J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Massachusetts Marriages in 1765

After reading about the idea that Massachusetts couples timed their marriages to avoid paying the Stamp Tax after 1 Nov 1765, I started to think about how to test whether that report was accurate.

I decided to go to Familysearch.org, the genealogy site built by the Latter-Day Saints, and run numbers there. Since the Boston Gazette item on couples marrying before the law took effect mentioned Marblehead, I asked to see all 1765 marriages in Marblehead in that database without regard for names. Then I asked for the same information about every other year in the 1760s. I recorded the number of listings that popped up each time.

That’s a crude way of estimating the number of marriages in each year. For one thing, each marriage is listed twice, once for the bride and once for the groom. The database is bound to have even more duplicates because of spelling oddities, couples hailing from different towns, and other factors. But I figure that the same problems affect every year of data about equally, so the relative numbers should be reliable. (Unless there’s some strange shift in the measurements I don’t know about.)

Then I mapped the numbers across the decade and graphed the results:

Gosh. Something strange sure happened in Marblehead in 1765. The number of listings was trending down from 1761, as young men started coming back from war and then the post-war economy set in. But listings made a big jump in 1765, and had a big tumble in 1766. That’s consistent with the idea that in mid-1765 couples planning to get married over the next eighteen months decided to do so sooner rather than later.

I then looked at the number of listings in a couple of other towns by the same method. In the smaller, inland town of Newton, there was a similar jump in listings in 1765, but it wasn’t quite as pronounced.

Out west in Springfield, the number of listings was only a little higher than the previous year and remained at the same level the next year.
Researchers who want to spend more than half an hour with the data could surely generate much more solid results and perhaps see trends. But based on this dip into the data, I’d say it looks like the Stamp Act really did affect Massachusetts couples’ marriage choices, at least within a day’s ride of Boston.


Adam Carriere said...

Very intersting, clearly there is ground for further investigation.

Anthony Amore said...

Fascinating stuff

G. Lovely said...

I wonder, what was the relative value of 10 shillings in 1765? Enough to have an effect on marriage finances, or so small that the increase must have been a political act?

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

Gosh, I can't remember my source, but I think 2 shillings was about the pay for a laborer's day in the country, and 3 in a city.

J. L. Bell said...

It's hard to make direct comparisons in prices because different things have changed cost at different rates. But here's a table showing what Boston's selectmen thought was a fair price for different loaves of bread that year. For ten shillings a person could buy ten twelve-penny loaves, each of them nearly ten pounds in weight.

My impression is that ten shillings was a significant sum, something a working-class couple would have to save up for, but not out of their reach. In addition to conscious opposition to the Stamp Act, simple Yankee thrift might have been involved—if you're planning to get married anyhow, why not do it in October and save half a pound?

Marshall Stack said...

The Colonial Williamsburg website has a good article on this very subject, although it comes to essentially the same conclusion as Mr. Bell. Way too many variables between types of currency and the values each colony placed on them, never mind the fact that paper was valued lower than coin. http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/summer02/money2.cfm

Anonymous said...

For those who want to play around with the various calculations, here is a fantastic resource:


(No, I'm not affiliated in any way.)

Happy Holidays everyone, and thank you Mr. Bell for another fantastic year of blogging. Looking forward to Boston '75 in '16!

R. Doctorow