Children always represent the future, but what role have they played in the past? What has shaped the way we view and treat children today? In this episode, Peter, Brian, and Ed explore how children’s role in society has undergone profound changes over the past 300 years – from common laborers occupying the same working space as adults, to the apples of their parents’ eye, sentimentalized and protected in separate spaces. And they discover how, over the course of the long 19th century, childhood itself was redefined as an age of innocence, a life stage characterized by play, learning, and limited responsibility.
Discussing everything from the disdain of foreign observers’ for the unruly children of early America, to the original “Toddlers and Tiaras” of the mid-19th Century, Ed, Peter, and Brian probe what each tells us about the nature of American childhood over time.
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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. Not long after the United States gained its independence, European observers began to visit the new country. And one of the many things that stuck out for these travelers was the freedom of American children.
PAULA FASS: Young people were not seen as inferior and to be bossed around but were gradually inducted into a kind of majority that struck Europeans as unusual.
PETER: The legacy of the independent American child lived on as the young nation grew. It was even used as a defense 100 years later by a girl named Imogene, who dared to marry before the legal age.
MALE SPEAKER 1: It’s no worse for me to get married at 14 than it is for girls to get married about that age in the olden times. And I don’t see that piling up years upon a girl makes her love a man any better when she’s older.
PETER: A history of American childhood, today on BackStory. Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.
MALE SPEAKER 2: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.
PETER: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: We’re going to start on a somber note today with a problem that plagued the late 19th century, the accidental death of children. This wasn’t a new problem, of course, but it got a lot worse in the era of trains and trolleys and crowded city streets.
VIVIANA ZELIZER: And so the question was, when children were killed this way, how do the courts compensate?
PETER: This is Viviana Zelizer, a sociologist who’s studied the court cases brought by bereaved parents.
VIVIANA ZELIZER: One example from a little seven-year-old little girl, this is 1896, and she was killed by a team of horses when she crossed Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side of New York. She was with her sister, Dora, who was nine years old.
ED: The little girl who died was named Ettie Pressman. And after the accident, her father brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the man driving the horses.
PETER: Now a wrongful death lawsuit is a very specific type of case. It’s not a criminal case that establishes guilt or innocence. Instead, the jury’s job is to decide on the appropriate compensation for the bereaved parents. So Ettie’s father had to impress upon the jury just how much he had valued his daughter.
VIVIANA ZELIZER: So how does the father declare or explain his loss? He says that he required his small children to work in order to help provide for the support of his household. And this is a quote from the case. He said, yes, what I earn and what the children earn, used together, we have enough.
ED: There’s nothing about Ettie’s personality in his testimony or how much he’d loved her. His argument was strictly economic. Ettie had earned $3 a week. So if she’d lived at home until she was 21 and kept earning at a steady rate, she would have brought home a grand total of $1,484. Of course, you’d have to deduct a little from her net earnings to feed and clothe her, but, even so, her loss threatened the family’s economic stability.
VIVIANA ZELIZER: And as a result of this testimony, the court awarded him $1,000 for the loss of his daughter’s services and earnings.
ED: Did people protest against this at the time? Or did it seem immanently sensible to everybody?
VIVIANA ZELIZER: From the evidence that I have, I didn’t find any evidence that this was considered unfit for a child.
ED: It’s not that Ettie’s father didn’t love her. But for a long time before this case, people had thought about children’s value in a very different way. Kids were productive members of the household. A child’s death was an emotional loss, of course, but it was also an economic blow. And the courts recognized that.
BRIAN: Today on the show, we’re going to talk about America’s evolving views of childhood. What has it meant to be a child in America? How have Americans valued children through the centuries? And where do we draw the line between childhood and adulthood? We’ll hear how early American child-rearing practices shocked and appalled European observers and visit the precursor of the Little Miss pageant, the 19th century baby show.
ED: In just a moment, we’re going to return to my interview with Viviana Zelizer. But before we do, we need to explain a big change that was happening right around the time that little Ettie Pressman died.
PETER: By the late 19th century, families were having fewer children and investing more time and energy in each individual child. Americans were starting to think about childhood in a new way, as a special, protected stage of life.
BRIAN: One of the results of this new idea of the sacred child was that reformers got new laws passed, laws that required schooling and restricted child labor. That meant that fewer children were working. And those who did work usually worked less.
ED: But here’s the thing, the laws regulating wrongful death cases didn’t change. Juries still had to calculate awards based on a child’s economic worth, the so-called pecuniary rule. This rule stuck around even though children’s economic worth was now much lower. So starting a few years after Ettie Pressman’s case, right around the turn of the 20th century, there were a whole spate of cases in which juries awarded shockingly low compensation to parents. Viviana Zelizer says that people at the time called them the one cent cases.
VIVIANA ZELIZER: Example, $0.06 for a New York boy.
VIVIANA ZELIZER: $10 for a three-year-old in Nebraska. $0.01 for a 12-year-old in Missouri. I have a case in 1895 of a very upset New York judge that set aside a verdict of $50 for the death of an eight-year-old. And he ordered a new trial and expressed his distress that a bright, healthy boy could be assigned what he called the price of a poodle dog.
ED: Oh, gosh.
VIVIANA ZELIZER: And if you want, I can give you another example.
VIVIANA ZELIZER: This is a few years later. This is one of those New York Times front page story under the title “An Estimate of a Child’s Value.” The story reported a case from Indiana. What happened was the jury had spent a record-breaking 53 hours to calculate the value of an eight-year-old boy.
So this is from the story. “The jury figured that from 8 to 10 years old the child would be able to make $0.45 a week and cost $0.84. From 10 to 12, it would make $0.75 and cost $1.25.” Then they went on till age 21, and the tally was about $599-something, far less than the $5,000 originality claimed by the father.
ED: The fact that the New York Times is shocked by this and would not have been shocked five years earlier suggests that something important’s changing, right?
VIVIANA ZELIZER: Well, but notice they were shocked not because monetary compensation was being awarded for the increasingly, quote, “sacred child.” They were shocked by the low awards.
VIVIANA ZELIZER: This is the intriguing thing, which is something that continues to be an issue. There’s a dual discomfort. If you got no economic compensation or very low amounts, it’s insulting. Because it means, well, you’re not valuing, in the currency of the time, the child. But there’s also the sense that you’re polluting the sacredness of the child by establishing monetary equivalent.
ED: So how did the American public respond to these one cent cases?
VIVIANA ZELIZER: From the information that I found, there was great discomfort. People were jolted by the unprecedented low verdicts. One example, a leading New York case, called Morris v. Metropolitan, in which $0.06 was awarded for the wrongful killing of a boy by a street car, a typical event, or starting to be a common event at that time.
VIVIANA ZELIZER: After there was a noted appeal, Charles Morris, the father, got $7,500 in damages. And here, the response I did find from the press that welcomed this verdict. It was reassuring proof that a child’s life, quote, was “worth over $0.06.” So there you do find observers being upset by these unprecedented verdicts.
And as I see it, or as the evidence suggests, by denying compensation or awarding these nominal damages, these controversial decisions challenge the value of the new sacred child. For example, in 1899 a Kentucky decision significantly reduced the size of a child death award. The dissenting judge accused the majority of unethical materialism. And he said, if a man like Gould, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller had been killed instead of the child [? stock, ?] the judgment would have been for millions of dollars. So there we have a tension that low estimates are an insult for the sacred child.
ED: Imagine you’re the attorney for one of these middle class parents who’s lost a child in a tragic way. What’s the argument that is not based on lost earnings? How do they value a child?
VIVIANA ZELIZER: Well, you get at what entered the discussion of these cases, and which was not allowed earlier by the pecuniary rule, or at least if it entered, it would not be considered a matter for compensation. What you see, and this we’re reaching now the third stage that I tracked, is the beginning of monetizing the sentimental value of children. So you start into a process of greater emotional bookkeeping. In most cases, the standard pecuniary legal rule remains, but it becomes a legal fiction.
VIVIANA ZELIZER: So there’s many ways in which the courts and the lawyers start undermining the pecuniary rule. First, they start stretching the meaning of pecuniary loss, because they start allowing the right of action for pecuniary loss caused by loss of companionship. And here I can give you one example, a Florida decision to award plaintiffs $12,500 and explained the rationale in terms of the mental pain and suffering to parents that was caused by the death of their child. Those who have not brought a child into the world and loved it and planned for it and then have it snatched away from them and killed can hardly have an adequate idea of the mental pain and anguish that one undergoes from such a tragedy. So that kind of argument enters the ledger.
Then we’re moving now– This is gradual, and it intensifies. And I’ll move us quickly, not because I’m a sociologist and I don’t know about time.
ED: I’m sure you do.
VIVIANA ZELIZER: In any case, by the 1980s– and this is when I was doing my research– you have much more explicit booking, so that the wrongful death trial of what I call this economically useless child becomes really sentimental economics. They start trying to determine the emotional value of a particular child that was killed. And I’ll read you– this as one case, Pagitt v. Keokuk. And this is a quote. “It depends on all the circumstances important in the lives of a particular parent and a particular child, the ability of the child to offer companionship in society and the ability of the parent to enjoy it.”
So that it enters the ledger and the basis for compensation. And you see that, in the instructions to the lawyers, lawyers are now urged to bring the child, quote, “back to life,” to dramatize with home movies, photographs showing the deceased child–
VIVIANA ZELIZER: –playing baseball or building sandcastles to convey that uniqueness. And of course, the irony is that you’re establishing the child’s irreplaceable quantities to convert them into a cash equivalent.
ED: Viviana Zelizer is a professor of sociology at Princeton University. Her book is Pricing the Priceless Child, the Changing Social Value of Children.
BRIAN: It’s time for a quick break. When we get back, we’ll survey the goods on display at a 19th century state fair, jams, jellies, pies, and babies?
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute. We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today we’re exploring some of the changing meanings of childhood over the past couple of hundred years. In the first part of our show, we heard about how, at the turn of the 20th century, American courts still viewed children primarily as wage-earners, even though child labor laws were going into effect and children were no longer working nearly as much.
PETER: As we were putting our show together, a listener named Nat in Bozeman, Montana left a question on our website about those child labor laws. And so we invited him to join us on the line. You want to run that question by us, Nat?
NAT: I do. I know I probably sound a little cynical asking this question. But in thinking about the motivations behind child labor laws and mandatory schooling laws, I kind of doubt that they were just for the benefit of children and that there was probably some motivation to benefit the adults involved as well. And I was hoping maybe you could put that in context for me.
PETER: Oh, Nat. You are massively cynical. We don’t love our children, is that what you’re saying?
NAT: Things get complicated. That’s all I’m saying.
PETER: OK. Let’s see what we can do with it.
ED: If we think about a rough chronology of this, you first have child labor laws pretty much when you first have child labor in an industrial setting. Peter, of course all back through all millennia before this, of course children are going to work. But it becomes apparent when they are working under the supervision of someone else at a machine without nature around in a very regulated way. When we talk about child labor, is that what you mean, Nat?
NAT: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, growing up near a farm and working on farms, that always seemed very natural to me. But yeah, I guess I’m thinking more textile mills, things like that.
ED: Right. So this is in New England, where they do two things at the same time. They create public schools and even make it compulsory. At the same time, they try to regulate child labor.
BRIAN: Now that said, to answer your question directly, sure, there were plenty of adult self-serving reasons for the child labor laws. Lots of union members wanted some of these jobs anyway to go to other adult union members. On the flip side, however, they were quite worried is that if children were replaced they would be replaced, god forbid, with African-Americans or immigrants. And that would be even worse than working next to these children.
ED: Let me talk about something I actually know more about, which is the child labor laws in the American South in the late 19th, early 20th century. After the South basically steals the textile industry from New England after the Civil War, they populate it with women and children. That’s the pitch.
Now New England has been ruined by labor unions, by compulsory schooling and all this. Come to the South where we have all these widows and orphans from the Civil War. People are desperate for any kind of job where they could actually have a steady paycheck. And that will be our great comparative advantage here in the 1880s and 1890s.
There’s actually a name for these children. They’re called lint heads. They are raised in a textile mill, and they come out without all their fingers. And they come out with great power. And these are white children. Black children are not allowed in the textile mills.
And so the child labor movement is very passionate. It’s also opposed by the parents of these children as, what are you doing telling me that we can’t pull together as a family to raise money for all of us to improve our standard of living, to have indoor plumbing, to have electricity? And you come along here with your children off in schools and things and tell us that we can’t do.
PETER: Yeah. Ed, I think it’s paternalism, as you suggest, that is the core. And that cuts both ways. And the idea that actually paternal authority is being challenged when the nanny state moves in to promote these family values or bourgeois values or all the things that presumably make us better people when most of your people that you’re talking about in the South would come off of farms where the family was a cohesive unit and everything was pooled, all resources were pooled, and the idea that you’re going to do something about that, you’re going to interfere with that, that’s a direct attack on the family in the name of family values.
BRIAN: So what do you think, Nat?
PETER: Yeah. So are you a little less cynical, now that you get the big picture?
NAT: I don’t know if I’m less cynical. But I’m certainly more informed.
BRIAN: We’ll settle for that.
PETER: Thanks very much for your call, Nat.
NAT: Well, thank you.
PETER: Bye bye.
NAT: Have a good one.
BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. So far, we’ve touched on a change in attitudes about children that took place during the 19th century, the shift from thinking about kids as productive members of the household to precious, unique treasures. And perhaps nothing illustrates that shift better than a new trend that began in the 1850s, baby shows.
ED: Susan Pearson is a historian at Northwestern University, and she’s written about baby shows. She said the first show took place in Ohio in 1854 at, of all places, an agricultural fair.
SUSAN PEARSON: It kind of makes sense. The idea was that women could display their domestic manufacturers, like woolens, cloth, vegetables they might grow in the garden. And in 1854 somebody came up with the idea of, well, why not their babies too?
ED: My, that’s a fine pie and a baby.
SUSAN PEARSON: And a fine baby. And look at that zucchini, and look at that beautiful baby. And then we’ll give a prize for the cutest baby.
ED: Now cute is probably not a word they would’ve used in the 19th century, is it?
SUSAN PEARSON: No, probably not.
ED: What words would they have used?
SUSAN PEARSON: Oh, becurled, bedimpled, plump, rosy, those kinds of things.
ED: So tell me about what a 19th century baby show would look like. How would it be organized? And what would the viewers see?
SUSAN PEARSON: The basic format was pretty much the same across the country. For a certain number of hours on the day of the contest, babies would be on display, sitting on the lap of usually their mother or a nurse. The judging would vary.
Sometimes spectators could vote for the best baby. Other times, local worthies, like the mayor and the chief of police, would comprise a panel of judges. Other times they made a joke of saying only bachelors can be the judges, because they’re the only ones who can be impartial about babies. So the judging might be conducted a little differently from place to place, but the basic format was the same.
ED: Why does this emerge when it does, in the 1850s, do you think?
SUSAN PEARSON: Yeah, I think the 1850s is right in the heart of a set of transformations of ideas about the home, motherhood, and childhood. People start having fewer children, because children are no longer laborers who contribute to the family’s survival. Children really come to be seen as primarily emotional contributors to the family, rather than as helpful laborers, co-equal with their parents in contributing to the family’s survival.
ED: So what exactly are they showing off when they show off these children, then, in that new emotional landscape? What does it mean to put your baby on display at a fair?
SUSAN PEARSON: I think you’re showing that you’re middle class, that you have this more sentimental, less economic view of your children. So one thing you’re displaying is your own class identity. And you are displaying the leisure of your children by dressing them in the nicest clothing, putting ribbons on them, making them look really nice. There’s a kind of consumer ethos that goes along with this emotional investment in children. You show that emotional investment materially.
ED: I understand that, as in everything in American history, apparently some people had concerns about this. And some of the concerns were kind of obvious, that this is just vulgar, to put your children out there for the world to see. But were there other concerns as well?
SUSAN PEARSON: Well, I think that the main debate that takes place about baby shows in the mid-19th century when they originate is trying to resolve this question of, do baby shows express the affections of the domestic sphere or do they destroy those affections by putting them on display? I can read you a great editorial that appeared in the Daily Cleveland Herald shortly after that first baby show in 1854.
ED: Please do.
SUSAN PEARSON: Yeah. This editorial says, “Let parents love their offspring as it is meet they should.” So fine, parents love their babies. That’s all well and good. But the editorial continuous, “Let them not thrust their prodigies upon the unwilling gaze of those who do not look or judge with parents’ eyes. Keep the little ones at the fireside where they belong and where they are truly regarded as treasures, and do not degrade them and the humanity to which they belong by putting them on a level with Berkshire pigs and Shanghai chickens.”
And the opposition expressed in this particular editorial is really quite typical of those that are in opposition to baby shows. It suggests that the love that parents have for their children is a quite intimate and subjective kind of thing. So there’s a sense that that very intimate, subjective set of feelings is not something that should even be thought of as objectively verifiable or not.
ED: Or another way of saying this, there’s a lot of ugly babies out there, if you’re honest.
SUSAN PEARSON: There’s a lot of ugly babies. But everyone has a face a mother can love.
SUSAN PEARSON: But also in the editorial is this notion to keep the little ones at the fireside where they belong. That’s that idea of domesticity that is so strong in the mid-19th century. This is a violation of domesticity, to drag the mother and the child and put them on a stage in public, and that doing so, furthermore, treats them like animals.
ED: So this probably means that these things faded away as soon as the critique emerged. Is that right?
SUSAN PEARSON: Oh, quite to the contrary. They are an enduring institution throughout the 19th century. And so this opposition is quite strong but does not squelch people’s enthusiasm for the contests.
ED: And is it because, we’d assume, that people want to show off their babies? Is that what drives this? Or do people want to see the babies? Is it consumer-driven or producer-driven, do you think?
SUSAN PEARSON: Well, my theory is that the baby shows themselves help change people’s attitudes about what it means to display human beings. So in the 1850s, the mid-1850s, when the first baby show is put on and there’s this stream of editorials that come out against it, you’re talking about a culture in which there’s still a lot of suspicion of display and exhibition. Because you have, on the one hand, these kinds of exhibitions which are pure spectacles, and they’re spectacles of otherness and difference, like the freak show.
ED: Yeah, exactly.
SUSAN PEARSON: On the other hand, the only acceptable kind of exhibition or display is one that’s didactic or moral. Putting your Berkshire pigs or Shanghai chickens on display in the agricultural fair is OK, one, because it’s OK to objective animals and, two, because it has a didactic function. It’s about improving stock breeding.
ED: Sure. You too could grow a pig like this.
SUSAN PEARSON: Yeah. Which is what farmers should be doing. And so I think the question is, where do baby contests fit into this? Are they like a freak show? Well, that’s clearly not OK. Or are they didactic? Well, if they’re didactic, than what you’re saying is that human beings are like animals, and that’s problematic.
And so my contention is that the baby shows create new genre, which is an exhibition of normalcy, an exhibition that’s not about showing deviance or otherness but is about showing what’s normal and what’s good, that kind of splits the difference between the spectacle and the didactic. And this makes people more comfortable with seeing exhibiting human beings as an expression of affection, as an expression of love.
ED: But that would suggest that even today we might sometimes display humans for the entertainment and evaluation of others.
SUSAN PEARSON: Well, I think about reality television shows. Toddlers and Tiaras comes to mind. But your garden-variety beauty contests, not just the Miss America pageant, there are still beauty contests at county fairs, local fairs, state fairs.
SUSAN PEARSON: And these are products of the transformation in ideas about the display of human beings that I think the baby contests bring about.
ED: Susan Pearson is a historian at Northwestern University. She is the author of The Rights of the Defenseless, Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America.
BRIAN: So Ed, that was such a fascinating interview to an interloper from the 20th century. What struck me the most about it is this gendered divide with the women displaying these babies and the men doing the judging. And what this strikes me as is trying to find a way to value the work of women, which is becoming increasingly domesticated and increasingly removed from the commerce all around them.
Everybody knows that the work they’re doing, these middle class women, is very valuable. But it’s very hard to attach a price to it. And these baby shows strike me as a way of literally displaying and illustrating the value of all of the work that is going into raising children, with, by the way, not having to pay women for doing all of this.
PETER: But Brian, as the critics suggested, it showed value in a way that could be seen as vulgar. It was turning the family inside out.
PETER: What was precious about motherhood was its extreme power, its sentimental value, the connections that would be forged throughout life that children would take with them as they grew up. And for it to become a kind of commodity to be exposed in this way was, in a way, to subvert it.
BRIAN: And I can’t believe that I’m defending this, Peter. But I’m guessing that the defenders would say no, no, no, no. We’re not putting these babies up for sale. We are just offering you a window one week a year or one month a year at the state fair. We’re offering you a window into this sentimentality and everything that it can produce, precisely because we can’t attach a price tag to it. Yet we know it’s very valuable.
ED: The thing that I can’t help but be haunted by as I hear this interview– and Susan’s certainly sensitive to this– is that at the very same time that these agricultural fairs were displaying these perfectly plump, becurled, obviously white babies that black children were being sold every day and were being put on display more like animals, but also still with some of the sense of, yes, they’re plump, yes, they’re healthy.
BRIAN: And yes, they do have a commercial value.
ED: Exactly. And so it’s weird to think about at the very time these things begin in the 1850s is the very peak of the domestic slave trade. And of course, as we know from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other abolitionists writing, it was the idea of the family being ripped apart and put on display and sold that was the very nightmare. So I don’t know that we can resolve that, but it certainly is a shadow, an echo of these babies fairs of what else was going on over too large a part of the country.
PETER: Ed, I think that you really capture the tension. Think of the word priceless. Because, of course, my children are priceless, and yours are too.
BRIAN: Make me an offer for one of my kids, Peter.
PETER: But that’s drawing attention. When you say priceless, does that mean way, way valuable? You don’t have enough money to buy my child, in effect. Or is it to say, that’s not the right category? We don’t talk about prices.
BRIAN: It’s time for another break. When we get back, we’re going to talk about early visitors to the United States who looked at American childhood, well, and they just thought it was weird. You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re talking about the changing meanings of childhood in America.
PETER: So I’ve got something I’d like to read to you guys. It’s by a Polish author named Adam Gurowski, who emigrated to the US in 1849. This passage is from a book he wrote a few years later called America and Europe. And I quote, “A slight or no constraint is imposed upon children in America. Children, accustomed to the utmost familiarity and the absence of constraint with their parents, behave in the same manner with older persons. And this sometimes deprives the social intercourse of Americans of that tint of politeness, which is more habitual in Europe.”
ED: And this person was being pretty polite. A lot of visitors were a lot more harsh than that about American child-rearing practices.
PETER: You’ve got it, Ed. There’s a historian named Paula Fass at the University of California, Berkeley who spent a lot of time reading these European accounts from the early 1800s. And she told me that a common theme was how permissive Americans were with their kids and how unruly those kids were as a result.
PAULA FASS: Not all Europeans, Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, understood full well that what seemed to be unmannerliness was, in fact, a kind of edgy democracy that was developing and was especially acute in the United States. And he also understood that it had all kinds of positive consequences in a society like ours. The ability of young people to pick things up more quickly, to move beyond their parents, to ask questions and to challenge was not necessarily a bad thing.
PAULA FASS: He wasn’t alone in seeing that. But people like Harriet Martineau and others who came to visit were really, really upset by the rudeness of American children.
PETER: Paula, this was probably a class phenomenon. After all, these were well-born Europeans, aristocrats. And they encountered a people who just didn’t seem to know their place.
PAULA FASS: Yeah. I absolutely agree with that. I think there is a kind of class snobism that’s taking place. But I don’t think therefore we should dismiss it entirely. Because there are some shrewd observations that are made that coincide with what I see as actually happening on the ground.
One of the things that was happening to children in the United States was that they were very useful, and they were used in their families. Now that doesn’t mean that there was no work that was done among European children, for example. There was lots of work was done among European children. The difference is the consequences. And that is, in the United States, that kind of work both helped to develop independence and a sense of responsibility, and it was acknowledged as such, so that young people were not seen as inferior and to be bossed around but were gradually inducted into a kind of maturity that struck Europeans as unusual.
PETER: Well, Paula, do you have any examples of this kind of childhood experience in America?
PAULA FASS: The most striking one, I think, is the example of Ulysses Grant, who of course we know became a great Civil War general and subsequently president of the United States. Grant did all the work hauling wood for his family– the father was a tanner– by the time he was 7. By the time he was 11, he did all the plowing and furrowing on the farm that his father owned. And because he did such a good job, his father then let him work with the horses, which he loved to do. He loved horses.
By the time this young boy, which is what we would call him, was 13 or 14 years old, he was going off for miles, and often overnight, and selling horses on his own account. Now that kind of gradual progression towards a kind of maturity and responsibility is something that we find startling and which Europeans also found strange. Because in Europe at the time, that boy of 14 or of 11 would have been very much under the thumb of his father. Whereas here, the father let him do things on his own.
PETER: Well, Paula, that strikes me as a function of the economy, which is much more spread out in this period. In fact, when you were talking, the word that came to mind was mobility. Americans were constantly on the move. And in some ways, the household, the traditional organization of the economy, just simply couldn’t contain all its members.
PAULA FASS: Peter, you’ve got all the words right, mobility and the potentials of this economy. Parents really had to loosen the leash, because the children could take off. That’s where the space comes in.
And here I would like to say a little bit about the gender issue. Because girls too were given more freedom than we would expect. Not probably as much as the boys were, but they were given all kinds of tasks in the household. And they were allowed to roam fairly freely.
One young woman, whose name was Caroline Strickney, broke her arm, came to her mother and said, I’ve got a very painful arm. And her mother said, well, then go off to the doctor. There was no one to accompany her, so that’s exactly what she did.
And then when, at the age of 11, she started riding horses and did not exactly know the path to take, she went to her father and asking him for directions. And he said, oh, you’re big enough to figure it out by yourself.
PETER: Well, Paula, Tocqueville noted that marriage really changed everything for young women. But before that, that freedom that you’re talking about, the responsibility that young people took for themselves, that was the real lesson of childhood for girls as well as boys.
PAULA FASS: Well, it’s supposed to be the lesson for all of us when we’re children, isn’t it?
PAULA FASS: [LAUGHS] What’s different is that it was taken for granted in the 19th century and that it resonated with the ideology that Americans were being encouraged to adopt, which is that this was a country of independent citizens.
PETER: Paula, this raises the big question for me about to the character of early American families and the way they adapted to novel conditions that no Europeans had previously encountered. And those patterns, the kind of culture of family life, persisted long after the realities that gave rise to it in the first place had changed. You might even say it was a kind of a folk memory of what childhood was supposed to be like. What are exactly the implications for the persistence of those ideas, Paula?
PAULA FASS: This folk memory was egged on in the late 19th, early 20th century, and throughout the 20th century by developing social science. Sociologists in the early 20th century looked back to this kind of freer, more integrated, democratic family and began to project it and propose it as a model. Educators, like John Dewey, also looked back towards it and began to see it as crucial in the kind of education that Americans required, his more progressive form of education, which involved active participation by the young. And then, subsequently, psychologists– and this is even before Spock– begin to look back on it as well as an important feature of what being an independent, autonomous American child would require.
PETER: And maybe in popular culture too.
PAULA FASS: Yes, absolutely in popular culture too.
PETER: I’m thinking back to my boyhood when I was the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers.
PAULA FASS: That’s great. That’s exactly right. In other words, we have it coming at us from a variety of directions. There are two different traditions that are coming together, I think, today, that increasing emphasis on parental responsibility to take care of their children and make sure no harm comes to them and that older folk memory supported by social sciences, I’m suggesting, which emphasizes the need for parents to allow the children to develop on their own and to develop their own resources.
I think what it does today, by the way, is it stresses parents to no end, because they are actually dealing with very different circumstances. And they’re trying very much to recapture some of the kind of initiative and resourcefulness and independence that led to various kinds of American success. And yet, they are coping with circumstances which are very, very different. So the possibility of translating this into contemporary terms is our great challenge right now.
PETER: Paula Fass is a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley.
ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking today about the history of childhood in America. We’re going to return to the phones now.
PETER: Hey, guys, we’ve got a call from the West Coast from Eugene, Oregon. It is Bob. Welcome to BackStory
BOB: Oh, thank you for having me.
PETER: Childhood, and we’re feeling pretty silly and childish today, so stay in the good vibe. What have you got for us?
BOB: Well, when I was a kid, and the stories that I’ve heard from my dad when he was a kid, it just seemed like our days were filled with a lot of adventures. And we both had ponds and streams and forests, or even the streets we could turn into our own adventures. And now, the neighborhoods just seem eerily quiet and less open for play, and any outdoor place seems to be in designed spaces where they can be supervised. The kids can be supervised.
BOB: So I’m curious how kids are playing now and how much are they encouraged to go out into the wild and make their neighborhood as adventurous as I made mine and my dad made his?
PETER: OK. The first thing we have to do is establish a little historical background, Bob. And that is, is Bob telling us the truth about childhood in ye old days? And I had adventures. I’m old enough to have had adventures. How about you guys?
ED: Oh, yeah.
PETER: OK. So much for that.
BRIAN: That confirms it. With Bob, we’ve got four data points.
PETER: The thing is, if you have a largely rural population– Let’s introduce the variables here. More people would live in rural or small town locations where adventures were at your back door. That was true with me growing up in rural upstate New York near Troy.
So one thing I would say is that urbanization is one factor moving against adventure. Not that you can’t have adventures in cities.
BRIAN: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I totally disagree, Peter.
PETER: You can’t have adventures in cities?
BRIAN: Don’t listen to him, Bob.
PETER: OK. But no, let’s get serious. What are some of the other factors that you guys would adduce in order to answer–
PETER: Crime. Oh, sure.
BRIAN: And a general concern with crime, whether the absolute statistics go up or not. And more than anything, safety. Let’s talk playground equipment. The stuff I played on, it was intended to tear limb from limb.
BOB: I actually broke a few ribs on one of the jungle gyms–
BRIAN: Thank you, Bob.
BOB: –in the fifth grade.
PETER: And Bob, you’re better off for it, right?
BOB: I am. And that’s the thing. All of my hands have scars. Every finger has a scar from the things that I got to go out and do. I’d pick myself up, and I just kept going.
ED: This is quite the endorsement of adventure, Bob. I tell you.
BRIAN: Bob, what kind of pets did you have? Crocodiles? No, I guess that wouldn’t be Oregon.
BOB: Well, I didn’t. But my grandfather was a logger. And the loggers in the area found an abandoned bear cub. And they gave them to my dad’s family. So they had this bear cub with my dad’s family up until it got a little big.
BRIAN: Then what happened?
BOB: Well, it got big, and they said, you got to go. We can’t have you around anymore.
PETER: Can’t bear it.
BRIAN: All right. You got me there on the urbanization thing. We did not have pet bears growing up in Miami.
PETER: Right. OK. But here’s the big question. Would it be true that people in olden days would think it was good for children to have adventures that put them at risk? And I’ll just throw this into the hopper, guys. Let’s think about fairy tales and how they used to be really scary.
BRIAN: Yeah. “Grimm,” you might say.
PETER: And now they’re not, now that Walt Disney bought the copyright to all of them. And they’re boring. They make you feel good and have self-esteem and be sensitive about all the other creatures on planet Earth. But in old days, people would be thrown into ovens. They would die. They’d lose body parts, whatever. And that’s just a preparation for life.
ED: Yeah. But you know why that is? It’s because very often children would died.
PETER: Yes. Yes, absolutely.
ED: I think that a part of this– I’m very sympathetic to your position, Bob. And, therefore, I’m going to push against it, since I’m an academic. That’s what we do.
PETER: Gets the big bucks.
ED: And I think that just the dangers that confronted people out cavorting were enormous. As so I think–
PETER: That’s right. That’s right.
ED: –generally what all this is a part of– I think Brian was getting at a part of this– is there is a general quest for hunger for determination to find safety, not just for children but for all of us in every way that we can. And that it becomes sort of common sense that the first responsibility of a parent is to protect his or her child. I do think it has the consequence that you talk about.
But the thing is I guess what I would wonder, Bob, is, can that be brought back? Or does this just make us a bad parent? If all the other kids are enjoying supervised sports and you say, no, go out and bruise yourself, is that really an opportunity that a parent would have today?
BOB: If you’re letting your kid out. I’ve seen some parents with their cell phones, and they’re constantly checking in with their kids.
BOB: If they can just unplug and let them run out, the kid will go out and find his own play, and he’ll fall down.
BRIAN: Well, and unplugging is huge. We haven’t even talked about media, but it is huge, the amount of time that kids spend in a mediated environment.
PETER: Right. The serious issue, it seems to me, is autonomy, individuation. And I think that’s where modern parenting tends to fall short. It’s not that modern parents aren’t aware of the need.
ED: No. As a matter of fact, we want nothing as much as to make your child an individual and unique–
PETER: That’s right.
ED: –by having a him or her do exactly the same thing as everybody else. I’m going to go back to Bob. Bob, I’m struck by your idyllic childhood, full of adventure and risk.
BRIAN: And bears.
ED: And bears.
PETER: Well, he didn’t have the bear. He just had bear stories. It wasn’t the bear.
BRIAN: All right.
ED: So without getting personal, do you think that you could create this sense of adventure?
BRIAN: Do you have kids? Do you have kids?
BOB: I have a 10-month-old now.
ED: OK. That’s where I was trying to get. Too personal, but Brian, apparently, is unafraid.
BRIAN: I’m totally unafraid. That’s the urban part of me.
ED: So are you leaving your 10-month-old sitting outside some nights?
BRIAN: Yeah, with the bear?
BOB: Sometimes. Why not?
BOB: What’s important to me is that he does go out and play and have some fun. I don’t want be the person who says, when I was a kid, this is the way it was. My kid’s going to grow up in a different environment. Just as long as there’s some level of play and risk-taking in that environment–
BRIAN: I think that’s well put.
BOB: –that’s what I can hope for him and, hopefully, a few bumps and bruises and just those memories.
PETER: Bob, you’ve got the makings of a great parent. Keep up the good work. And check in with us in 10, 15 years and tell us–
BRIAN: Yeah. Check in when that first leopard cub moves into your household.
BOB: I’ll be listening until then, so I will.
BRIAN: All right.
ED: Thanks so much, Bob.
BRIAN: That’ll be wonderful.
ED: Bye bye.
BRIAN: Bye bye.
[MUSIC – “LET’S BE KIDS” BY HOWLING BELLS]
ED: That’s our show for today. You can find out more about us at our website, backstoryradio.org. And while you’re there, check out our upcoming episodes and help us shape the show.
PETER: Again, that’s at backstoryradio.org. Thanks for listening, and don’t be a stranger.
ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Jesse Dukes, Nina Earnest, Jess Engebretson, Emily Charnock, and Tony Field, with help from Mary Caple. Jamal Millner is our technical director. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
PETER: Special thanks this week to Jo Pauletti and Nick Syrett.
BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond.