According to the Census Bureau, about 27% of American households consist of a single individual, up from 17.6% forty years ago and 7.7% in 1940. About 1 in 7 adult Americans lives alone (nearly 32 million live alone, out of 240 million Americans age 18 or older). The most recent spate of articles cite the trend since the 1970s, suggesting the importance of increased divorce and delayed marriage on shrinking household size. But the rise in singleton households began in the nineteenth century and exploded starting in at least the 1930s, as this chart from The New York Times makes clear.
What can we learn from single households in the past? First, that they have not always been viewed with trepidation. German feminist Louise Otto’s short article “‘Small–Clean–Alone’: The Joys of Living Alone” (1881) is an affirmation of women who, by necessity or by choice, keep their own household.
"Be her home ever so small–as long as it is clean, not only clean of dirt and unpleasant odors but also free of distracting problems which bring with them burdensome and unsympathetic people–it is better to be alone than with such things and people even though it is nice to be in the vicinity of those we enjoy, appreciate and love."
Second, we can gain a deeper perspective on the causes of singleton households. We might be tempted to view the rise of the single household as a move away from the nuclear household. But in the nineteenth century, according to Louise Otto, the rise of single households was due to a new kind of interaction between single people and their relatives. Previously, single or widowed women had exchanged bread-baking and child-care for a room and companionship with her married siblings. Otto attributes the rise in one-person female households to the rise of industrial food processing and universal schooling, which made the single woman less useful to her extended family. These women are better off living alone, she says, than as unwanted and useless additions to another household.
Sources: Bill Marsh and Amanda Cox/The New York Times. Analysis by Susan Weber and Andrew Beveridge, Queens College, CUNY, from historical and current census data; Euromonitor International (households abroad). Louise Otto, “Klein–rein-und allein,” originally in Neue Bahnen: Organ des Allegemeinen Deutschen Frauenvereins 14, no. 3 (1881), 18-20. Eleanor S. Riemer and Jon C. Fout, ed. European Women: A Documentary History, 1789-1945 (New York: Schocken Books, 1980), 138-141.