1700s & 1800s
The 18th century was a transitional period for old age as more people lived past the age of 60. Small-scale industry permitted earlier marriage and the creation of independent households outside the authority of elders, and the growth of cities meant greater individualism for all ages. In some parts of Europe, women were having their last child at earlier ages, increasing their own chances of surviving until all of their children were grown.*
The growth of a consumer culture also meant that people would begin to associate particular dress or economic behavior with particular generations. Revolutions in France and America brought about a renewed respect for the elderly as class barriers gave way to egalitarianism. New regimes sought to stabilize their government and create continuity by appealing to elders with their new ideas of entitlement.
For example, following the French Revolution, authorities in the 1790s organized celebrations of local elders, praising them, parading them through the streets, decorating their residences, singing secular hymns and generally trying to root republican legitimacy in an idea of natural authority and honor. European states also began formalizing careers for their civil servants with pension schemes which served as a model for the rest of the population.
As in the past, the primary focus of the elderly was on autonomy, responsibility and authority. Care remained the responsibility of immediate family members, relatives and communities—but only for the very old, infirm and poor. A classic study in southern France claimed that parents had to lure children into respectful behavior while maintaining authority as long as possible, but that when they could no longer exercise that authority they were poorly treated, marginalized and in some cases, poisoned.
Meanwhile, grandparents played a larger role in their grandchild's household. The happy family became a popular subject of 18th century art. More modern ways of managing old age also emerged with the development of public service pensions in England, France, and German speaking territories.
The main ailments of old age were gout, rheumatism, weakened eyesight, weakened legs, catarrh (unpleasant nasal congestion), apoplexy (old name for a stroke), heartburn, lethargy (torpor), paralysis, diarrhea, scurvy and the drying-up of seminal fluid and tears.
Reformers desired to distinguish between the aged, poor, the unwanted and the sick, which had traditionally been deposited together. Institutions for the aged ranged from large hospitals to smaller hospices, often associated with religious orders.
One of the great themes of 18th-century historical writings, especially in France, was to reduce the impact of the church (dechristianization). Death testaments referred less frequently to the Virgin Mary; fewer masses were demanded. Books of advice, religious practices and literary representations also revealed significant changes. Rather than focus on the next world, a more secularized culture paid attention to the last years in this one.
In art, scenes of the interaction between grandparents and grandchildren as well as of gathering around deathbeds became newly sentimental. Wrinkled faces and gnarled hands were symbols of experience and work. Embroiders, sewers and weavers embodied expertise and dignity of skilled labor. Active servants, including cooks, gamekeepers and street vendors showed what could be done in old age. Philosophers represented the wisdom of the aged.
Click here to learn more about elderly women in 18th century France.
* The section on the 1700s was derived from the chapter written by David G. Troyansky.
The big changes transforming 19th century Europe and North America were those of industrialization, urbanization and population growth. Better transportation led to greater availability of diverse goods and the diffusion of ideas through trade, travel and migration. It was also a time when high-skilled jobs became more professionalized and lower-end skill jobs were weakened through the emergence of large-scale and mechanical production.*
Consequently, the neat division into stages of life where physical utility and social roles changed in tandem became increasingly less tenable in a society driven by new utilitarian ideas and scientific possibilities. Whether idealized or feared, old age was defined foremost by loss: loss of good looks, health and strength. Physical ability rather than chronological age determined one’s material and social position.
Generally, elderly people attempted to continue in their occupations for as long as possible, and then moved into lighter or more menial jobs. The lucky ones were those who had a skill and could go on working at home. Typically, older workers were underrepresented in the emerging industry-based sectors of the economy.
In the United States, the percent of those aged over 60 increased from 4 percent in 1830 to 6.4 percent in 1906. In France, those over age 60 increased from 8.7 percent in 1801 to 12.6 percent in 1906. In England, the number stabilized at 6 to 7 percent. Even though the percent was small, demands on family for care could still be significant.
Support could take the form of providing accommodations, sums of money, meals, contact, nursing or housekeeping. However, many studies reveal the preference of elderly people to maintain their independence for as long as possible.
In the United States, occupational retirement pensions and old-age annuities sold by mutual benefit societies emerged after the Civil War, but probably provided financial support to less than 1 percent of workers before World War I. A pioneering old-age insurance scheme for Prussian miners was set up as early as 1854, and other large German employers offered social benefits to workers in an attempt to secure labor supplies and thwart state interference.
In Germany, social insurance legislation for invalids and the elderly began in 1889, but they provided modest benefits and only benefited workers age 70 and over. Pensions were also available to European and American war veterans and civil servants, but for many, recourse had to be made to other sources of support. Also, home ownership provided shelter, security, and income. In the United States, by 1900, some 65 percent of urban and 71 percent of rural 70-plus-year-olds owned their home.
For the most part, being institutionalized was considered an elderly person’s final choice as it involved a complete loss of autonomy, of personal belongings, contact with friends and family, and life in often crowded and unsanitary conditions, with little means of distraction, poor or nonexistent nursing arrangements and monotonous diets.
In the United States, institutional provision for the elderly before the Civil War was extremely limited, but improved with the setting up of many private homes for the elderly, especially after 1875. In Britain, the importance of almshouses and workhouses continued to diminish as new endowments for them failed to keep pace with population growth.
Instead, voluntary giving became dominated by subscription charities, mainly for schools, hospitals and dispensaries. The generosity of public support amounted to between 0.8 percent and 2.4 percent of national income.
By 1901, 10 percent of English men and 6 percent of woman aged 75 and older lived in workhouses. In contrast, public funds in the United States were increasingly channeled into the building of asylums and other institutions catering specifically to certain groups of society other than the aged.
For the individual, health during the later stages of life had always been a function of genetic disposition and lifestyle factors that determined resistance to disease. Also playing a large role now were occupational and environmental factors that determined exposure to harmful substances and pathogens. While British bedside medicine was about care and advice, its institutional counterpart was driven by a need to produce positive, publishable results in the form of cures; voluntary hospitals were accountable to their subscribers, public institutions to taxpayers. Aging and the diseases specific to old age did not lend themselves to quick cures, so in Britain their study and the attention to their sufferers had to wait until the late 19th century.
Meanwhile, American doctors in the latter part of the 19th century viewed growing old as a pathological process where organic alterations inevitably led to decay and disease. The lack of effective therapeutics and the certainty of not being able to cure in old age diseases did not deter them from attending elderly patients, and from caring for their needs. They endeavored to bring the elderly under their control, and to make them submit to their expert physician’s custodial care, most easily administered in an institutional context.
Doctors in both the U.S. and England with a special interest in old age slowly replaced cautious approaches to treatment, and believed, with growing confidence, in the powers of medicine to combat disease and alleviate suffering.
The growing prosperity among the middle classes and working classes allowed for the increased purchase of books, including religious publications such as the Bible. Religious texts were also freely available in the main institutions that catered to the needs of older persons including voluntary hospitals and poor houses.
Volunteers, especially middle-class women, took it on themselves to regularly visit and comfort the sick, inspect and fund-raise for establishments, administer charitable donations and dispense large doses of scripture to patients in waiting rooms and at the bedside with the view to convert, indoctrinate and instill moral and religious values.
Patients were advised to be grateful to the doctor, comply with the methods of cure, respect and give little trouble to their caregivers, comfort and read to other patients, and use the opportunity of retirement from labor to contemplate their past failings, and to practice their Christian faith on a daily basis.
The section on the 1800s was derived from the chapter written by Thomas R. Cole and Claudia Edwards.