Did the Nuclear Family Really Prevail in Traditional America?

Speaking of Mike Lotus’s America 3.0 speculation, in it he places a lot of weight on the importance of family structures in American development, citing the “absolute nuclear family” of western England and northern Europe as highly influential. He may be right but I’m not convinced. Although I grew up within such a family, my father did not. Quite to the contrary he grew up in what is called a famille patriarcale in a very extreme form and one that prevailed well into the 20th century.

The Schulers’ style of family organization is one that I have been given to understand is one that prevailed in traditional Switzerland, particularly in Canton Schwyz. In this style all of the family’s sons including married sons and their wives and children lived near to one another and the sons all worked for their father who held title to all of the family’s real possessions.

So, for example, my grandfather and his two brothers all worked for my great-grandfather Schuler. They owned nothing. They did not receive a salary for their labors. Grandpa Schuler paid the bills and saw to it that they had spending money. That situation continued right up until Grandpa Schuler’s death.

7 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    I’m not familiar w/ America 3.0, but the “absolute nuclear family” is pretty rare: parts of Norway, Denmark, Western France, and Eastern Britain. Map A lot of American ancestry would not be in these groups: Scots-Irish, Irish and German would be among the oldest.

  • CStanley Link

    Very interesting. In that extreme patriarchal structure, how did inheritance work? And how did the younger generation learn to manage affairs when their time came to inherit?

    In our family background I think it was nuclear families albeit with multiple generations living together. That seemed to be about caring for the elders though, and perhaps the difference is that the small amount of property and wealth was just beginning to accrue in the younger generation. No inheritance, no patriarchy.

    There appears to have been a tradition, too, of the youngest daughter being expected to remain single and care for her mother. I suspect that was often necessary because of early mortality among the menfolk (heart attacks in their forties.)

  • Very interesting. In that extreme patriarchal structure, how did inheritance work?

    The eldest son inherited everything. His brothers and their families continued to work for him.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I’m not sure Dave’s family patriarchy is that extreme, since the grown sons don’t continue to live under their parents roof. They have their own home, and particularly for the women, they have their own home to run. In the context of agriculture, what might appear to be a fairer system where all siblings, or at least all male siblings, inherit a portion of the property, the family might end up with parcels of insufficient size to sustain a family.

    You could have the same result in the absolute nuclear family, where the eldest son inherits everything, and the other siblings work for him. Ideally, the parents might use the flexibility in distributing inheritance to prepare for their children’s future. Many of the Founding Fathers in Virginia were “second sons,” whose elder brothers inherited the family lands, but the parents helped get them started in the new world.

  • The Schulers were agricultural but not in the sense of working the land. They were rural milk brokers. Presumably, once upon a time they were dairymen (my great-grandfather owned and operated a dairy, among his other businesses) but that would have been in the 18th century or before. I have no records of it.

    My wife’s Sicilian family’s organization is actually more interesting. In their case there were several interrelated families that lived and worked together. My understanding is that’s not uncommon among the Italian immigrants to the United States—whole villages came to this country together. It’s a much more communal organization.

  • CStanley Link

    What seemed extreme to me, if I understood the description correctly, was that there were no salaries for the younger generation. Seems like little preparation for the eldest to learn to handle the wealth once it was inherited. And also, of course, little to no independence for the younger children.

  • bob sykes Link

    The nuclear family is strictly Anglo-Saxon in origin, but it is common where they predominate.

    hbd chick blogs extensively on this and other family forms. Family structure and marriage patterns have pervasive effects on culture, politics and economics.

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