The following story is from The British Chronicle, September 15, 1790.
“There is in the vicinity of London a woman who has borne to her husband 22 children, all of whom grew up, and several of whom are living. She is . . . a stout woman, and is at present on the eve of lying in [giving birth]. Her husband, it must be remarked is a Welshman. Query – Ought not such a couple to have a premium for their services to the State?”
Wow, what a huge difference a couple of hundred years makes in our opinion of people with many children. We’ve gone from thinking that the State should financially reward parents of many children (originating from the belief that British people should have as many kids as possible, in order to go out and colonize the world) to having nothing but disdain for people who have a lot of children.
Of course, our change in attitude is in large part due to the enormous population boom that happened during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (stemming from better food and medical care, meaning that children were more likely to survive to adulthood and have children of their own). Obviously, the rise in population has put a huge strain on space and resources.
The other reason for our change in attitude (at least in the UK) is the general national shame over the UK’s historical imperial and colonial tendencies. So the whole “Let’s populate the earth with British people and bring civilization to the savages!” attitude is not longer a prevalent perspective.
Finally, the rise of birth control and family planning during the late nineteenth century also slowly shifted attitudes, starting with the aristocracy and filtering down to the middle and lower classes. The idea became: if you can now enjoy sex AND be careful not to drain your financial resources by having more children than you can afford, then surely this is a prudent and maybe even virtuous idea. This was especially true in the aristocracy, who in previous decades suffered a great deal of financial strain (leading to its slow collapse over the nineteenth century and slight resurgence at the fin de siecle and Edwardian era), as any sons and daughters they had needed to be awarded allowances befitting their station. If you had a great number of children, this meant huge lump-sum dowries for the girls, and expensive commissions in the army, horses, memberships at clubs, independent houses, and allowances for the boys, as well as education, clothing, and entertainment costs for both.
As family planning became more popular among the upper classes, having a great number of children started to be a marker of low class, a marker which is still evidenced in popular culture today.