Social and Family Life in the Late17th & Early 18th Centuries


In the period between the 1670’s and 1750’s, sweeping changes transformed both the the public social lives and private family lives of the British people. Increased literacy, combined with The Restoration led the British people to an increasingly public life. There were also clear class distinctions that were prevalent in the realms of both home life, outward social life, and education. New developments in recreation, commercialization, and industrialization also led to a transformation in both entertainment and occupations available. Additionally, new fashion trends came onto the scene. This page explores the social structure of Britain, its impact on life, both private and public, as well as the new developments that changed the way the people spent their leisure time. There was a clear gap between the wealthy and the poor, which made itself visible in almost all aspects of life, but there were certain areas where class was unimportant.

Family Life

The family lives of people were separated by two distinctions: roles for men versus roles for women, and social class. In general, men were the breadwinners, providing income for the family, whereas the mothers were in charge of the household. This role grew more prominent with more wealth, as with that came more estate to manage. Marriage was also very closely tied to social class; women were seldom married into lower social rungs. It also came with heavy social implications for the family’s legacy and reputation among their peers.

Role of Women and Men

Women had to take on various roles in the household during the 17th and 18th centuries. They were responsible for running the household, and for more affluent families, managing the servants. Women, or mothers, were also responsible for raising and educating their children. In addition, they were responsible for cooking and feeding the family. This required women to be well-educated in medicinal and culinary uses of herbs and plants, needlework, reading, and writing. In general, women had very few rights and experienced oppression at the hands of the patriarchy.SOURCE? Housework was particularly taxing due to the lack of modern cleaning methods. Women were expected to tend the garden, cook for the family, take care of the children, and see that their husbands’ needs were met. The mother of the household would often have many children because not many children were able to survive early childhood. Typically, most mothers had up to eight children, in hopes that some would survive and be able to work for the family. High infant mortality rates was a major issue during this time. The average life expectancy in England was about 39-40 years old. It was assumed that if a man or a woman reached the age of 30, they would probably only live for another 20 year. The infant and child mortality rates during the late 17th century and 18th century had a serious impact on the average life expectancy. A total of 12-13% of children would die during the first year of their lives, due complications such as diseases, physical accidents, and birth trauma. Men were usually in charge of all the finances involved in the household and did most of the work to financially support the family. It was common for a man to be well educated and have work outside of the household. The patriarch made decisions on behalf of the family, such as whether his wife could work outside the home and whether the children could attend school. He was the owner of all the property and monetary values in the household and women rarely spoke against or divorced their husband. Children were taught to obey the patriarch. The early half of the 18th century was a tumultuous time for women’s rights. Though women could work, they did not enjoy nearly all of the luxuries and rights as men. Women could not vote, own land while married, go to a university, earn equal wages, enter many professions, and even report serious cases of domestic abuse. Women who were found to be too argumentative or radical could deal with cruel and humiliating public penalties.
18th Century Wedding Ceremony
18th Century Wedding Ceremony

Due to the the importance of land, daughters posed a large problem for landowning families. Other than widows, not many women owned land, and many daughters certainly did not receive any–so they did not carry an estate with them upon marriage. Also, it was important for families to maintain social status, which meant a daughter was never married to someone of lower standing. Mothers and fathers spent much time searching for the the best possible spouse for their child, in order to benefit the family. As a result, families typically placed a dowry on their daughter, which consisted of a large sum of money. These marriage negotiations were some of the most demanding strains on a mother and father due to a family’s heritage and legacy being at stake. Then came along another problem: The idea of individualism, reason, and romantic sensibility began growing rapidly in the early part of the century leading to daughters wanting to choose their own husbands. For poor families, not nearly as much was at stake when marrying, thus relieving pressure. It was impossible to transfer poverty to one another or to lose any kind of societal status as a result of a marriage, so men and women were free to choose who they wanted.

Family Life After Marriage
Many issues and concerns were brought up during the process of arranged marriages. English society had been strictly patriarchal–where women were supposed to be under a man’s care for the duration of their life. The concept of a strictly male-controlled, nuclear family began spreading once puritanical influence intensified in the 17th century. SOURCE?This gradually decreased in the 18th century, as LEHMBERG AND Heyck note in The People of the British Isles: 1688 – 1870, “The reasonableness and tolerance advocated in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century thought mitigated some of the harsh intensity of the Puritan-style family and led to more companionable relations between husbands and wives as well as to more affectionate concern by parents for their children” (56). Though this new abstraction of “companionship” began to grow, there were still many families whose first priority was social mobility. Many of the wealthy ignored their children because their vast fortunes allowed them to. In poorer families, it was unpredictable what the structure and attitude was like inside the household; it could be dangerous, warming, or all around indifferent. Another problem for impoverished families, as previously mentioned, was an increased infant mortality rate. Yet, this was mostly offset by large birthing rates, which often compensated for this facet. For the most part, these households, ranging from rich to poor, owned animals of some sort. The upper class had a collection of animals ranging from dogs to horses with the extraneous instance of some having pet monkeys. The middle class mostly had cats and birds along with dogs who could act as protection for the household. The poorer families mostly had animals who could provide food for the families, such as cows, pigs, and geese.

Divorce and Separation
Divorce was carried out through Parliament and was a lengthy and extremely expensive process reserved mainly for the bourgeoisie. Between 1700 and 1749, only 13 cases of divorce were reported. A woman could not independently file for divorce and a husband’s unfaithfulness was not grounds for one either. These separations could be made in private agreement or in public, ecclesiastical court.

Lower/ Middle Class
The life of an average family in late 17th century England was simple, let laborious. Many lived in one or two room houses that were often crowded with large families, as well as lodgers that shared their living space. Women typically gave birth to eight to ten children; however, due to high mortality rates, only raised five or six children. The children of average or poor families began working very early on in life, sometimes even as early as age seven. They worked mostly on farms as shepherds, cowherds, or apprentices and often left home to do so. Daughters of these families remained home, often aiding the matriarch of the household until they found a husband and started a family of their own. The oldest son of each family would stay as home as well, in order to inherit the farm. The concept of inheritance was often a source of tension for many families. The average and poor families of the late 17th century England did not yet have the luxury of piped water, which created a rarity in bathing. Because of the unhygienic lifestyle, lice and vermin were very common with these families.

Upper Class
Wealthy families of the late 17th century England enjoyed many more luxuries than the average and poor families. As opposed to the rural properties of the average families, the wealthy lived in beautiful suburbs or villages. Houses were beginning to be designed to display and boast the wealth of the families that lived in them. For the first time, the wealthy were enjoying the luxury of piped water into their homes. These homes contained families with an average of ten or more people. The women of these households were responsible for keeping everything running smoothly. They were in charge of the servants and ran the estate if the husband was not around. They were so involved in their husbands businesses that “often when a merchant wrote his will he left his business to his wife- because she would be able to run it” (Lambert p. #?).

17th Century Family Portrait
17th Century Family Portrait

Similarities Between Families in Both Classes
Despite the difference in economic status, there were many similarities between wealthy and average or poor families. In both families marriages were more of a business deal than a relationship. Love was not a factor in a marriage in 17th century England. A woman typically married in her early twenties. Arranged marriages occurred primarily for resources such as money and land. It was expected that a man would beat his wife and not seen as an issue. Children did not have close relationships with their parents or siblings either. High infant mortality rate was a common issue and the reason why many women had a high number of childbirths but a lower number of children.

18th Century Family Farm
18th Century Family Farm

In agricultural families, men, for the most part, took care of the majority of the household income. Households were first and foremost a patriarch; they controlled every aspect of the house. Women were to act as subordinates. Men did the most tiring labor in the field such as clearing, plowing, sowing seed, harvesting, and threshing. This was also with the help of their sons and hired laborers. Women were helped by their daughters or servants in everything from knitting; to cleaning; to tending to the animals; to teaching the children. They were to take care of most of the internal tending in the household as it was commonly seen as women’s chores.
In shopkeeping families, the men and women both worked in the shop. In artisanal families, the wife was still responsible for housecleaning but she sometimes oversaw the workers. There was a large pressure on women to work due to the “economics realities” of the 18th century– as some women worked in became prostitutes, actresses, coal miners and jail keepers. Source??

Social Life

As with the more personal family life, life in the public spectrum was often defined by social class. The more wealthy groups were able to send their children to private school, something that most people still could not afford to do at this time. This made the education gap significant during the period, and made it difficult for the poorer people of Britain to move up the social ladder. Some things permeated the entire society without regard to class, however; both the theater and, later, the increasing role of organized sports were both things that were available and enjoyed by everybody.

Social Classes
The idea of a status hierarchy or “social class” was a distinguishing key feature in the 18th Century. This hierarchy determined everything about society and etched their fate eternally in stone. Among the differences in these classes were the attitudes that each one exhibited. The poor could spend their entire life attempting to move up the social ladder and attain some form of wealth and “class,” but these men and women were ridiculed and pitied for their lack of social graces. No matter the pigeonholes that were set on those of poorer status, there was still a pecking order and sense of loyalty to social superiors. The one way to move up in this time period was to own land. Landowners held power and influence. This made it difficult to move up the social ranks, seeing as how buying land was considered a luxury even in those days.

Social Class Structure
Wealthy Landowners
This was the most powerful group, which made up the smallest amount of the population. It included the most important of the aristocracy and squires.
This included those who received a high standard of upbringing but were not as important as the upper echelon of wealth. This included: gentlemen, merchants, wealthy tradesmen, and well-off manufacturers.
Yeoman were those who owned and worked their own land. They are also better known as “freeholders.”
Middle Class
A newer rung on the social ladder came to be known as the blooming middle class comprised about 15% of the population. The upper middle class included certain professionals and merchants. The lower middle class included artisans, shopkeepers, and tradesmen.
Laboring Poor
This comprised almost 25% percent of the population and it included all who worked in rural areas, did menial jobs, and the “urban laboring poor,” who worked in the country side.
Black Britons
Though they made up a small portion of the population, black slaves existed and were a hot issue during the early half of the century. Their labor made commodities available and cheap, but the idea of slavery as wrong was extremely prevalent. No matter the protest, though, the labor and trade continued until its abolition in 1833.

Though this class structure was almost always set from birth and heavily protected by those were already inducted into high social standing, it was not impossible for those of lower status to break through. Everyone was mainly subject to the same body of law as everyone else and certain privileges for ruling classes only went so far. Property was the key to wealth and power, and property could be purchased. So, any man could amass a fortune and land, and begin to climb the social ladder; and any family could lose all of its estate and see their social standing vanish.

London and the Job Market

London in the 18th Century
London in the 18th Century

London was the biggest and most commercialized and industrialized city in England at the time. It was home to roughly half a million citizens at the beginning of the century and would only grow from there. One could come across any business from merchant shops to ale houses and the people were as eclectic as the commerce with numerous faces, such as: the wealthy and their servants, inn keepers, beggars, doctors, prostitutes and pickpockets. The noble and the lowly all walked the same streets painting a great picture of social life in the 18th century. Unfortunately for the better half of the century, the streets they walked on were atrociously covered in filth and dirty water that had been dumped from upper windows. Horse manure and human waste were also common to come across on the street. New foods were eaten like bananas, pineapples, and chocolate for the upper class. Tea and coffee were also introduced as exciting new drinks and coffee shops were up and coming, helping with the economy and job market.

Rich children, both boys and girls, were sent to petty school, like a preschool. However, only boys went to elementary school or grammar school, while upper class girls were tutored. Some mothers taught their daughters in the middle class until boarding schools began to take place. These girls were often taught writing, music, and needlework. While boys studied more academic subjects, girls were believed to only need to be taught subjects that were more on the line of abilities. At the grammar schools, boys attended school from about 6 or 7 in the morning until around 5 at night. They were allowed some breaks for meals, but if they acted out of hand they would be punished with a smack on their bare butt with birch twigs.

Women’s Clothing
Along with their linen shirts and chemises, women also put on “stays” or corsets. For the better part of the century, these suffocating devices were thought a necessity for good posture. A woman’s legs were commonly covered by a petticoat and overskirt and included the “false rump” which was normally made of cork. But soon into the century (from 1713-1740), “fan hoops” made an emergence, which pushed out the fabric on all sides. There were both arguments for and against these dress contraptions. Nay-sayers complained that they made women struggle to get around and ruined comfort, but those in support insisted it ke

18th Century Women's Fashion
18th Century Women’s Fashion

pt men at a “chaste distance.” Women from every class adopted the new style. Women’s hair varied from big to small and wavy to curled with each year. Caps were immensely popular for the majority of women and embraced a lace around the brim. Women’s shoes and stockings remained rather traditional with white and black laced stockings along with high-heeled, pointed toe shoes. And not as uncommon as today, fashionable women were many accessories that interchanged between different gloves, watches, masks, and jewelry.

Men’s Clothing
Men’s clothing was not early as much a spectacle as women’s. Men wore mostly bland haircuts while some wore wigs which at the beginning of the century tended to be long. Hats varied in width and were commonly worn among these wigs.Three piece suits also ruled the male fashion scene, containing a jacket, vest, and pants as the essentials. With these suits, men wore black leather shoes with stockings underneath. Men’s clothing also entailed a ruffled shirt with waistcoat over it in the early part of the century. Coats appeared as longer waist coats with the rich showing off many different features while the working class displayed much simpler details. When outdoors, a gentleman wore cloaks, which later became highly unfashionable. Below all of this, a man wore breaches.

Court Dress of 1750
Court Dress of 1750

Dating and Social Interactions
Dating life for women in the 18th century had started to change as they had more of a say in their marriages and weddings. It was at this time the idea of marrying because of who your parents arranged had died, and the idea of marrying on the basis of personal affection and started taking its place. The average age women had started to marry was 22 compared to decades before when the age was much younger. The husband also needed to not only pay a dowry to the brides family, but have an allotment of things lined up for the happy couple. Things such as: housing, clothing, prospect of decent income and savings. On average, men tended to marry at 26 during this time, looking for specific attributes in a woman to be considered as his future wife. These qualities included: the typical household wife of maid, mother and caregiver, as well as a youthful looking woman who was wise with a decent holy background.


18th Century Lawn Bowling
18th Century Lawn Bowling

The English were an outdoors people when it came to sport. Sometimes, archery and pole vaulting intercepted its way into people’s routine activities. Ice skating in winter months was extremely common, and during the summer months, swimming and water sports reigned supreme. Boating for the purpose of fishing, picnicking, and watching regattas was all very popular. During fall months, hunting took a big role in many lives where the main game was dear and certain birds. Horse races have been documented since 1709 until the Jockey Club was officially founded in 1750. Many denounced the racing due to it being a distraction to labor that needed to be done, but the protest had little to no effect. Leaning towards the middle of the century, cricket started gaining increasing popularity due to its viability with both men and women of all classes. Along with cricket, other organized sports included tennis, golf, and lawn bowling.

The Beggar's Opera, Written by John Gay.
The Beggar’s Opera, Written by John Gay.

Almost everyone enjoyed the theater whether it be watching it in the city, travelling companies, or performing in their own home. The country’s greatest play of the century was John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which was produced in 1728. It was a scathing social satire that included the poor and alienated the rich. it was much disliked by Prime Minister Robert Walpole who was able to get his revenge with the Licensing Act that caused plays to be reviewed and made actors subject to arrest for taking parts in unacceptable plays. With the increase in theater popularity, many theaters renovated and put on multiple shows. The audiences were various and a lot of the time were rude to the point where they would throw produce at the actors if they were unhappy with what they had seen.

Other Entertainment
Art shows were another source of pleasure for various people of all ages. Wax figures, sculptures, and paintings were all popular. Public fairs were immensely popular, ranging anywhere from two to six weeks. Fireworks, music, plays, animal fights, eating competitions, and gambling could all be found at various fairs. Assemblies and balls offered young people an opportunity for courtship. The price of admission sorted out the very poor and distinguished the rest by their respective social class. Women loved the aspect of dancing and gossiping about the men in attendance and the mothers enjoyed the matchmaking idea of it all. Clubs and societies offered mostly men a place to meet others with common interests. Coffeehouses saw some of the greatest thinkers of the 18th century gather and discuss everything from sports to philosophy. Gentleman’s club acted as more exclusive, all male coffeehouse. The Freemasons were founded in 1717 and included most of the male royals by the end of the century. Gambling and card games became other large sources of entertainment for the public. It was very common to bet on various sporting events where huge sums of money were sometimes gambled away in one sitting. The government did not want to penalize its own members who gambled so it made life difficult on working class game house owners. Whether or not they were gambled on, games were played by everyone. The most notable of them being backgammon, chess, checkers, and cribbage. Some of the more violent forms of entertainment came in the form of animal torture and fighting where many gathered around to see the carnage that ensued. A popular spectacle was “baiting” where tying up animals and sending dogs after it was commonplace. Fighting between humans were considered all in good fun including the emergence of boxing and wrestling. Alcohol also became popular during this time with the liquor of choice being gin. It was cheap and easy to make, and you did not need a license to sell it, making it a hot commodity during this time. The downside to bottom shelf liquor was the affects it had on your health. Many people suffered greatly from the overabundance of gin, but for many poor people it had become almost a comfort to them. People of upper class generally never bothered with things like homemade gin, due to the fact that they could afford better quality liquor.

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