little harder to figure. Their spouses averaged at just over 23.  So it would seem that some of the same factors were at work, but that women, who were no longer needed at home for domestic employment, but who hadn't yet been subject to the pressure of "must have a career" were marrying fairly young in relative terms.  Women may have actually hit the height of their freedom in real terms about that time.

After 1970s a new era increasingly took over in which women were now subject to increased expectations that they had to have a "career" just like men.  As that developed, they same pressure that they establish themselves in that career really built. Today that pressure is full on.  With that in mind, that "first marriage" age for women is now up to 27 is no surprise, they're enduring the same thing that men are.

So what's that leave us with? Well, for most people, marriage ages haven't changed as much as we commonly think, as first marriages are generally contracted older than we think they are, and beyond that, economic and social pressures have an influence on that.

 Just married.  1943.

Social pressures?

What am I talking about here?  I only addressed economic pressures.

Well, on to social concerns, or perhaps I should say cultural concerns. These too have historically had an impact on marriage ages, but they're outliers in a way.

Consider for example the Irish.  The news in Ireland is that marriage ages are up, and now the first age for men and women is now in the 30s (although there may be a statistical glitch in this that makes the data a bit flawed).  The average age for women, in Ireland, is 33 and for men, 35.

But in reality, the average age in Ireland, and amongst Irish Americans, has always been high.  Men have crowed or surpassed age 30 routinely for as long as the statistics have been taken, and traditionally women were in their late 20s. There were strong economic reasons for this for centuries, but its also now a strongly cultural matter that has only changed marginally.  "Young Irish bride" is a category that doesn't even really exist.  Indeed, under the law of Ireland, a person under 21 years of age is a minor and marriages in that age group are regarded as under aged, which they would not be in the US.  Ireland allows marriages with legal provisions down to 16, which is actually a higher age than most US states ultimately have (I don't know what it is in my state, but at least according to a sign that was once up in the courthouse it was something like down to age 15 with parents permission.)

Indeed, my own family is somewhat of an example of this as my parents, who both had Irish heritage, didn't marry until they were both in their 30s.  They'd fit in nicely with the current Irish statistics.  I'm not sure how old my mother's parents were, but I know that they were more or less engaged as a couple for an extremely long time while my grandfather worked to get his feet on the ground economically.  I think, therefore, that they were likely around 30 when they were married.  I was 31 at the time of our wedding.


Well what about the opposite, "young" marriages? Are there cultures in the United States where this is common?  Well, not really any mainstream ones really.

There are some where the ages are slightly younger than the average, but they're only slightly younger.  Mormons, for example, marry statistically younger, but the median ages are only a couple of years younger than the national average.  By observation, this makes sense as we tend to see Mormon couples in fact be a couple of years younger than what we'd otherwise find.  While, by observation, Mormon dating practises are dramatically different than the American cultural norm, that isn't translating into really young brides as some people sometimes tend to think it does.

Some recent immigrant cultures do tend towards young marriages, particularly young brides, but those amount to statistical outliers and may not be statistically significant.  If they are, they are something that has existed throughout American history and have probably pushed the average marriage ages down, statistically, for a long time.  Some American Hispanic cultures had very young marriage ages, compared to the overall population, at one time for example.  The same is true of Italian Americans.  Marriages down into the teenage years were not uncommon in either culture, at one time, but they are now.  As the overall percentage of the population such groups represent is always a minority, the impact on overall statistics would be small.  Having said that, I've known at least one deceased New Mexican person who was married at about age 14 to a husband who was only a couple of years older, in the 1930s, and an Italian American couple that was 16 years old, in the 40s, when they they were married. FWIW, the marriages worked and were successful.

So what about the ones that are always the source of myth and rumor? You know, 30 year old guy marries 14 year old girl. That type of thing.

Well that was never common.

And it was particularly not common for a male "first" marriage.

Which takes us to second marriages, or rather a marriage where one of the two participants had been married previously. This is, I suspect, where we pick up these stories more often than not.

A real factor in the story of marriage in prior centuries was female mortality.  The female death rate was very high, often due to death giving birth.  Women wanted to be married, but at the same time its notable that the basic incidents of marriage could be lethal to women, and frequently were. 

What that meant was that the number of widowers was once very high. For that matter, there were once a lot of widows was very high as well.  The dynamics of this had a real impact on "second" marriage ages.

Today, there are more women than men, as male mortality is higher.  That's always been true to a degree, but if we go back prior to the mid 19th Century we'll find that this was not always the case. Female mortality was quite high.  As a result of this, it's not uncommon at all to find examples of men who were married three or so times and never due to divorce. Their prior wives had just all died.

None of that had an impact on "first marriages", and it didn't always have an impact on second marriages either.  Generally, given a choice, men tend to marry at or near their own ages, or within a decade of it (going down, usually, not up).  But for second marriages, this does begin to break apart.

For one thing, some men will simply look down towards first marriageable age no matter what.  Its not hard to find examples of that now, and I can think of at least one such example readily myself.  But beyond that, if a man had means at all, and his spouse died, he likely was in the position of having to hire female assistance to take care of his young children, and that assistance ends up explaining a lot of young brides.

As we've already discussed, women, prior to the mid 20th Century, normally worked in their parents homes until they married.  This wasn't the case for those who were forced to work outside the home for economic reasons, however.  Some women worked their entire lives as "domestics".  But some just started off their lives that way.  That is, they were surplus labor at home in a home that was better off with them employed outside the home.  Often these women were in fact girls.

Employed, as they sometimes were, in the home of a widower, who likely wasn't really all that old, and taking care of his children, at some point, practicality and familiarity took over.  This wasn't exactly a love match per se.  The man probably needed the labor, but probably also had some affection for the subject bride. The bride had a family that benefited from her leaving home, and what she'd be doing in the household of her new husband wasn't dramatically different from what she was doing otherwise, but somewhat more stable.

Indeed, you can find lots of examples, sometimes upset examples, of older children being really upset by a father "marrying down".  I can think of one such example of that myself in which a highly educated  man had been married to a highly educated woman, who died. The second wife was one of the maids.

Another example of this, although not a good one due to the conditions, is that of the parents of T. E. Lawrence, i.e. Lawrence of Arabia.  Lawrence's father was Sir Thomas Chapman and was married to a woman of equal rank who was one year older than he was. But Chapman took up with the governess of his children with his wife, who was fifteen years his junior. A better historical example, although still obviously rather problematic, would be that of Sally Hemmings, who became the mistress of Thomas Jefferson after the death of Jefferson's wife, and her half sister, Martha (who herself had been married prior to Jefferson but who had been widowed.  Of interest here, Martha had been 18 years old at the time of her first marriage, her husband had been 22, but Sally was in her mid teens when she became the enslaved mistress and perhaps near spouse of Jefferson (the dynamics of this are, suffice it to say, rather odd and problematic).

This is only one variant of that, of course. Poverty and security, in an age before any social welfare system existed at all, forced some people into relationships that were not only extreme in our view, but likely were extreme at the time.  They'd not arise now, however, as the economic pressures that gave rise to them just don't exist.

Which I suppose takes us up to the odd outliers we see in the news now and then today.  When we hear things like the Roy Moore story, or read about another Duggar getting married in a nearly arranged marriage, these are not only unusual, but in fact cross over into odd.

So, what's the overall story here? Well, there is one, but it's not the one that people expect.  Average marriage ages have changed, in fact, not hardly at all.  Where we think we see some change it's often because of economic and statistical factors that we don't quite appreciate.

  Yes, this is the third (now fourth) time I've run this photo.  I just like it.  Two young couples.  Migrant farm workers in Louisiana and their children, 1939.

So there's a story here, to be sure.  But maybe a lot less of one than we'd suppose, and its influenced by factors that we often don't really grasp, while we analyze ones that perhaps get more attention than they deserve.


Related threads:


Et Ux*: A legal and societal history of marriage

Today In Wyoming's History: February 2: Common Law Marriages

For First Time in Modern Era, Living With Parents Edges Out Other Living Arrangements for 18- to 34-Year-Olds. Generations: Part Three of Three

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