Our times seem to be times of plurality. Such a lot of goods, of possibilities, of opportunities. Such a lot of entertainment, such a lot of information.

And a lot of ways to live a family.

For decades, we had the discussion of the plurality of family forms in the western world, paralleled by the discussion of a decline of the family. Yes, we have: nuclear families (still the most widespread form), divorces, stepfamilies, patchwork families, single parent families.

But that is nothing new: we had a broad variety of family forms in former times too. It is nothing we should feel special on.

Let us have a look at the 19th century Europe:

At the beginning of the 19th century Europe was still an agrarian society, only in France and England the industrial society was on the rise already. 80% of the people were working on the farm – today 3% are working in the agrarian area in Europe.

In the 19th century following family forms existed:

The family on the farm.

Family resembled not what we call “family” today, it was called „the house“.

The farmer had legal power over the members, he lived with his wife, children, farmhands and maids on the farm. Children out of the farmer couples but also children out of wedlock, those of the farmhands and maids lived in the house. Maids and farmhands could not marry as marriage was bound to property and a stable life situation. They had neither nor, being often seasonally employed and moving from farm to farm. There were mobility and plurality on the farm! (In some alpine valleys we had still in the sixties of the twentieth century a higher percentage of children born out of wedlock than in New York City). Children were raised together. A kind of modern patchwork commune.

The worker family.

With the industrial society there came the proletariat, the worker’s class, rapidly growing throughout the century. Poor. Living in inhumane conditions in the growing cities (Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy had at the beginning of the century about 200.000 inhabitants, at the end: 2.000,000). Men and women worked, both. Full time, which meant 60hours a week, Saturday included.  The older children looked after the younger ones – if they did not work too.

The middle-class family.

Very slowly the middle classes spread in society. This was a success story.  The middle class grew and grew: small enterprises, employees and white-collar workers in industry and firms. Subsequently, the bourgeoisie model of the nuclear family became prominent: the father as breadwinner, bringing the money in, and the wife staying at home, caring for the children and the household. Upper middle classes were rich and had maids, so the housewife would care for the saloon, inviting guests for music performances or elaborate chat about literature and paintings. Romantic love started the relationship.

This model shaped our image of the ideal family, especially as the middle classes grew up to 80% in the middle of the 20ieth century.

The upper class, the nobility.

And there was still the upper class, high-income entrepreneurs, and nobility.  The noble class had again different marriage patterns. Networks and family relations, marrying between people from the same class continuing the family tradition over generations or enlarging the economic power were essentially important. Marriages were arranged under that auspices.

Quite a variety, so far.


– Marriage bound to property lead to an average marriage age for farmers for above thirty (as we have nowadays in highly educated population). Only then the farm was inherited by the following generation. The wives were significantly younger.

– Maternal deaths lead to early widowhood and often to re-marriage, resulting in the stepfamily. Fairy tales tell us how long standing in history this form of family is.

A plurality of forms is not a new issue, is not a modern phenomenon. But there is one big difference: Nowadays, we have the choice! Not more forms of family, but more freedom to choose.

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