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Social Science History 26.1 (2002) 199-241

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Sociohistorical and Demographic Perspectives on U.S. Remarriage in 1910

Cheryl Elman and Andrew S. London

This is a revision of the article to correct production errors that were made when it was originally published in Social Science History 25:3 (fall 2001).


Many scholars have noted the theoretical importance of remarriage in twentieth-century American life (Burch 1995; Cherlin 1998; Furstenberg 1980; Glick 1980; Thornton 1977; Uhlenberg and Chew 1986), yet few historical studies have examined remarriage in the United States empirically. This gap in the literature is noteworthy for two reasons. First, the turn of the twentieth century seems to have marked a crossover in the remarriage transition of the United States, reflecting changes in the pool of persons eligible [End Page 199] to remarry. 1 This transition was characterized by decreases in remarriage resulting from declines in mortality and the probability of widow(er)hood, followed by increases in remarriage resulting from higher divorce rates. 2 The crossover in the transition was likely to have occurred when the pool of eligibles was at or near its nadir. Second, there is ongoing debate about the implications of remarriage for families and individuals (Booth and Dunn 1994), and about the impacts of remarriage on family functions (Cherlin 1978; Cherlin and Furstenberg 1994). In the light of these considerations, we believe it is important to examine remarriage and its consequences in the United States at the turn of the century so that we may better understand the ways that remarriage influences family life and shapes the life course of persons within families (see London and Elman 2001).

In this article, we use data from the 1910 Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) to provide a social demographic account of remarriage in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. According to Uhlenberg and Chew (1986), the remarriage process has three components: eligibility (who enters into the risk pool for remarriage, how they do so, and at what age), the propensity to remarry (who actually remarries, given eligibility), and the multiple sequelae of remarriage for adults, children, families, and households. No historical study has systematically examined all three aspects of the remarriage process in the United States, at least in part because of data constraints. Similarly, the cross-sectional IPUMS is not well suited to examine the dynamism inherent in the first two stages of the remarriage process (i.e., which prime-age adults came to be at risk of remarriage and why a subset of those at-risk remarried). However, the IPUMS data are rich enough to allow for estimates of the point prevalence of remarriage and rate differentials by age, gender, and ethnicity/nativity, and to examine the consequences of remarriage for families and individuals within families. In this article, we focus on different remarriage configurations (i.e., which partner had remarried or whether both had) and their effects on two specific kin functions—resource-gathering and housing dependents.

Theoretical Framework

Remarriage is a strategy that results in formerly married adults with or without children being reincorporated into normative social units (i.e., nuclear [End Page 200] families or legally married couples) (London and Elman 2001). While the specific models used to study remarriage in other times and settings vary, they generally provide fairly consistent reports about the conditions and circumstances that surround remarriage. Generally, remarriage reflects demographic constraints, such as age at first marriage and the duration of marriage (or age at widowhood or divorce) (Bideau 1980; Grigg 1977; Knodel and Lynch 1985; van Poppel 1995), which are themselves influenced by larger social, cultural, and economic forces (Kertzer 1991; Riley 1991). In addition to these influences, the more immediate socioeconomic and cultural contexts that surround individuals shape and constrain their actual and perceived need, opportunity, and motivation to remarry (Coombs 1993; Grigg 1977; Uhlenberg and Chew 1986; van Poppel 1995).

Following Cherlin (1998), we reconceptualize these factors and suggest that kin-based domestic units have public (economic, welfare) and private (kinship...


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