In the November 1996 issue of Chronicles, there is a review (“Heathen Days” by Gregory McNamee) of John Gillis’s book A World of Their Own Making. I do not know whether to blame the reviewer or the author, but I find many of the statements questionable.

McNamee says “Gillis combs the census records to show that . . . premarital pregnancy rates in most American states . . . have never fallen below ten percent.” I have spent many days combing census records and have never seen anything which would allow any conclusion about premarital pregnancy rates. The only thing that would come close would be a marriage date less than nine months before the birth of a child, and most of the United States census records do not provide this. For the one or two that do, I found practically no such cases, and indeed since the information was provided by the individual, it would have been very easy to change the marriage date. A marriage certificate was not required by the census taker.

English church records do provide some measure of illegitimacy since children are listed as bastard or base-born, but having spent some time with such records, I would hardly put the rate as high as ten pereent. Interestingly, I found no case in which a female had two bastard children. Apparently the community saw to it that the father did his duty to the poor lass.

And I do not know what Gillis means by “no great fuss” about premarital pregnancy before the 19th century. Gillis might want to check the colonial records, where he would find that there was indeed a fuss about premarital pregnancy. Hence the shotgun wedding, presided over by the father and brothers of the offended girl.

        —Charles Prevost
San Jose, CA

Dr. Gillis Replies:

I do not believe authors should be held responsible for the way reviewers represent their books. Gregory McNamee’s short and generous treatment of my A World of Their Own Making could not possibly present all its nuances. As someone who is not a historian, Mr. McNamee may have missed the difference between census and parish records. I was referring explicitly to evidence from the parish records, which, as Peter Laslett, Edward Shorter, and Lawrence Stone have shown, reveal considerable illegitimacy before the modern era. And, in a few instances, women did bear more than one child out of wedlock.

As my book makes clear, the family cultures I am describing originated in both Europe and North America among the Victorian urban Protestant middle classes. Mr. Prevost is right in thinking that the family cultures of rural and working-class people were quite different until this century. As for the dating of compulsory education, the laws were on the books by the late 19th century, though I would agree that full compliance was not easily achieved.

I appreciate Mr. Prevost’s probing questions, most of which are answered by the book. I hope he will read it.

        —John R. Gillis
Professor of History
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, NJ