Sample Term Papers on The Changes of the Nineteenth Century American Families to Present Time


According to Steven Ruggles, the history of American families in light of new evidence about long run changes in the structure has been witnessed since 1850s. He asserts that the evidence suggests that revisionists interpreted needs of a family by focusing on forms and structures of extended families as they were dominant. For example, in the nineteenth century, preference for extended family structures in America disappeared. Sociologists, theorists, and historians believe this was due to the transition taking place as people commenced to appreciate, focus and promote nuclear rather than extended family structures. This was based on the notion that American ancestors lived in large extended family structures widespread among the general public. This notion had to be changed in order promote nuclear families where people did not have to live with their extended kin members (Ruggles, 2003).  Sociologists believe the transition was ideal as modern pre-industrial societies were developing. Thus, the changes were essential to underpin the American way of life. The transition however faced challenges as the extended to nuclear family structure model of family history commenced as soon as it entered the sociological canon (Skolnick, & Skolnick, 2014).

In the early 1950s, articles arguing that most people were preferring nuclear family structures were authored. For example, Marvin Sussman wrote a series of articles including ‘The Isolated Nuclear Family: Fact or Fiction’ to argue that relatives preferred the modern family forms. Marvin however also noted that the relatives required assistance. This led to surveys being conducted to determine which family structures were being promoted. Steven notes that several surveys affirmed family get-togethers were becoming frequent celebratory occasions held by nuclear families desiring a connection with extended relatives. More so, members of nuclear families confirmed they would frequently telephone their extended relatives to either check up on them or seek assistance. This allowed nuclear family members to provide their kin members with a wide variety of services. This prompted sociologists to assert that American families, although extended family structures were being abandoned as relatives no longer preferred living together, there was still the need to continue relying on each other. Thus, the modified extended family structure was defined as the most efficient system in a society seeking to maximize progress with regards o technological and democratic aspects (Ruggles, 2003).

The industrial society that was rooming in the nineteenth century was often under review by critics including sociologists who did not appreciate the extended to nuclear family structure transition. They claimed the transition was promoting isolation in a society keen in attaining growth and development. For example, they claimed the transition implicitly acknowledged shifts in living arrangements. They however also noted the changes and shifts did not adversely impact kin relationships as they remained relatively strong beyond the households. This led people to understand that extended household structures should not be regarded as a norm in a western society seeking industrial growth and developments. Consequently, orthodox supporter of nuclear family structures claimed they should be preferred and encouraged. They however noted that the key of understanding family members should be sustained in order for invisible ties binding relatives even as they live apart remain. The long-run dominance of nuclear family structures or systems was therefore a generally accepted empirical fact among revisionist orthodoxy including sociologists and historians (Ruggles, 2003).

Historians have often traced long run national trends in family structures in 1850s. This led policy analysts and social scientists in the first half of the twentieth century to identify dramatic transitions in living arrangements among Americans. For example, they identified changes in living arrangements of the aged from multigenerational families to separate residence of the aged and their adult children. Creators of American Social Security Program have often routinely explained that growing needs for old-aged family members who need assistance is a consequence of changes in the multigenerational family structures (Ruggles, 2003).

Ruggles notes that most people thought that all family members needed for a secure old age or to ride out a period of depression was quarter sections of good land. They also needed sons to help in cultivating the land. More so, they appreciated a couple of daughters who would provide the family with able-bodied sons-in-law. In 1930s therefore, families resided on farms until they passed on as the modern old-age issues had not developed. Thus, pre-industrial family households including extended kin impacted new findings on sociological thoughts prompting swift dramatic changes. Consequently, some anthropologists and sociologists in the late 1950s commenced to criticize the theory of industrialization which was accompanied by shifts from extended to nuclear family systems. America and England are therefore recognized as the first industrial nations with historical evidence proving they had predominantly nuclear families even before industrialization. Hence, in the mid 1970s the theory of long run stability in Western family system found its way into every basic sociological textbook (Ruggles, 2003).

The effects on historians were exciting as they exploded the myth of transition to nuclear from extended family structures as potent demonstrations of the power of social science methods in historical analysis. This discovery as crucial as it played as a stimulus for development of the new social history in 1960s and 1970s. It was based on use of quantitative methods studying lives of ordinary people in the past. Historians from diverse nations turned to the study of family history in order to seek an understanding of social, economic, and ideological underpinnings of the pre-industrial nuclear family system. Currently, various family historians and sociologists who believe that in the past several centuries, parents and their mature children ordinarily resided in separate households especially across North America and North-Western Europe. Thus, the aged lived together with their adult children if they had no other option which promoted the form of old-age assistance (Ruggles, 2003).

Distinction between Household Structures and Residential Preferences

According to Marion and Levy argued that extended family systems were ideal types in pre-industrial societies though they rarely predominated in real populations. This is because opportunities to reside in extended households had dramatically shifted. Thus, under high mortality conditions, a relatively small number of people can reside with their elderly kin. This is especially observed in three-generation families who cannot be the norm in societies where most people perish either before their grand siblings are born or shortly after. Under pre-industrial demographic conditions therefore, most families continued to appear as nuclear households based on the stem family hypothesis. The hypothesis was based on the notion that, stem families ensure one child remains in the parental household even after marriage while the rest leave to form their nuclear households elsewhere (Marion, & Levy, 1965). In stem families, the younger generation was then required to take over business and farm activities in order to ensure labor continuity and provide means of old-age support. The stem family was therefore a process beginning with the nuclear family structure before it becomes an extended system due to the marriage of the children and then becoming nuclear again after the death of the elderly parents. Extended family system should therefore be regarded as the single phase of a stem family process as observed by sociologists, anthropologists, and historians (Ruggles, 2003).

Across America, the joint family patterns barely exist as the percentage of people with spouses and residing with their siblings is barely measurable. Each year, the dominant form of extended family has been multigenerational with older parents residing with their grown-up children.  America had been sharply limiting the potential for multigenerational families through the strong aversion to co-reside between married siblings in the nineteenth century. This is because fertility was high. Thus, all siblings with a spouse resided in separate households with a minority containing multiple generations. This is because a single set of parents did not have to live with more than one of their grown up children who were married (Skolnick, & Skolnick, 2014). Besides mortality and fertility, other demographic factors influenced potential for multigenerational families. For example, the generation length was also vital. Thus, a long generation influenced by late marriages and minimal fertilities limited periods through which parents and children lived hence, reducing and eliminating extended phases of the stem family cycle (Berthoud, & Robson, 2006).

Demographic Conditions and Multigenerational Families

Historians claim that in the past households mostly promoted extended nuclear family structures. This is because the percentage of households with extended kin had limited relevance for analysis of living arrangements of the aged. Thus, the low percentage of households with multigenerational families did not reflect on the residential preferences of the elderly. More so, there were demographic constraints on family compositions in pre-industrial world which translated to selected households including elderly parents in the system. It is also considered that before the twentieth century, life expectancy was short although the generations were relatively long. Thus, Americans bore children late in life at the average age of thirty three. Late marriages coupled with minimal fertility control procedures in the nineteenth century supported this concept (Berthoud, & Robson, 2006).

Consequently, early death coupled with long generations limited the average period of overlap between parents and their mature children. Thus, people could not live with their parents as most of them had passed on. More so, high fertility limited the number of multigenerational families. Women who therefore survived through the years of bearing children had more than six children (Berthoud, & Robson, 2006).

Currently, women in the same age bracket bear less than five children with most preferring a maximum of two. Thus, a large number of children in the nineteenth century affected the number of multigenerational families as married sons and daughters did not reside together. More so, when elderly parents survived, they had to choose one of their grown up child to live. This is because fertility was high and typically elderly parents with mature children had either three or four other surviving children living in different households. Several adults could not reside with their parents as they were already living with their siblings. Thus, high fertility, short life expectancy, and long generations in the nineteenth century ensured small populations of elderly persons were thinly spread among much larger younger generations (Berthoud, & Robson, 2006).

Consequently, the numbers of households with elderly persons were relatively limited. This further proves that, overwhelming majority of the nineteenth century households did not have the ability to include their elderly kin even if they had moved in with other relatives. This is because demographic opportunities forming multigenerational families had expanded dramatically since the twelfth century with fewer people taking advantage of the opportunities (Ruggles, 2003).

Census reports between 1850 and 1900 indicate that more than seventy five percent of elderly parents residing with their grown up were listed as the heads of the household. Thus, multigenerational households acknowledged that older generations had to ordinarily retain power and authority. This led several sociologists to analyze if the elderly had actually moved in with their older children because they could no longer support themselves. They discovered that at least a third of the younger generation could not financially support the household (Ruggles, 2003).

As a result, the elderly generations would allow the children to marry. Consequently, they had to reside with the children, offer the support needed, and be listed as the heads of the family. This encouraged property and authority to be shifted among male heirs upon death of the elderly male leader of the household. The census information demonstrates unequivocally as great majority of nineteenth century elderly resided with their living grown up children. Most cases involved children remaining in their parents’ households even after marriage as they could not support their new nuclear families. There were however occasions during which elderly parents especially widows moved in with their grown up and married children. This occurred after their elderly husbands passed on leaving them vulnerable prompting them to seek help from their children’s nuclear households (Ruggles, 2003).

Decline of Multigenerational Families

It is evident that multigenerational residence was a norm among the elderly persons across America in the nineteenth century. This arrangement was preferred as it made sense during the pre-industrial century. Thus, it provided clear benefits for the younger and older generation. The elderly with farms needed their grown up children and in-laws to tend and cultivate the land as they had the vitality to undertake heavy work they were no longer capable of mainly due to health complications and old age. Conversely, the younger generation was guaranteed of inheriting the land as well as other assets and resources accumulated by the elderly. Thus, the American pre-industrial economy was based on farming and the wealth derived from land. This encouraged fathers to accumulate land which they handed down to their sons. Some men however worked as artisans, craftsmen, and merchants. This notion of self-employment was however destroyed in the late nineteenth century and twentieth century (Skolnick, & Skolnick, 2014).

Through the fundamental transformation of the economy, agriculture and craft ceased being the dominant occupations. This is because they were eclipsed by enormous growth of job opportunities in industries, commerce, and manufacturing sectors. The shifts in economy therefore undermined economic logics of the pre-industrial family systems. Consequently, wage labor undermined family economy as follows. Foremost, rising opportunities encouraged the younger generation especially men to do away with farming and family businesses. Consequently, aged life-long wage earners acknowledged they had no need for their children to remain and operate family farms and businesses. More so, they lacked incentives to offer in order for the next generations to undertake the tasks that had been dominated pre-industrial households. Thus, decline of multigenerational families since nineteenth century can be regarded as an indirect response to economic transformation (Ruggles, 2003).

The transformation shifted balance of power within families and reduced their incentives for co-residence. Growth of new job opportunities in the late nineteenth century and twentieth century attracted several young men to leave farms. This is because they favored high wage opportunities. More so, the opportunities promoted independence allowing them to enjoy the excitements offered by urbanization. The declining importance towards family activities involving the farm however meant that fewer parents were able to offer incentives towards agricultural activities that would be inherited. The inheritance was crucial as it kept their grown children from leaving home. Consequently, the parents did not have to deal with labor demands of the land as their children were grown up, married, and living away from home (Furlong, & Cartmel, 2007).

Industrialization has also led to traditional self-employment opportunities such as cabinet makers, black smiths, and shoe makers being rendered obsolete. The disappearance of the business has been reinforcing effects of decline in farm activities. This factor has contributed towards decline of multigenerational families across America (Skolnick, & Skolnick, 2014). Consequently, living arrangements for the aged and elderly have been shifting. Although the mechanisms are still being investigated and debated, they have transformed American families. This is because currently, co-residence among the elderly and their children does not necessarily translate to old-age support. This has led American families to seek help from home residences offering services catering for the needs, wants, and desires of the elderly. Thus, families are willing for specialized care givers to support the elderly at a fee rather than co-residing with them (Furlong, & Cartmel, 2007).

For several post-industrial years, women have been advocating for their own independence and equality. They have been fighting to ensure they are not being victimized, discriminated and prejudiced, and dominated by their male counterparts due to their gender. They have been asserting that gender based discrimination mainly faced by women is more deeply rooted and unreasonably maintained. Thus, they have been advocating for gender independence and equality in order for women to be awarded equal opportunities to participate in societal growth and development. This has allowed women to be identified as leaders (Skolnick, & Skolnick, 2014). Thus, they do not have to be married in order to be recognized as members of the society who contribute greatly towards growth and development. Consequently, the number of single women and mothers has been rising compared to statistics in the past centuries. This is because women suffrage is being addressed and eliminated in order for members of the female section with skills and experience to contribute towards socioeconomic, sociopolitical, and environmental growth and development while ensuring their families are catered for effectively and efficiently (Herbst, & Stanton, 2007).

In conclusion, families are conforming to cultural norms encouraging them to maintain independence and equality. Thus, they are encouraging children to pursue their hobbies and talents rather than constraining them to tending family farms and business ventures. They are also encouraging and supporting women to gain education and societal leaders. Consequently, social, political, and economics needs and wants have been expanding. However, families identify measures to undertake in order to fulfill them. More so, the needs have been encouraging innovation and ensuring modernization supports expansion through industrialization. Thus, American families will continue to transition and transform in order to allow every member to attain personal goals and objectives in life without any form of prejudice.


Berthoud, R., & Robson, K. (2006). Early fertility and ethnic groups in Britain. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 29(1).

Furlong, A., & Cartmel, F. (2007). Young people and social change: New perspectives. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Herbst, K., & Stanton, J. (2007). Changes in family dynamics predict purchase and consumption. British Food Journal, 109(8).

Marion, J., & Levy, J. (1965). Aspects of the analysis of family structure; Aspects of the Analysis of Family Structure. N.J: Princeton.

Ruggles, S. (2003). Multigenerational families in nineteenth-century America. Continuity and Change, 18(1), 139–165.

Skolnick, S. A., & Skolnick, H. J. (2014). Family in transition. Pearson Publishers.