(The Invention of) Traditional Family Values


California’s recent passage of a gay marriage ban suggests that many Americans subscribe to the idea of the “traditional” family — caregiver mom, breadwinner dad, and 2.5 children. But whose tradition is it, really? In this hour, the hosts hear dueling viewpoints — first from Focus on the Family, and then from a Columbia University historian of families. Historian Marie Jenkins Schwartz discusses the pressures and triumphs of enslaved families, and Stephen Talbot, who played Gilbert on Leave it to Beaver, talks about what it was like to grow up in the iconic American family.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] PETER: This is BackStory with us, the American Backstory hosts. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th century guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th century guy.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century American History guy.


ED: Back in May, the California Supreme Court ruled that same sex couples had a right to marry in the State. But opponents of the practice didn’t wait long to fight back. And a few weeks ago, they succeeded in their effort to ban gay marriage once and for all. Their objective, as they put it– to protect the traditional American family.

PETER: Each week on BackStory, we rip a topic from the headlines and trace its trail back in time. This week we’re coming to you live from the trenches of the American culture war. Our subject for the day– family values.

BRIAN: To kick off our show, we thought we’d play a piece of an interview that I did with a person very much on the front lines of the culture wars. His name is Glenn Stanton, and he’s a Research Fellow at Focus on the Family.

Focus on the Family is James Dobson’s Christian advocacy group. They’re a big player in the anti-gay marriage movement. When Glenn Stanton looks around at what’s happening to American families, he doesn’t like what he sees one bit. So I asked him, when does he think things took such a turn for the worse?

GLENN STANTON: I think one of the biggest changes that we have gone through in family in this country is the Industrial Revolution, where on the farm it was typically families woke up, they worked alongside each other on the farm, they did chores together.

But then with industrialization, a lot of people moved off of the farm, they moved into crowded cities, they started living next door to people of different value systems. And they started going to work alongside other people’s husbands and wives, creating the opportunity for new opportunities in life to open up a good way, but also in negative ways as well. And that is the challenge of other potential sexual mates, infidelity, things like that. There’s the issue, a very controversial one in terms of women going into the workplace.

BRIAN: And do you view that as a good thing, Glenn? Is that a positive development?

GLENN STANTON: Clearly, that’s been a good thing in terms of women being empowered that way. But it has also had a very significant impact upon the family.

It’s interesting today that we see this trend for a lot of these women deciding, even though they’ve got high powered college degrees and they’re making their feminist moms very proud, they themselves are deciding to stay home and have child bearing and child raising as their primary function. Because many of them were latchkey kids, and they say, you know what, I’m not going to sacrifice my own children the way that I felt sacrificed. And so they are making a difference.

BRIAN: I’m not sure– maybe you can explain to our listeners what you mean by “sacrifice?”

GLENN STANTON: Well, I think that they certainly felt that way in that they came home to an empty home, or they came home to child care.

BRIAN: And when you talk about parents, are they interchangeable? In other words, if it was the mom who was going off to the law firm and the dad who was staying home to bring up the kid, does that comport with your notion of traditional family values?

GLENN STANTON: Well, that’s a good question. Men and women are different. Women, typically, are the better, more full-time caregivers than the fathers. They are more attached to care giving, just because of their psychology and physicality, than men tend to be.

BRIAN: So in the case of two women who are raising children, for instance, is that something that you would advocate?

GLENN STANTON: That’s one of the things that gets us into a very controversial issue, because we would reject that completely out of hand, primarily because the genders are not the same. And as loving as two women could be in the life of a child, all the love in the world cannot turn one of those women into a man. And there is an overwhelming body of data that shows that when children grow up deprived of their father, that they face significant detriments.

BRIAN: I’m curious on all of these issues about just how far you think public policy should go, or the state should go, in terms of realizing some of the ideals that you think help families.

GLENN STANTON: Yeah. I mean that is a very good question. And what the question really goes to is, is the family merely this private, sentimental thing that impacts only the people involved in it, or is the family a social institution?

And what we see is that as the social welfare institution grows in this nation, it grows almost as the family recedes, or the family weakens. And that is, that the family is the primary institution that makes sure that young people grow up to be healthy, well educated, well mannered individuals that come along and become the next civilization of our culture.

BRIAN: Glenn Stanton is a Research Fellow at the Christian advocacy group, Focus on the Family. Thank you very much, Glenn.

GLENN STANTON: Thank you. It’s good to be with you.

PETER: Well, Brian. There’s certainly a lot to talk about there.

But before we dig in, I want to play for you guys, an interview I did with another person who’s also thought a lot about American families. This is Stephen Mintz. He’s a historian up at Columbia University in New York. And when he hears people like Glenn Stanton invoke this notion of traditional family values, well, it drives him up the wall. Because he says that in a lot of ways, things are getting better, not worse.

STEPHEN MINTZ: Let’s take the Golden Age of the American family, which is the 1950s, right?

PETER: Yeah.

STEPHEN MINTZ: In the 1950s, 1/3 of American children lived in poverty. In 1900, the United States had the highest divorce rate in the world. In 1900, 10% of children lived in single parent households. Less than half of American families had a go to work dad and a stay at home mom.

In other words, if we actually look at the past, as opposed to mythologize about the past, we see that it doesn’t conform at all to our stereotypes.

PETER: But the family form itself is morphing. Family isn’t what it used to be, and isn’t that what people regret when they talk about the traditional family?

STEPHEN MINTZ: The United States has always been a tremendously mobile society, with all the side effects that that causes. So let me give you an example.

At the turn of the 20th century, 1/10 of Jewish fathers in New York City had abandoned their families.

PETER: Um-hmm.

STEPHEN MINTZ: The divorce rate was lower then, than it is today. But if you take together abandonment and parental death, you had close to the same percentage of family breakdowns that you have now.

As the colonial historian, all this should sound perfectly familiar to you, especially in Virginia where family breakup was very frequent. “Till death do you part” in the 17th century meant an average marriage of seven years.

In other words, approximately the same length as the average marriage in America today.

PETER: Well, let me ask you a little bit, Steve– and this is going to be pretty crude. But let me ask you, what do families do now? What is the function of families, as opposed to what they might have done 100 years Ago

STEPHEN MINTZ: In the past, the family was, first of all, a unit of production–

PETER: Right.

STEPHEN MINTZ: –whether was a family farm, or it was a small shop, or it was a craftsman. These families were productive units, first and foremost. And that meant that every family member contributed to the family economy. Those families provided insurance in old age, those families provided medical care.

What we have done is shifted many of the historic responsibilities of families to institutions outside the home– to hospitals, to insurance agencies, to schools, and the like. And in exchange, we’ve focused more and more our emotional fulfillment inside the family unit.

PETER: And the family still provides, for most Americans, the most satisfying emotional outlet. The best way to achieve some kind of sense of emotional fulfillment.

STEPHEN MINTZ: My concern is that we can invest such high expectations in the family, that it’s often fated to fail. That the family has become an overloaded life raft in a stormy sea, and that we, as a society, are not doing a good job providing the kinds of supports that will make families function better.

PETER: What do you have in mind?

STEPHEN MINTZ: We have, today, 2/3 of married women working, and an even higher percentage of single mothers working. And we let schools out at 3:00 PM.

PETER: Right.

STEPHEN MINTZ: In other words, we have not adjusted our social relationships and our social institutions to the realities of today’s family life. It’s not that people have abandoned family values. It’s that our social institutions make it difficult for people to fulfill those expectations.

PETER: Right. Thank you so much, Steve, for illuminating that for us.

STEPHEN MINTZ: It’s a pleasure to be with you.

PETER: Stephen Mintz is a historian who has written extensively on American families. He’s the director of the Teaching Center at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

ED: All right, guys. I’m really confused now. On one hand, we have Glenn Stanton saying that things are really going to hell, that families are a shell of their former selves, and are bringing down the rest of our civilization. And on the other hand, there’s Steve Mintz who says, what’s there to worry about? Families are getting stronger. Now we just need public policy to keep up with them.

This strikes me that what they are arguing about is whether or not the nuclear family has a particular cultural, and I think Stanton would say, even biological role to play that we distort at our peril.

BRIAN: But I don’t know. I thought Steve’s point about us placing too much burden on the family was right on target, actually. I think that this whole discussion about family values, it seems to me, gets disaggregated from the economy, gets disaggregated from social structures.

And it seems to me that he was trying to kind of put the family back in that larger mix. I mean talking about slavery, I mean you can’t really talk about slave families without talking about the kind of slave economy it existed in. They were just part and parcel.

ED: Yeah. I mean I think that’s the point that you could argue. One reason the family is so flexible is because it’s not nearly as much of an independent variable–

BRIAN: Right.

ED: –as we think it is, right? You could argue, OK, now, a highly mobile labor force, in which women are as capable as men, of basically of whatever needs to be done, that the economy needs women to be independent, and so then we envision an ideology of freedom that somehow makes that possible.

BRIAN: And Ed, I think you’ve really summed up the distinction between our first guest and our second guest. And that is that Glenn, and people like him, see families as independent variables if we could only fix them. If we can only get them right, that will solve all these other social and economic problems.

Whereas our second interview with Steve is somebody who sees family being– to use your political science language, Ed– a dependent variable families, kind of are determined by the kind of society around them, the economy around them. And I do think that really does help us understand these two notions– one very static, one dynamic.

PETER: And the ultimate question is whether the changes that we observe and we historians can record are for the worse, for the better, or are they indifferent?

ED: Well, guys, we’re not going to solve this problem, but you’ve certainly given us a lot to think about.

We have to take a short break. When we get back, we’ll hear from you, listeners. Remember, if you want to participate in future shows, have a look at our website to see the topics we’re working on right now. And that’s backstoryradio.org, or you can phone us at 888-257-8851.

ANNOUNCER (OFFSCREEN): More BackStory coming up in a minute.





BRIAN: This is BackStory. The show that turns to the past to understand what’s going on in the present. Today, we’re talking about something we can all relate to, so to speak. That’s the family. Are American families getting less stable or more so?

ED: We’re going to go to the phones now. But before we do, let’s remind you who we are.

That guy you just heard, the one who’s always asking all the hard questions, that’s our 20th century guy, Brian Balogh.

This other guy over there–

PETER: That would be me.

ED: The one who’s always interrupting us. That’s Peter Onuf. He’s our 18th century guy.

As for me, I’m the tie, the glue that binds them together, your humble 19th century guy, Ed Ayers.

Now, let’s go to the phones. Peter, who’s up first?

PETER: We have Linda from Etowah, Tennessee, the volunteer State.

LINDA (ON PHONE): That’s right.

PETER: Great to have you on the show.

LINDA (ON PHONE): OK. Well, I understand the subject of the day is family values.

ED: That’s right.

PETER: You got it.

LINDA (ON PHONE): OK. Well, that’s a hot topic down here in East Tennessee. It’s not quite as big as UT football, but I think it has moved possibly ahead of weapons of mass destruction.

BRIAN: Woah! Nice way to put it.

ED: Now, Linda, we want to get to your question. I should just point out they’re directing a lot of joshing toward me because I’m a UT alum.

BRIAN: From East Tennessee.

ED: And I’m from East Tennessee. I’m from more Eastern Tennessee than you are, from the upper East Tennessee in Kingsport. So I love the way you talk. Let’s hear you talk some more and ask us this question.

LINDA (ON PHONE): OK. The question I have about family values is who kind of decides which of those values we’re going to value, if that makes any sense.

ED: Yup.

LINDA (ON PHONE): Where I’m coming from on it is down here in East Tennessee, you know, white settlement didn’t occur here till the middle of 1700s. So people have been living here quite a bit longer than we had. And they have had families, Cherokee families specifically is what I’m talking about. They were structured very differently from white families in respect that the women held the property, a woman’s sons were raised by the men in her family, their brothers and uncles.

So I guess my question is, how do we decide which families we’re all supposed to emulate?

BRIAN: Yeah. I think there’s an agenda here, isn’t there? Bring back the Cherokees!

LINDA (ON PHONE): No, no, no. No, I’m just asking because I’m curious. I don’t hear a lot of families talking about it down here, but I here an awful lot of politicians talking about it. So can you give me a little historical background on that?

PETER: I’d like to talk about Indian families just a little bit to provide some historical context, and their relationship to missionary activity, as whites tried to change family life among Native Americans. And one of the chief goals was–

ED: So is that–

PETER: –to change– chief, that’s good– change gender roles. Because the way whites perceived Indian families is that women were exploited. They were doing the heavy lifting, the heavy work.

ED: All the food production.

PETER: The men were going out and having fun playing war, because they didn’t really kill each other very often, hunting for game, which is, of course, from the perspective of 18th century white Americans. That’s what aristocrats do. And so there was a great cultural campaign to transform gender relations so that men would go out in the field and grow crops. They’d stop hunting. They’d become like whites.

BRIAN: And Peter, how was that achieved? Was that through missionary societies?

PETER: Yeah. Everything came together. Missionaries recognized that you couldn’t really sell the Word to people who hadn’t adopted Western ways. So it became a campaign for souls, of course. That was the chief goal of all faithful missionaries. But at the same time, it had to be a cultural campaign against the way Indians lived.

ED: Yeah. So let’s fast forward a little bit. That campaign succeeds so well, really across two or three generations.

PETER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ED: That the leaders of the Cherokee adopt even slave holding, and build houses.

PETER: And they got media. They got their own newspaper.

ED: And then their own alphabet.

So, I guess what strikes me is that these things are always in flux, always in debate, and it’s always about power. Somebody’s always trying to enforce their idea of what a real family looks like onto somebody else.

BRIAN: And Linda, I just want to say, it is those connections to real power, legal power, political power that make the discussion of family values today such a potent issue. There are many people who want to dismiss, this isn’t the real issue, this is a distraction. But, in fact, this is very much a discussion about power relations. And I want to thank you for–

PETER: For being such a powerful voice.

LINDA (ON PHONE): Well, thank you so much. As I said, none of our politicians have sort of outlined those values for you.

PETER: Never, never.

LINDA (ON PHONE): But anyway,

BRIAN: Yeah, well, you tell those politicians to give us a call, Linda.

ED: OK, right.

LINDA (ON PHONE): I’ll do it.

BRIAN: Linda, thanks for calling. Bye-bye.

LINDA (ON PHONE): OK. Thank you.

ED: Bye-bye.

LINDA (ON PHONE): Have a good day.

PETER: Bye-bye.


PETER: Next up, we got Steve on the line from Kennedyville, Maryland. Steve, what’s on your mind?

STEVE (ON PHONE): Well, I am puzzled about some demographic changes.

PETER: Whoa.

STEVE (ON PHONE): We all know that the proportion of children living with single mothers has increased over the years. And so has a number of children born to unmarried women. And the question in my mind, is there any historical antecedent? Have we seen pieces of this before?

BRIAN: Well, it goes in waves. Before the revolution in a place like Hingham, Massachusetts, up to 1/3 of first marriages children were produced before they should have been produced, according to our standard. In other words, premarital pregnancy was almost the norm in these places. What it really meant was–

ED: In Puritan, Massachusetts.

BRIAN: Yeah. Think about it for a minute. What it really meant was a new notion of how family should be formed, and that is it should be by choice. And pregnancy was the way to promote this notion of sentimental bond, a romantic bond, if you will, the choice of all of the people, rather than being determined by families to serve family purposes.

ED: But here’s a case where, to get to, really, the spirit of Steve’s question. A shorter time frame may actually be more useful than a longer time frame. So let’s look over the course of the 20th century. Are we seeing something new and worrisome in these trends that Steve’s talking about?

BRIAN: Well, since you’re looking at me and I guess I got answer that question I do think that Steve has put his finger on a relatively new phenomenon not just the increase in what we call illegitimate births, but the cultural acceptance of that.

I think what’s very new is the notion of elites having kids out of wedlock, and not feeling the compulsion to get married, and celebrating that.

ED: And that’s true, but that’s still not what Steve’s really asking about, right? And so he’s talking–

BRIAN: Steve, Steve, what are you asked about?

STEVE (ON PHONE): Well, let’s put it this way. What we think of as the normal family is, of course, not normal.


STEVE (ON PHONE): And so, such things as the disappearance of the multigenerational family is part of that shift away from the normal. And so is this trend toward single parent households and non-marital births.

What I was asking about was simply had we seen this before, and you guys seem to be saying that no, this is relatively new.

PETER: You know, Steve, there are two ways to look at demographics. A theme of our conversation has been longer lives, people live longer, and actually the multigenerational family never really existed. People’s expected life span was much shorter than it is now. And the idea of grandparents having a meaningful role in the lives of their grandchildren is not something that’s achieved until the 19th century, and really the 20th century in a big way.

BRIAN: But you’re also finding that even in the context of African American families over the course of 20th century, the profound changes, the disappearance of blue collar jobs that could help sustain a two-parent family–

ED: I would say, the appearance of those jobs, the brief appearance of those jobs–

BRIAN: Yeah, that’s right.

PETER: That’s anomalous.

ED:–and then the disappearance.

BRIAN: Fair enough, Ed. I agree with you. They appeared long enough to attract African American families into northern cities, and then, really, in the space of just a generation or two, disappeared. And so that you don’t really have the economic sustenance to sustain families that were what we think of as a normal family.

So yeah, you are seeing this, and what’s disconcerting to a lot of people is it seems to be gaining momentum. And we never know what’s going to bring these things to an end.

PETER: Well, actually, there has been a stabilization of out of wedlock marriages. It’s–

BRIAN: It’s just a very high level.

PETER: It’s a high level and people aren’t happy about it. But it’s not one of these trends that is going to continue indefinitely.

BRIAN: Well, I think one thing we can say is that the family has never stabilized for more than a couple of generations at a time. It’s always in flux. So, the present simply isn’t a very good predictor of the future on family structure, which seem surprising because you think of it as the least changeable institution in human history.

And yet, in American case, it has never stabilized.

PETER: So, that’s a modestly hopeful way of talking about your concerns, which are certainly legitimate, because it’s a challenge for future generations to make sense out of their world, and the family’s going to be the way they do it.

Thanks for calling, Steve.

STEVE (ON PHONE): Thank you.

BRIAN: Remember, we want to know what you think about all of this. What do family values mean to you? Our email address is backstory@virginia.edu, or you can just leave a comment at backstoryradio.org.

PETER: We’ve got another phone call from Portland, Maine. It’s Steven. Steven, welcome to BackStory.

PETER (ON PHONE): Well, thank you so much.

I was wondering if there are ever examples from the past, from the [INAUDIBLE] days, where there were same sex couples that actually raised kids, and if that has ever been documented before?

PETER: You know, this is a really tricky question for us. We’re probably out of our depth.

The whole modern notion of homosexuality and, therefore, same sex couples is a 19th, even a 20th century invention. There were various euphemisms and ways of talking about same sex couples. The Boston marriage, for instance, is one among blue-blooded ladies in Massachusetts of a certain sort who would live together their entire lives.

And in these unconventional family forms were children raised? I’m actually positive some were, but it wasn’t something that somebody said, oh this is a same sex couple and homosexuals are raising a child and that’s unnatural.

BRIAN: And I’ll go even farther, Steven, and argue that one’s identity being defined by their sexual preference is very much a 20th, 21st century phenomenon. That people regularly were involved in today, what we call homosexual acts, they had sex with people of the same sex. But the notion that that made them homosexual, so that made them gay, is something that simply doesn’t make sense to the people in Ed’s and Peter’s time, and even many of the people in the beginning of the 20th century.

PETER: So paradoxically, there could be people we would call homosexual or gay who would have been involved in normal family life–

BRIAN: Raise lots of kids.

PETER: It’s only now when we have that sexualized identity that it becomes such an important issue.

BRIAN: There was more flexibility before things were so clearly labeled.

That’s a great question. You should have seen how deeply thoughtful all three of us looked as you were asking that.

ED: God, I thought that was confused.

PETER (ON PHONE): Well, I appreciate your thoughts on that.

PETER: Thanks very much for calling.

BRIAN: Thank you very much.

PETER (ON PHONE): All right. You’re welcome.


BRIAN: Well, for the last half hour, we’ve been chipping away at this notion of traditional family values. The more we dig, the more it seems like that sitcom version of the nuclear family is hardly the historical norm.

But the next person we’re going to hear from has found evidence that values we often think of as traditional do go back a long time, and she’s found that evidence in the last place you’d expect, namely the slave quarters of the Antebellum South.

Marie Jenkins Schwartz, the historian at the University of Rhode Island who studies slave families. And when I sat down with her, she told me that more than half of slave children lived with both parents. And even when they didn’t, their parents went to great lengths to provide for them. In many cases, Schwartz said, it was a case of family values bumping up against the structure of the slave economy.

MARIE JENKINS SCHWARTZ: In the upper South, for example, farms were very small, slave holdings were small. So families did not necessarily live together. They might marry across plantation boundaries, and the mother and father might live on separate slave holdings.

I remember one young boy didn’t know who his father was, and this is his story he told later in the 1930s when he was interviewed. He said that his father always told him that he had to sleep with this head under the covers. And he never knew why, and sometimes at night he would hear voices rustling around, and he was a very curious little boy, so he peeked out from under the covers. And he realized that what he was seeing was his father for the first time. He had come into the cabin at night bringing milk.

His father had wanted to protect him, because children are notorious tattletales, and she did not want her young son to be blurting out to the owner, yes, my dad comes every night and brings us milk.

BRIAN: Now, people used to say that African American family was very much shaped by African heritage, that, say, matrilineal patterns or so forth were a direct continuation of African culture. Do historians still believe that?

MARIE JENKINS SCHWARTZ: One of the things that we have to remember is that there wasn’t one African society or one African type of family. There were many types of families in different parts of Africa. And initially, Africans coming into the Americas as slaves had come in as a result of violence, and their families were very truncated. And they were in shock, I believe. And they did not begin to have children in large numbers for some time.

The first Africans into the area we think of as the United States would have come in at Jamestown in 1619. It took until 1720 for African Americans to begin having enough children to replace the population that died.

But it is something that is unique to the United States that African Americans actually began having enough children that we can say they had families.

BRIAN: Unique to the United States, you mean in the Western hemisphere?


BRIAN: Right.

MARIE JENKINS SCHWARTZ: And the Americas, because there were other slave societies. And in those places, slaves died in such numbers that they could not sustain the population through human reproduction.

BRIAN: And I know this has been a controversial subject over the decades and American history, people making different kinds of estimations about how successful enslaved families were in holding things together, and what the sources of that strength were. Would you say that today that we are most struck by the success of the families or emphasizing the stresses under which they suffered?

MARIE JENKINS SCHWARTZ: I don’t want to leave the impression that slavery was not founded on violence. It was. But they’re no way the plantation could have functioned, even as an economic unit, if there were just beatings constantly. Who would have been able to even do the work?

So what happened is over time, accommodations were worked out between slave holders, and slave people. They would come to an agreement, so to speak, about what a daily task would be in terms of work. They would come to an agreement about what punishments of children might be accepted, and what punishments enslaved parents really could not and would not stand.

I don’t want to discount the horrendous problems that slave families had, but I do think it would be wrong just to focus on the ill-treatment. Because I think the story of enslaved people can be very inspiring, that we could know that despite horrendous circumstances, we could still know how to be human. Know how to nurture and be nurtured.

BRIAN: That’s beautifully put. Thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

MARIE JENKINS SCHWARTZ: Thank you for having me.

BRIAN: Marie Jenkins Schwartz is a Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. She’s the author, most recently, Birthing a Slave, Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South.


BRIAN: Well, I got to tell you guys, I mean I know that you work on slavery. It’s in both of your centuries. You think about it all the time. As a 20th century guy, my first reaction is how do you work on this stuff every day? I mean I just– the story about the kid being under the covers so he can’t even see his dad. I mean I don’t know how you deal with that on a day-to-day basis.

PETER: But you know, one of the things that’s really troubling to me– it’s an added layer of complexity– is that functioning families or the kinds of functioning families that Marie talks about under these horrendous conditions, actually enabled the system of slavery to work well. In other words, there was a shared interest between slaves and their masters. And that’s troubling.

ED: Brian, it’s a good question, how do we think about this for a living. And one thing it does is make the present sort of look a lot better.

But I know that you wrestle with stories, like the one you’re referring to, the young boy. Then you have sort of the demographic fact that this slave society managed to reproduce itself.

PETER: And slaves are making choices to bring children into the world.

BRIAN: That’s right.

PETER: In the knowledge that those families can be destroyed. So it’s wonderful for Marie to talk about the ways in which African Americans struggled to make families. But we know they did so in the context of the breakup of families.

BRIAN: Well, speaking of breaks, we have to take another one. When we get back, we’ll return to a century I feel a lot more comfortable with, especially after this conversation. That’s the 20th century. And we’ll talk family values with someone who knows of what he speaks. That’s the best friend to Beaver, which would be Cleaver.



PETER: This is BackStory, the show that puts a little old back into your news. I’m Peter Onuf. I live in the 18th century.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers. I’m at home in the 19th century.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. The 20th century is where you can find me.

We’re talking today about the history of family life in America.

ED: And we’re taking your calls. Peter, who do you have for us?

PETER: I’ve got Trey from Shipman, Virginia. Trey, welcome to the show.

TREY (ON PHONE): Thank you very much.

I was curious. I think we all really recognize the value of family, but there are certain situations where we decide either for the good of a child or for the community in general, the state sort of recognizes there is a greater interest in breaking up that family and removing a child. And we all remember what happened about a month or so ago with the polygamists in Texas. Or what goes on right here in our own backyards with social services.

I’m wondering what the history of that is. How those decisions were made in the past? How those standards have changed and evolved over time?

PETER: So this is really a question about how the state gets involved in family life and how those domains kind of leak into each other?


BRIAN: So early in the 19th century, this is very common. With poor houses, people would be pulled out. And we need to remember that families were a lot less intact in any time, really, before now, because of death and desertion. So as a result, you would find things that we romanticize, which is people being adopted by relatives and brought into that family. But you’d also have vast warehouses of orphanages.

So, what’s happened is the routinization, in some ways, the supervision of this process, but this is a longstanding practice in American history.

PETER: Yeah, I mean at least in the 18th century you could say there are no institutions to speak of. And so, the community, the village will take care of people in various forms of what we call out-relief where people will get from the town a certain amount of firewood and things to live with.

And it’s only in the 19th century that we have the emergence of this whole institutional structure to substitute for family failure. But family’s always failed, and the question is how do you put them together again?

ED: And in fact, you could argue that we’ve seen in recent decades, the broadening of what’s considered to be an authentic family. I think there’s an embrace of adoption now, because its elective is even more real and deep. It’s almost seen as like enhanced because it’s voluntary.

BRIAN: But I also want to just say that that movement towards adoption is a response to the remarkable number of kids in state foster care, in institutions sponsored by the states, for kids that can’t be handled.

TREY (ON PHONE): Yeah. I’m a foster and adoptive parent. I have three special needs adopted kids from right here in Virginia. So it is an issue that’s sort of near and dear to me. And I’ve seen dozens and dozens of kids come and go through the system, and maybe once or twice wondered whether or not the state had made a good decision in removing a child from a family.

Overall, I think that they– while it’s not a perfect system, the people’s hearts are in the right place and they’re trying to do the right thing.

This brings up the question of historically how these decisions were made and what the standards were.

ED: But we go through these different cycles. I was, for some reason this morning, thinking about eugenics and how 100 years ago, the great idea was if we could just stop defective people, as they were called, from having children, then that would be the way to solve all this problem.

Foster care strikes me as an interesting amalgam of an idea of institutionalized, but not institutionalized. And sort of a de-institutionalization of state support.

PETER: But it requires institutions for this–

ED: Exactly.

PETER: –to work.

In a way, it invokes an idea of that old extended family, even in the Enlightenment version, back in the 18th century, of the family of man. So somehow we imagine that we have these intimate connections, almost familial, with anybody on earth.

I think modern responses to social dysfunction and the failure of families depends on mobilizing that sense of human responsibility.

BRIAN: Well, that human responsibility sounds like it might have motivated you, Trey. I am an adoptive parent myself, so I feel comfortable asking you, in front of our millions of listeners, what motivated you to do this?

TREY (ON PHONE): Well, it’s exactly what you were just talking about. I mean I was sort of sparked by your comment about that it’s sort of a blend of institutional and non-institutional sort of response to this.

Because from the inside, it certainly feels pretty institutional when you’re meeting with social workers and jumping through all the loops and everything that has to be done as a foster parent. And yet, it is happening here in my family, and I never really thought of it that way that it really is that blend.

And I certainly didn’t sign up for this because I wanted to be part of an institution. I signed up for it because I saw a need in my society and wanted to respond to that.

PETER: Right.

ED: You could argue that this is sort of the culmination to the things we discovered works– state responsibility with individual accountability.

PETER: So this is the best of all possible worlds. Thank you so much for calling in, Trey.

BRIAN: Thank you, Trey.

TREY (ON PHONE): Thank you.

BRIAN: Bye-bye.


BRIAN: Family values. That the theme of the day. Have a look at what other listeners are saying about it on our website, backstoryradio.org.

PETER: Well, guys, we’ve got another call, and it’s from Katherine, from Philadelphia, PA. Katherine, welcome to BackStory.

KATHERINE (ON PHONE): Hi. Thank you. So I’m originally from England, and when I–

PETER: What happened to your accent anyway? When did you come here?

KATHERINE (ON PHONE): I came over when I was six, so it died in first grade.

PETER: Oh, that explains everything.

ED: Well, thank you for acclimating to our nation.

KATHERINE (ON PHONE): When I came here, I sort of noticed a good deal of a sense of nostalgia for the families of the ’50s. And I was wondering if the same sense of nostalgia , looking backwards with fondness, or whatever you want to call it, was around in the 1920s, in the sort of modernizing era–

PETER: Yeah, great question.

KATHERINE (ON PHONE): –before the families of the Victorian era.

ED: Yeah, as far as I can tell, people have always been nostalgic for a childhood that they imagine right before their own. That certainly in the 1920s when the United States became officially an urban nation, the farm was very much idealized. And then later on, when the cities grow, then people idealized the early cities as the best of all times when you could walk to anywhere.

And now, people idealize a kind of suburbia that was somehow less complicated.

PETER: Now, well I think there’s a deeper nostalgia here. Take the whole idea of the yard, and that refers to, evokes the notion of farms and functional spaces–

ED: The pasture.

PETER: Right. Britain, they’ve got gardens. They don’t have yards. But we have this kind of nostalgia for the farm on its own acreage. In fact, we evoke in suburban subdivisions, a notion of acres. And as every person riding around on his power mower is kind of re-living in a kind of nostalgic way, the man on his land.

ED: But let’s see if we can’t bear down a little bit on Katherine’s more specific question.

BRIAN: Oh, I hate doing that.

ED: I know. But there does seem to be a long-term idealization of the 1950s. Even if we don’t idealize it, we demonize it. We take that, still, as the baseline of what– when American families were most themselves.

BRIAN: And let me just give you an example, so that I don’t have to actually explain why.

When I was in college in the 1970s, it was in the Northeast. We had ’50s night in the cafeteria. The cafeteria workers dressed ’50s, and we had cheeseburgers and French fries, and it was all pretty celebratory. UVA, when it came to UVA, fairly recently one of the cafeterias had ’50s night, but there was a protest against ’50s night. And I think rightly so, because people asked, oh, so we want to bring back segregation? We want to bring back raping the environment. I mean some of this is exaggerated, but it speaks to Ed’s point about the endurance of the 1950s.

You have to remember, Americans had come off the Great Depression, and then they come through the searing experience of World War II.

PETER: You know, all you’re talking about is your own childhood. Of course we’re nostalgic for our childhood.

ED: No, no, no, no. Brian’s almost right. Continue.

BRIAN: So in the 1950s, America experienced, for the first time in a couple of decades, a period of relative tranquility, and certain economic prosperity for many Americans, though certainly not all. And that was magnified in the mass culture through the kinds of TV programs. And, of course, the 1950s is when TV entered the household of most American families.

PETER: Yeah. Well, listen. We’re very nostalgic for British accents, so work on it and call us again.

KATHERINE (ON PHONE): [LAUGH] I’ll do my best fake one.

PETER: Thanks for calling.

ED: Brian, you mentioned the role that TV played in creating our sense of the kind of normal American family. I’m just curious, did it work that way for you?

BRIAN: Well, kind of. I mean I really always wanted to be one of those families, but just fell short.


ED: So it was your fault?

BRIAN: No, it’s entirely my fault.

PETER: Well, he may have fallen short, but he’s a big guy.

hosts, I think our listeners have heard just about enough secondary analysis for one day. I think it’s time to go straight to the source. What do you say?

BRIAN: Let’s do it.


PETER: It’s my privilege to introduce our final guest for the day. If you grew up in the 1950s or have turned on TV land and any time since, there’s a good chance you remember him. Back then, his name was Gilbert Bates, and he was the best friend of one Beaver Cleaver.


-Hey, how do you like that new dumb kid that came to our class today?

-Oh, yeah. How do you like that dumb suitcase he carries his books in.

-His name is Gilbert.

PETER: In real life, Gilbert was Steve Talbot, a child actor who appeared on plenty of other TV shows when he wasn’t palling around with the Beav. His father was also a sitcom fixture playing, among other things, the neighbor Joe on Ozzie and Harriet. In fact, if there was anybody who actually lived the kind of storybook life depicted on 1950s TV, it was Steve Talbot.

STEVE TALBOT: I was born in Hollywood. I was raised in North Hollywood, in a specific section called Studio City. It was named Studio City because the studio was the heart of the city. It was the old Republic Studios where Ronald Reagan made all his bad B movies. And the whole town was built around it.

BRIAN: But when you went to school, like what did the other kids say? Or were they all in this Studio City bubble as well?

STEVE TALBOT: They were all in the Studio City bubble, you know what I’m saying?


BRIAN: So he went to school with little Timmy.

ED: Exactly. Oh, was Rin Tin Tin there?

STEVE TALBOT: I grew up on the set of Rin Tin Tin.


STEVE TALBOT: I was also in Lassie, and Lassie bit me.

PETER: No. Oh, he’s got the scar to show for it.

BRIAN: Did you have like visits from friends from outside Studio City? How did you break through the reality, to the real so-called family?

STEVE TALBOT: We had a new, improved reality. We didn’t break through.

No. The truth is, look, I grew up in an acting family. I loved acting when I was a kid. And when I really liked acting–

ED: It showed, Gilbert.


ED: OK, please continue. You loved acting.

STEVE TALBOT: I loved acting, and I worked in every television show that was on the air in the 1950s and early 1960s. And then at a certain point, I decided it was artificial, not real, weird–

BRIAN: Let me–

STEVE TALBOT: –sacchrin

BRIAN: Let me stop you there, Steve. Tell us a little bit about that discovery and that transition into the new reality beyond the walls of Studio City.

PETER: That had to be the 1960s, huh?

STEVE TALBOT: It did, precisely. I mean Leave it to Beaver, if you look at Leave it to Beaver as a kind of iconic series, look at the time span. It ran from Sputnik until JFK’s assassination. The Kennedy assassination had a tremendous impact on me, and I quit acting the next year. And I got very involved in school, and I ended up going off to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, joining SDS and being a very active anti-Vietnam War person in college and afterwards.

So, I was deeply involved in the ’60s. Mortified at that time that I had been on Leave it to Beaver, denying my past.

BRIAN: Sure.

STEVE TALBOT: Having it come up in all sorts of embarrassing situations, in meetings with the Black Panthers, for instance.


BRIAN: At all the wrong times.

PETER: That was the wrong Cleaver.


BRIAN: Well, tell me, when you were in SDS, did you watch any TV? Do you remember what the portrait of the American family was in the late ’60s, early 1970s?

STEVE TALBOT: Sure. And we had a huge critique of it. We were highly critical of the totally sanitized, idealized portrait of a completely white middle-class family, and shows like Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet. And I felt guilty for being part of that.

I actually stopped watching TV, and didn’t watch TV again until the 1980s, when I had my own family.

ED: So didn’t it strike you that maybe The Cosby Show is really just Leave it to Beaver, re-done.

STEVE TALBOT: Yes. Although, I’ll tell you an interesting thing about The Cosby Show.

My wife is originally from South Africa. And The Cosby Show had a really interesting political impact in South Africa. The apartheid regime banned television. There was literally no television in South Africa allowed by the government until the late 1970s. And they specifically banned TV because they thought it would have a liberalizing impact on society in South Africa, which they didn’t want.

And one of the first shows that they actually got, when they allowed TV, was The Cosby Show. And The Cosby Show became the most popular television show in South Africa. And I actually think that The Cosby Show played a role in convincing white people that it was all right to end apartheid.

PETER: So sitcoms can be good.

STEVE TALBOT: In that case, I think that’s true.

BRIAN: Was Leave it to Beaver without redeeming social value?

STEVE TALBOT: I’ll tell you, there was one thing that I think that was different about Leave it to Beaver, as opposed to The Donna Reed Show, or Father Knows Best, or some of the other family sitcoms at the time. It was very much from the perspective of the kids. And when I look back on it now, I see that it captured something of my own experience of being a white suburban kid on the loose.

BRIAN: But let me ask. You are a parent now. How old are your kids or your kid?

STEVE TALBOT: They are fully grown. I have a son about to graduate from law school, and a daughter, God help her, who just got her MFA in acting.

BRIAN: Oh, great for her. But tell me, what family shows did you watch with your kids or do you watch with your kids?

STEVE TALBOT: The Sopranos.


BRIAN: But what does that say about–

ED: Family’s important.

BRIAN: What does that tell you about how, at least our image, our public image of families has changed over 40 years?

STEVE TALBOT: I think Americans have a much darker sense of what this country is like now, than they did in the 1950s, or at least were prepared to admit on television.

ED: But it’s kind of strange that we kind of blame Leave it to Beaver and those other shows for presenting an idealized view of the American family. But now, our television shows present a view of the American family that’s worse than reality.

PETER: And that’s why we’re nostalgic for Beaver.

ED: And why it’s always on somewhere, along with Mayberry and Andy Griffith.


ED: I understand you can sing the theme to Andy Griffith.



ED: But better yet you could whistle it.


ED: Well, we were having a debate about this. Could you hum the theme to Leave it to Beaver for us, or sing it?

STEVE TALBOT: You know, you wouldn’t want to hear that theme.

PETER: Oh, please. Come on.

STEVE TALBOT: No, no, no. I’m not going to go there.

BRIAN: Steve, thanks very much for being with us today.

STEVE TALBOT: Thank you, guys.


BRIAN: Steve Talbot is a documentary filmmaker in California. Until recently, he was series editor for the PBS series Frontline World. But his real claim to fame is that from 1958 to 1963 he played Beaver’s pal Gilbert Bates on Leave it to Beaver.

ED: That’s all the time we have for today. Visit us online to read an article Steve wrote about his Leave it to Beaver days. And while you’re there, have a look at our future show topics. Remember, we’re counting on you to help us produce those shows.

PETER: The fun begins it backstoryradio.org. You can sign up for our newsletter there and our free podcast.

BackStory is produced by Tony Field and Rachel Quimby, with help from Catherine Moore. Our engineer is Jamal Millner. Gaby Alter composed our theme. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

ED: Major production support for BackStory is provided by the David A. Harrison Fund for the president’s initiatives at the University of Virginia, the Perry Foundation Incorporated. Cary Brown-Epstein and the W. L. Lyons Brown Jr. Charitable Foundation.

PETER: And Caroleen Feeney, Marcus and Carole Weinstein, Trish and David Crowe, Jay M. Weinberg, Dr. Anna Magee, and an anonymous donor.

ED: BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for VFH radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

BRIAN: You know, and once upon a time I wanted to be a historian, to be totally–

PETER: Oh, no.

BRIAN: –honest.

ED: Yeah. Well, not everybody can live their dream.




FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Brian Balogh is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia, and UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond.

View Resources

Related Links

  • Read Stephen Talbot’s article, “Living Down Beaver”
  • Find out “Why Children Need Father Love and Mother Love,” by Glenn Stanton
  • Learn more about Steve Mintz’s “Family Images and Realities”