Postponing Marriage, Living with Your Parents

Where did I get the impression that in the “olden days” of America, people married young? For months now, I’ve been entangled in the twigs and leaves of my mother’s family tree. One thing I’ve been struck with are marriage ages and houses full of single, working adults during the early 20th century.

Ellen Gibbons Barrett (my great-grandmother) was a widow without means. The family lived together till the children got marred.

  • Tom (age 29) married Kitty Flanagan (22-young!). Retail grocery business.
  • Francis (31) married Molly Curran (28, see Currans below). Retail grocery business.
  • Mamie (47) married after her mother died to bachelor Mickey Coleman (45). Worked as a seamstress/supervisor
  • Katie (34) married bachelor Chas Dyer (34). Worked as a stenographer in professional offices.

John Barrett (my great-great uncle) his wife Catherine Brennan left the family farm in Catawissa and moved to St. Louis after the old Barrett parents died in their eighties. When I looked them up, in 1910, they were in their sixties living on Connecticut near Tower Grove Park. They had five of their six grown children still living with them (see list below). In 1930, twenty years later, Mayme, Jane, Kate, and Tom were still living there on Connecticut with their now widowed mother.

  • Mayme (31), a hat maker, who never married.
  • Jane (29), a saleswoman, who never married.
  • Kate (27), a dressmaker, who never married.
  • Maggie (23) who at age 31 married Adolph Guenzler (36).
  • Tom (19), who later became an accountant, did not marry Frances till he was in his forties.
  • Martin (25) was out of the home, working as a chauffeur and did marry Anna Nonnenkamp in his early twenties.

My step-grandfather Ewald Curran came from a well-to-do family of 12 children and grew up in a big 9-room house on Romaine Place. His mother Bridget agreed to provide day care to my future mother in 1926. When I checked on the status of the family at that time, I found a full house. In addition to Mr. and Mrs. Curran (in their sixties), I found

  • Katie Delaney (54), an aunt who never married. Worked as a tailor for a retail clothing company.
  • Ella Rose (27), who later married at 36 to Orville Schanbacher (32)
  • Douglas (25), who got married Lillian Urban in 1927. Working as a pressman for the Post-Dispatch
  • Westlyn (24), who got married in 1927. Working as a pressman for the Globe-Democrat
  • Ewald (19), working for Barrett’s Market. Married at 33 to the widow Catherine Barrett
  • Catherine (18), who married but I can’t find a date. Worked as an accounting clerk in a railroad office.
  • Delaney (14), who married at 25
  • John, (35) widowed and moved back home with his son John. Worked in banking.
  • John (9), grandchild

I can only speculate about this pattern of late marriages and living with one’s parents among Irish-Americans in the first half of the twentieth century. Some scattered insights gathered along the way:

  • Privacy wasn’t a thing. Family and communal support was more important than individuality among the first- and second-generation Irish-Americans
  • Due to birth control prohibitions among Catholics, delaying marriage was the only way to delay children (which in many cases also meant avoiding poverty).
  • As with other ethnic groups, the Irish tradition was that at least one child would remain unmarried and in the home to take care of aging parents.
  • A big change came with Social Security, which started mid-1930s. It allowed children to have lives independent of their parents.
  • World War II kicked off an era of mobility and prosperity among college-educated GIs. Getting married and starting families was an urgent, primal urge among men returning from war (or so my father told me). Suburbia rose with its expanses of tract houses and lawns. Was this when the pattern for girls became high school graduation, two years of work, marriage, babies?

I find it interesting to ponder these family patterns and how configurations and expectations change over the decades. What are your thoughts?

Photo at top: some of the Curran siblings, mid-1920s. Sent to me unlabeled. Maybe Delaney, Ewald, Catherine or Ella Rose in the middle. No idea about the two on the right.

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