Marriage and Divorce

By Jenevieve Goldman

It’s often difficult to understand history as it existed in flesh and blood. It’s hard to grasp that our ancestors who exist for us in black and white photographs, had deeply emotional lives. There are few topics in the modern world that are as emotionally charged as divorce. We are programmed all our lives to idealize marriage, to search for someone to spend the rest of our forever with. Even more in the late 1800’s, where marriage was less a desire and more a decree. What happens when that image of forever fades to black? While it’s rare to come by personal details from the late 19th century, divorce cases contain testimonies that go incredibly in depth into the lives of people from the time. They can also be particularly revealing about the types social changes happening in the late 1800’s.

At this point in time, divorce remained a high social taboo. However, it was proven strongly right when I went to look into the newspapers of the late 19th century, which ran articles like this one published in the Allentown Democrat called “The Looseness with which Marital Ties Are Regarded,” written in 1901, which discussed how in that year there had been more divorces filed than ever before, and chastises married couples for breaking up over “the slightest pretext.” Meanwhile, as I looked through the divorce records at the Lehigh Valley heritage museum I found that most of the divorces were a result of alcoholism, violence, adultery, or abandonment. The was nothing “slight” about the pretext of many of these divorces, and this taboo made it harder for people to end dangerous marriages.

I found a huge boom in divorce rates in the Lehigh Valley between the years 1880 and 1900, practically quadrupling. This was evident because the boxes that housed the divorce records in the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum came to hold more and more documents per year. While in 1880 one box might have the records for up to the 1890, there were maybe four boxes that housed the records between 1890 and 1900. In that same article that spoke about the “slight pretext” for divorces, the author detailed the patterns of divorce in other states. He mentioned that in many neighboring states the rates had also doubled or tripled, meaning that Allentown and Pennsylvania were not out of line with the rest of the United States.

In the year 1880 there were only eight people reported as being divorced in the 1st and 6th wards of Allentown. However, there were 78 people reported as “Married, spouse absent” (Figure 1). Because many of the divorces were a result of abandonment, where one spouse left the other for a series of years, I wanted to highlight these households as points of possible divorce. Looking at the map and comparing it to a property map from the time (Ashbach, 1870) you can see that some of the concentrations on this map are close to the factories. Often, one spouse would go live in the city to work at a factory while the other would stay in their home outside the city, this was cited as the reason for some divorces. However, many of these households may be the result of immigration, where one spouse had moved to the United States and left the other behind, so it’s not fair to assume that all of these points indicate broken homes.

Figure 1. Map of people identified as “Divorced” in the 1880 census in red. In Yellow are individuals specified as “Married, spouse Absent.” *Note that not all data points were mappable, there were 8 divorced individuals from the census.

One of the people I was able to track down in the divorce records from the 1880 census was Lizzie J. Smith. In 1880 she was 14, and lived on Walnut street with her family. I caught up with her much later in 1894, when she got divorced from William E. Moffett. Her divorce was filed by James B. Smith, who can be presumed to be her father because when she was 14 he was 43. At the time, women could not file their own divorces, and the task was often done by their “next friend” who tended to be a close family member. At the time in 1894 she also had the last name Moffett, but I was able to identify her because of her middle initial and because she lived in the same house as a James B. Smith. In the divorce proceedings, her reason for divorce is that her husband had left her for three years to live in Plainfield. She was one of the lucky few who actually received a divorce after proceedings.

Divorce is deeply related to housing, as the separation of families resulted in some divorces, and it is also related to prostitution. In some proceedings, such as the divorce of Ida V. Burger in 1880, the husband chose to separate from their wife because their wife had become a prostitute during the time of their marriage.

During the late 19th century there is also a clear cultural change happening in the city. People are starting to notice that people aren’t getting divorced because they intend to go against the church, they are often getting divorced for reasons of personal safety and wellbeing. There was an article printed in the Allentown Leader in 1900 entitled, “He Favors Divorce,” which talked about President Judge Arnold of Philadelphia and his reasons for thinking many divorces to be fair. He is quoted as saying, “The hatred, misery, sin and crime which so often flow from indissoluble marriage connection require a remedy.” This judge was aware of the kinds of pain that often exist in doomed marriages. It is clear that Allentown found itself, along with much of the United States, at a cultural crossroads at the end of the 19th century. While the institutions of marriage and divorce today are still far from a perfect system, the movement towards easier separation was an incredibly important change in the lives of women, giving them far more agency in a world ruled by men.

Knowing a little bit about divorce helps to color our perspective of the late 19th century in Allentown. It helps us to see that these were people who lived and breathed along-side each other. Because we can identify with the pain and heartbreak involved in divorce, it is easy to understand the sorrow of these people who lived so long ago.

Works Cited:

U.S Census Bureau “1880 United States Federal Census.” Accessed March 7, 2016.

Divorce Records, Lehigh Valley Historical Society Archives. Accessed: April 6th 2016