Massachusetts statistics indicate 15-20% of women were married before age 20 in the 1840s.


Nicholas L. Syrett, American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 43, 52-54, 57, 82-83

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[Table 2.1-2.4]

Historians have demonstrated for this period that in particular regions, upcountry Georgia, for instance, marriage beginning at fourteen or fifteen was common. In her sample of antebellum North Carolinian planter families’ daughters, historian Jane Turner Censer found that 3.9 percent married at fifteen or under, 5.8 percent at sixteen, and 7.1 percent at seventeen. The most common age of first marriage was nineteen, and the average was twenty years, six months. In one family, the Kearneys, the six sisters married at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, twenty-two, and two at twenty-five. Censer and Jabour are clear that most girls and women married based on their own choices—their parents did not arrange their marriages for them—though location and suitability always constrained marital selections and sometimes induced girls to marry sooner than they might have liked out of fear that another man might not be available later on. During the colonial era it had been much more common for wealthy parents in the South to arrange the marriages of their young children, often to families who lived nearby and were sometimes related. By the antebellum era, most parents had abandoned this practice in favor of the belief that marriage was built on the mutual desire of the bride and groom. Letting girls make their own decisions, albeit with proper guidance, was how marriages were meant to begin. But that this decision might occur at fifteen or sixteen was perfectly appropriate. As one young southerner explained in 1839, “So you see we have the Town full of young girls who will soon be Ladies.” Marriage would effect this transformation.

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Massachusetts was also the first state to collect vital statistics systematically, if unevenly and incompletely, recording from 1842 onward the number of births, marriages, and deaths by county and city. Although the first two reports pay little attention to age in relation to marriage, the 1844 report and those thereafter begin not only to chart the average ages of those who married in Massachusetts but by 1848 also to note the cases at the margins: the particularly youthful and the especially elderly who entered into matrimony. In that report, the authors explained that “we find marriages among person of all ages intervening 13 and 91.” They went on to note that the youngest couple was seventeen and fourteen; a number of thirteen-year-old girls were wed; and the greatest age gap seems to have been between a fifty-year-old man and a nineteen-year-old girl. They also noted the comparatively rare cases where the woman was older than the man and the age of the parties who were marrying for the second, third, and fourth time. They explained that the probability of marriage under the age of twenty was nearly fifteen times greater for girls than boys. The point here is less what the numbers demonstrate—we have already seen that youthful boys and girls were marrying in all areas of the country during these years and that it was much more common for girls than boys—than that Massachusetts officials were themselves starting to notice these trends. Age was becoming a meaningful category of identity; people both above and below certain ages were presumed to be unfit for marriage, as were those separated by age gaps perceived to be too large. Of course the collection, publication, and discussion of these vital statistics was not itself neutral; reports like these were one influential vehicle for the spread of age consciousness. They both documented a phenomenon and helped to make it meaningful. First to adopt age-graded schooling, first to rely on birth registration and certification, and first to collect vital statistics, Massachusetts was a pioneer, however unwittingly, in the inculcation of age consciousness.

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