Family Planning and the 19th Century Family Tree

Susan (Stanwood) Clark and daughter Beatrice, 1906 – Floodwood, Minnesota

My great grandmother, Susan (Stanwood) Clark is shown above, holding my grandmother’s sister, Beatrice. My grandmother, Goldie (Simpson) Edwards, and Auntie Bea were the only surviving children born to Grandma Susie, who was herself one of eight children, seven of which lived to adulthood. Her father, Albert Stanwood, however, was one of only four children. Albert’s father, David, was from a family of six, born to Benjamin and Betsy (Wasgatt) Stanwood. Surprisingly, I’ve stumbled on a fair number of 19th century families in my genealogy (primarily in the Wasgatt lines) where only one or two children were born to the couple, while they were married many years. While not uncommon during current times, it certainly was not the norm in days past. It made me stop and ponder the reasons for these smaller family sizes. Infertility? Possibly. Choice? Maybe. But how? The Comstock law of 1873 declared birth control both obscene as well as illegal. So, what methods of birth control did our ancestors have available to them?

According to the CDC’s MMR publication Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999:  Family Planning, discussing birth control, counseling women about family planning or distributing contraception was illegal under state and federal laws.  “In 1912, the modern birth-control movement began. Margaret Sanger, a public health nurse concerned about the adverse health effects of frequent childbirth, miscarriages, and abortion, initiated efforts to circulate information about and provide access to contraception. In 1916, Sanger challenged the laws that suppressed the distribution of birth control information by opening in Brooklyn, New York, the first family planning clinic. The police closed her clinic, but the court challenges that followed established a legal precedent that allowed physicians to provide advice on contraception for health reasons. During the 1920s and 1930s, Sanger continued to promote family planning by opening more clinics and challenging legal restrictions. As a result, physicians gained the right to counsel patients and to prescribe contraceptive methods. By the 1930s, a few state health departments (e.g., North Carolina) and public hospitals had begun to provide family planning services.”

Despite this, we learn from history that contraception, in one form or another, has been used for centuries.   Planned Parenthood provides A History of Birth Control Methods, and describes ways our ancestors may have attempted to limit their family sizes.  In China, women drank lead and mercury, which we now know will cause sterility, but unfortunately, may also result in death.   Of course, there were other ineffective methods tried.  From the Planned Parenthood 2006 Report:  “During the Middle Ages in Europe, magicians advised women to wear the testicles of a weasel on their thighs or hang its amputated foot from around their necks (Lieberman, 1973).  Other amulets of the time were wreaths of herbs, desiccated cat livers or shards of bones from cats (but only the pure black ones), flax lint tied in a cloth and soaked in menstrual blood, or the anus of a hare. It was also believed that a woman could avoid pregnancy by walking three times around the spot where a pregnant wolf had urinated. In more recent New Brunswick, Canada, women drank a potion of dried beaver testicles brewed in a strong alcohol solution.”

While many religions frowned upon family planning (birth control viewed as something that immoral women or prostitutes would use, not those who were married), husbands and wives continued to look for ways to decrease the sizes of their families.   A good example is extended and complete breastfeeding, which has been used around the world to increase the time between the birth of children.   While many found this to be very effective, it was not popular among the wealthy, who often utilized wet nurses.    Abstinence was another method of birth control, which was promoted in the 1870s for married women attempting to limit family sizes.  Planned Parenthood attributes a rise in sexually transmitted diseases to this movement, as men began to turn to prostitutes instead of their wives.

Barrier methods were also used.  Surprising to many, the condom is one of the oldest forms of contraception dating back to Egypt about 1,000 BC.   Originally created from animal gut in an effort to protect from syphylis, it wasn’t until the 1700s that the contraceptive properties of the condom were recognized.  By the 1840s, rubber condoms were available, and in the 1930s latex condoms became popular.

While birth control methods have certainly evolved through the years, and the 21st century woman has many options available to her today, it saddens me to think how many years it took for birth control to be accepted.  While watching ABC World News last night, I was immediately reminded how much we take for granted.  The segment included a Middle Eastern women with her newborn infant, who had the opportunity to talk via Skype to an American mom.  She asked, “Are you also afraid of dying in child birth?”  If such fears continue to plague the 21st century Middle East mothers-to-be, imagine the anxiety experienced by our American ancestors.  According to the CDC, in 1800 in the average mother bore seven children.  By 1900, the family size had decreased to 3.5 children, and six to nine of every 1000 women died in childbirth.   Some statistics report that the 19th century death rate was as high as 10% for those giving birth.

I am incredibly grateful for modern medicine and birth control, and even more in awe of my many female ancestors who married and had families without the advantages available to 21st century women today.

For additional reading, here are some other really interesting web sites discussing the history of family planning:


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