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Industrialization changed the family by converting it from a unit of production into a unit of consumption, causing a decline in fertility and a transformation in the relationship between spouses and between parents and children. This change occurred unevenly and gradually, and varied by social class and occupation. Through the nineteenth century industrial workers continued to have relatively large families; women tended to have children about every two years from marriage to age forty. Most types of workers had little motivation for limiting family size because children continued to contribute to the family economy and infant and child mortality rates remained high in industrial cities, sometimes reaching fifty percent in the first year of life. Usually women stopped working outside the home once they became mothers, but often their husbands' wages were too low to support a family, so they took in tasks such as sewing to supplement the family income; but earnings were so low, and hours so long, that households suffered even more than they did when women left the home to work (Accampo, Fuchs, and Stewart 1995). In France especially, the practice of sending children out to wet-nurses continued to be widespread, and hygiene reports blamed infant mortality on women who did not breastfeed their own children (Fuchs 1992; Cole 2000).

Industrialization disrupted the traditional relationship between generations, as well as the relationship between spouses. Fathers could no longer pass on skills to their children—often the only patrimony workers had—when skills became obsolete. During times when the father was unemployed, family roles could be dramatically reversed: children and wives would bring home wages while the husband tended to the household. In conditions of severe poverty, "family life" could barely exist when multiple families and individuals crowded into tiny dwellings to save on rent.

The conditions of working class families varied widely, however, according to region and economic activity, and the family often became a means to resist change or soften its worst impacts. Particularly in textiles, male weavers went to great lengths to preserve their craft, avoid factory work, and preserve the family domestic economy. For example, French handloom weavers in the region around Cholet managed to preserve their craft for a century after linen production had become mechanized. As their own earnings declined from factory competition, they sent their wives and children into unskilled work in the local shoe and linen factories (Liu 1994). Where textiles did become completely industrialized in France, England, and the northern United States, historians have shown that entire families would become reconstituted in workshops, keeping the family unit together with fathers often supervising the work of their children. Families most affected by industrial change had a remarkable ability to adjust and survive (Smelser 1959; Hareven 1977, 1982; Hareven and Langenback 1978).

The nineteenth-century bourgeoisie experienced a fundamental transformation in family life as well. In the early phases of industrial capitalism, bourgeois women helped manage family businesses; little separation existed between private household affairs and the family enterprise, and their attitude about the latter extended to all aspects of life. As mothers they concentrated on alleviating themselves of childcare responsibilities and sent their infants to wet-nurses. When the mechanization of production and the professionalization of commerce removed work from the home, however, gender roles and ideals about family life changed dramatically. Men left the home to work and to socialize with other men, whereas women devoted themselves to domesticity and motherhood. Wives were to establish a moral haven from the unethical capitalist world to which their husbands could return. They supervised and instructed servants and elaborately decorated their households and themselves as symbols of their husbands' success. A cult of domesticity and a new ideology about motherhood emerged, dictating that women devote themselves exclusively to the nurturing function, breast-feeding their children themselves and rearing them according to strict rules of moral and religious discipline (Smith 1981; Davidoff and Hall 1987).

Although servants remained in bourgeois households until after World War I as domestics, nursemaids, and governesses—undermining the prescribed role of motherhood—family life among the bourgeoisie grew more private and closed in on itself, and affective relationships intensified. Ironically, the much higher expectations about marriage and childrearing emerged at a time when male and female worlds were becoming increasingly separate and differentiated. It was this family model that provided the basis upon which Sigmund Freud developed his psychoanalytic theory (Weeks 1985); it is difficult to imagine the theory's appropriateness to previous family forms.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaModern Marriage & Family IssuesIndustrialization - Marriage, Family, The Bourgeois Family As A Model