America, 1900: Subsistence Marriage


My maternal great-grandparents and children. This is on my wall at home, next to one taken around the same time of my great-grandparents on the paternal side. In both pictures, of these two families that were very different from each other, there is one commonality: an older husband, younger wife, and two sets of kids, the older set from a first marriage. Here, the two older girls and the older son were from the first marriage. My great-grandfather above married my great-grandmother less than six months after his first wife died in childbirth.

Needless to say, if the shoe was on the other foot and my great-grandmother had been widowed with three kids, she would have been waiting a lot longer for a second husband, if anyone married her at all. Said hypothetical second marriage would probably only have happened if she’d been able to hold on to whatever property she had inherited upon her husband’s death. The likelihood of that inheritance happening, of course, depended on what state she lived in. Women’s property rights varied widely by state in the second half of the 19th century. “Reforms” that allowed women to inherit property from their husbands were not passed to advance the rights of women but to lessen the burdens to creditors and society posed by impoverished widows and their kids.

(NOTE: the baby in this picture grew up to be the very tired woman inthis picture.)

5 thoughts on “America, 1900: Subsistence Marriage

  1. And, as is driving me crazy in genealogy, as generations went by, the homestead got subdivided among the children again and again. In order to keep the acreage from being a postage stamp size, it was very common for folks to marry their cousins so that they could combine their land. I’m running into this in Alabama in the mid-1800s where family members lived next door to each other and intermingled to the extent that I doubt even they knew the exact relationships to each other.
    These ancestors were on the lower end of the economic scale. Even among them, marriage was often an economic proposition.

  2. Absolutely Maple, I’d say it was probably MORE of an economic proposition, or certainly as much of one, as for the wealthy.
    In my mother’s papers, there’s an old census form for one of our great great great dudes. He’s listed, his children are listed by name, and “Indian Female” is listed as “Wife.”
    You might not have money to buy land but you could marry it.
    In some states, a woman might be able to *inherit* property but didn’t have the right to sell it, lease it, or will it to her heirs.

  3. Really enjoying the family picture/hardship posts. My Greek great-grandfather was a man of respect in his village: the village school teacher. But he had 14 kids including 3 sets of twins so they were poor, poor, poor and sent the older sons to America to work and send money home.

  4. Re hardship: Oddly enough, my GGF (in this photo) was, relative to his peers, fairly comfortable for that time and place. He had a business, owned property. Not rich but they got by okay. That said, just living in rural Texas in 1900 was pretty much a hardship in itself.

  5. I’ve heard it said of our ancestors and ancestresses that men could make the decision whether they could afford to get married, whereas women could make the decision whether they could affordnot to get married. (In a lot of very substantial ways, a “spinster woman” in 1900 with her own income was in a much better position than a married woman.)

Comments are closed.