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Fertility and Mortality in the United States

Michael Haines, Colgate University

Every modern, economically developed nation has experienced the demographic transition from high to low levels of fertility and mortality. America is no exception. In the early nineteenth century, the typical American woman had between seven and eight live births in her lifetime and people probably lived fewer than forty years on average. But America was also distinctive. First, its fertility transition began in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century at the latest. Other Western nations began their sustained fertility declines in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, with the exception of France, whose decline also began early. Second, the fertility rate in America commenced its sustained decline long before that of mortality. This contrasts with the more typical demographic transition in which mortality decline precedes or occurs simultaneously with fertility decline. American mortality did not experience a sustained and irreversible decline until about the 1870s. Third, both these processes were influenced by America’s very high level of net in-migration and also by the significant population redistribution to frontier areas and later to cities, towns, and suburbs.

One particular difficulty for American historical demography is lack of data. During the colonial period, there was neither a regular enumeration nor vital registration. Some scholars, however, have conducted family reconstitutions and other demographic reconstructions using genealogies, parish registers, biographical data, and other local records, so we do know something about vital rates and population characteristics. In 1790, of course, the federal government commenced the decennial U.S. census, which has been the principal source for the study of population growth, structure, and redistribution, as well as fertility prior to the twentieth century. But vital registration was left to state and local governments. Massachusetts was the first state to institute continuous recording of births, deaths, and marriages, beginning in 1842 (some individual cities had registered vital events earlier), but the entire nation was not covered until 1933.

For the colonial period, we know more about population size than other matters, since the British colonial authorities did conduct some enumerations. The population of the British mainland colonies increased from several hundred non-Amerindian individuals in the early seventeenth century to about 2.5 million (2 million whites and about half a million blacks) in 1780. Birthrates were high, ranging between over forty and over fifty live births per one thousand people per annum. The high fertility of American women attracted comment from late eighteenth-century observers, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Malthus. Mortality rates were probably moderate, with crude death rates ranging from about twenty per one thousand people per annum to over forty. We know a good deal about mortality rates in New England, somewhat less about the Middle Colonies, and least about the South. But apparently mortality was lower from Pennsylvania and New Jersey northward, and higher in the South. Life expectancy at birth ranged from the late twenties to almost forty.

Information on America’s demographic transition becomes more plentiful for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The accompanying table provides summary measures of fertility and mortality for the period 1800-2000. It includes, for fertility, the crude birthrate, the child-woman ratio (based solely on census data), and the total fertility rate; and, for mortality, life expectancy at birth and the infant mortality rate. The results are given for the white and black populations separately because of their very different social, economic, and demographic experiences.

Table 1 indicates the sustained decline in white birthrates from at least 1800 and of black fertility from at least 1850. Family sizes were large early in the nineteenth century, being approximately seven children per woman at the beginning of the century and between seven and eight for the largely rural slave population at mid-century. The table also reveals that mortality did not begin to decline until about the 1870s or so. Prior to that, death rates fluctuated, being affected by periodic epidemics and changes in the disease environment. There is some evidence of rising death rates during the 1830s and 1840s. The table also shows that American blacks had both higher fertility and higher mortality relative to the white population, although both groups experienced fertility and mortality transitions. For example, both participated in the rise in birthrates after World War II known as the baby boom, as well as the subsequent resumption of birthrate declines in the 1960s.

Conventional explanations for the fertility transition have involved the rising cost of children because of urbanization, the growth of incomes and nonagricultural employment, the increased value of education, rising female employment, child labor laws and compulsory education, and declining infant and child mortality. Changing attitudes toward large families and contraception, as well as better contraceptive techniques, have also been cited. Recent literature suggests that women were largely responsible for much of the birthrate decline in the nineteenth century — part of a movement for greater control over their lives. The structural explanations fit the American experience since the late nineteenth century, but they are less appropriate for the fertility decline in rural areas prior to about 1870. The increased scarcity and higher cost of good agricultural land has been proposed as a prime factor, although this is controversial. The standard explanations do not adequately explain the post-World War II baby boom and subsequent baby bust. More complex theories, including the interaction of the size of generations with their income prospects, preferences for children versus material goods, and expectations about family size, have been proposed.

The mortality decline since the late nineteenth century seems to have been the result particularly of improvements in public health and sanitation, especially better water supplies and sewage disposal. The improving diet, clothing, and shelter of the American population over the period since about 1870 also played a role. Specific medical interventions beyond more general environmental public health measures were not statistically important until well into the twentieth century. It is difficult to disentangle the separate effects of these factors. But it is clear that much of the decline was due to rapid reductions in specific infectious and parasitic diseases, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, bronchitis, and gastro-intestinal infections, as well as such well-known lethal diseases as cholera, smallpox, diphtheria, and typhoid fever. Nineteenth-century cities were especially unhealthy places, particularly the largest ones. This began to change by about the 1890s, when the largest cities instituted new public works sanitation projects (such as piped water, sewer systems, filtration and chlorination of water) and public health administration. They then experienced rapid improvements in death rates. As for the present, rural-urban mortality differentials have converged and largely disappeared. This, unfortunately, is not true of the differentials between whites and blacks.

Table 1
Fertility and Mortality in the United States, 1800-1999

Approx. Date Birthratea Child-Woman Ratio b Total Fertility Rate c Life Expectancy d Infant Mortality Rate e
White Blackf White Black White Blackf White Blackf White Blackf
1800 55.0 1342 7.04
1810 54.3 1358 6.92
1820 52.8 1295 1191 6.73
1830 51.4 1145 1220 6.55
1840 48.3 1085 1154 6.14
1850 43.3 58.6g 892 1087 5.42 7.90g 39.5 23.0 216.8 340.0
1860 41.4 55.0h 905 1072 5.21 7.58h 43.6 181.3
1870 38.3 55.4i 814 997 4.55 7.69i 45.2 175.5
1880 35.2 51.9j 780 1090 4.24 7.26j 40.5 214.8
1890 31.5 48.1 685 930 3.87 6.56 46.8 150.7
1900 30.1 44.4 666 845 3.56 5.61 51.8k 41.8k 110.8k 170.3
1910 29.2 38.5 631 736 3.42 4.61 54.6l 46.8l 96.5l 142.6
1920 26.9 35.0 604 608 3.17 3.64 57.4 47.0 82.1 131.7
1930 20.6 27.5 506 554 2.45 2.98 60.9 48.5 60.1 99.9
1940 18.6 26.7 419 513 2.22 2.87 64.9 53.9 43.2 73.8
1950 23.0 33.3 580 663 2.98 3.93 69.0 60.7 26.8 44.5
1960 22.7 32.1 717 895 3.53 4.52 70.7 63.9 22.9 43.2
1970 17.4 25.1 507 689 2.39 3.07 71.6 64.1 17.8 30.9
1980 15.1 21.3 300 367 1.77 2.18 74.5 68.5 10.9 22.2
1990 15.8 22.4 298 359 2.00 2.48 76.1 69.1 7.6 18.0
2000 13.9 17.0 343 401 2.05 2.13 77.4 71.7 5.7 14.1

a Births per 1000 population per annum.
b Children aged 0-4 per 1000 women aged 20-44. Taken from U.S. Bureau of the Census, (1975), Series 67-68 for 1800-1970. For the black population 1820-1840, W.S. Thompson and P.K. Whelpton, Population Trends in the United States (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1933), Table 74, adjusted upward 47% for relative under-numeration of black children aged 0-4 for the censuses of 1820-1840.
c Total number of births per woman if she experienced the current period age-specific fertility rates throughout her life.
d Expectation of life at birth for both sexes combined.
e Infant deaths per 1000 live births per annum.
f Black and other population for birth rate (1920-1970), total fertility rate (1940-1990), life expectancy at birth (1950-1960) and infant mortality rate (1920-1970).
g Average for 1850-59.
h Average for 1860-69.
i Average for 1870-79.
j Average for 1880-84.
k Approximately 1895.
l Approximately 1904.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (Washington, DC: G.P.O, 1975). U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1986 (Washington, DC: G.P.O, 1985). Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2001 (Washington, DC: G.P.O, 2001). National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics Reports, various issues. Census 2000 Summary File 1: National File (May, 2003). Ansley J. Coale and Melvin Zelnik, New Estimates of Fertility and Population in the United States (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1963). Ansley J. Coale and Norfleet W. Rives, “A Statistical Reconstruction of the Black Population of the United States, 1880-1970: Estimates of True Numbers by Age and Sex, Birth Rates, and Total Fertility,” Population Index 39, no. 1 (Jan., 1973): 3-36. Michael R. Haines, “Estimated Life Tables for the United States, 1850-1900,” Historical Methods, 31, no. 4 (Fall 1998): 149-169. Samuel H. Preston and Michael R. Haines, Fatal Years: Child Mortality in Late Nineteenth Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), Table 2.5. Richard H. Steckel, “A Dreadful Childhood: The Excess Mortality of American Slaves,” Social Science History (Winter 1986): 427-465.


Haines, Michael R. and Richard H. Steckel (editors). A Population History of North America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Klein, Herbert. A Population History of the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Vinovskis, Maris (editor). Studies in American Historical Demography. New York: Academic Press, 1979.

Citation: Haines, Michael. “Fertility and Mortality in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 19, 2008. URL