Up until the mid-1800s, the dynamic of family life was static. A typical family would have a small farm, usually in a rural area. Their farm would provide all of their basic needs. If they needed anything other than food or water, they would walk or use mules to go to town. At the end of the season, if the family had any surplus produce, they would sell it, and usually, that would be the only income they’d earn. If they didn’t work on a a farm, they would work as laborers on larger commercial farms for other farmers. Most children were uneducated at this point in time and didn’t go to school. If they had any sort of education, their parents may have taught them. At a young age, children would typically become apprentices. They would leave home to learn a new trade, such as working with textiles, in the cotton mills, or in the coal mines. If the child was fortunate enough, his parents would pay for a full-time tutor, and he would not start working until his late teens.
The Industrial Revolution in America began in the mid-1820s and lasted until the the beginning of the 20th century. It was a time when production changed from homes to factories. Many ideas, philosophies and technologies emerged during this era. It created a new style of life for Americans, especially children (About.com). During the Industrial Revolution in America, children initially worked in factories for wages; however, in time, they were able to stay home until an older age, resulting in new industries and new aspects of culture to support and encourage the children.
Two philosophies of childhood emerged during the 1830s according to Steven Mintz’s book, “History of American Childhood.”(Huck’s Raft: History of American Childhood) The first idea was that children were useful. People during this time thought children should work alongside adults for wages (Eastern Illinois University). Instead of working with and for family members in exchange for a place to live and food to eat, the majority now worked with and for total strangers in a new environment which is known as child labor. Conditions for children were very challenging. They worked long days in dangerous factories without government regulation (Grinnell College).
There were several causes for the movement to send children to work in the factories. During the mid-1800s, many families were poor (English Online). Having their children work would provide another source of income for the family. Additionally, employers at the factories realized that by hiring younger workers, they could pay them ten percent the wage of an adult (English Online). It resulted in a much bigger profit margin for the employers (Modern World History Textbook). Also, most children did not serve a purpose being at home, since proper education was hard to find. Tutors and teachers were expensive, and most families couldn’t afford one (English Online). Furthermore, some children were orphans and needed to provide for themselves They found work in the factories. Some jobs required squeezing through small spaces which could be done more easily by a child (Modern World History Textbook). This picture shows some children pulling a cart through a coal mine shaft that would have been too small for an adult (Coal Mining Picture). Due to theses factors, children entered the work force, and it had negative results.
To reduce the number of children in the work force, movements and organizations were started. Some photographers began taking pictures of the harsh environments. For example, this picture shows a child sweeping the floor of a clothing factory (Effects of the Industrial Revolution Picture). The photographs helped portray to the public, and even the parents of the children, what life was like for child workers. Laws were passed in the 1840s that restricted the use child labor in factories and mines (Cliff Notes). However, laws that ended child labor weren’t formally passed until 1924 (Huck’s Raft: History of American Childhood).
During the same time period, another philosophy that emerged was the concept of a “protected child” (Huck’s Raft: History of American Childhood). Most of the population was part of the middle or lower class, but there were some wealthy families. Those families fortunate enough were able to provide proper care for their children to ensure a successful future. Wealthy families had the opportunity to shelter their children, meaning that they were able to free their children from the responsibilities of work so they could devote their time towards education and play. The protected child therefore did not suffer during the Industrial Revolution.
By the 1870s, the second phase of the Industrial Revolution began in America. Children slowly left factories, and a new idea of childhood was needed to fill the void. Productivity increased with the new machines that could do the work of humans faster and more efficiently, making it harder for anyone to find a job, especially children. Now that children were no longer in the workforce, they became a social problem, and parents needed to find a way to occupy their time. As a result, there was a change in American culture (Grinnell College).
In 1892, Kate Douglas Wiggin wrote an article in Scribner’s Magazine titled, “Children’s Rights.” In her article, she pointed out many flaws in society during the late 1800s. She argued that the child “lives in the senses; he can only learn through object lessons, can only pass from concrete examples of goodness to a vision of abstract perfection” (Scribner’s Magazine). That is, children learn through experience, and they have the right to control their life but at the same time not to be completely spoiled. She ends by listing the child’s rights; “The child has the right to a place of his own, to things of his own, to surroundings which have some relation to his size, his desires, and his capabilities.” She is essentially saying that children have the right to their own their life and that their sole job is to learn from the world around them (Scribner’s Magazine).
Although there were some public schools in the Country prior to this time, it was not required for children to go to school. During the mid-to-late 1800s, many children who still worked in factories were required to attend Sunday schools on their only day off. Sunday schools catered to students’ moral and academic needs. Sunday schools additionally taught values that employers wanted the children to have (Grinnell College). After the children left the factories, there was a movement to encourage children to attend school. By the 1890s, the idea that children should be educated was well established (America’s Children Picture book), though public schools weren’t standardized until 1900 (West Virginia University). School not only provided a place for children to stay while parents were working, but also with an educated generation of children, America would become smarter and advance as a nation.
Another way to entertain children was with toys. Wiggin, in her article, describes a variety of toys during the era in which she wrote, including tops, marbles and dolls. They brought joy to children and taught them to use their imagination. There was a talking doll, “a complicated modern mechanism in which the child has only to press the button… and then the doll says ‘papa and mama’”(Scribner’s Magazine). Toys amused the children, but they weren’t the only form of entertainment.
Books were the standard source of education and entertainment. They were becoming more and more common as printing became less expensive. Very few books for children existed before the Industrial Revolution. The language was difficult for children, and there were rarely illustrations. With the arrival of a new kind of childhood geared toward a “modern” culture, books needed to change as well. A new genre, children’s literature, slowly appear in libraries. These books had simple language, stories, and ideas that made it easier for the child to read and understand himself. Additionally the books began to contain illustrations, creating a more lively and enjoyable experience for the reader. The new genre of books sparked children’s imaginations and introduced them to the world. (West Virginia University)
The next aspect of culture to adapt was clothing. It was one of the very few physical aspects to change when childhood changed in America. Previously, when children were working with adults, they dressed in the same formal style as the adults. The children hated their attire as it was not fit for their young bodies. One girl said, “Oh! only God knows how I hate gettin’ peeled out o’ this dress!”. Additionally, “the children who have to think of their clothes before playing with the dogs, digging in the sand, helping the stableman, working in the shed, building a bridge or weeding the garden, never get half their legitimate enjoyment out of life”(Scribner’s Magazine). New stores opened selling clothing targeted to children that were less intricate. These clothes were more comfortable for children going through childhood.
With their new clothing, children were able to participate in recreational activities when they were not at school. The first organized sports began in the mid-1800s. Clubs were created in each community which reflected social class. Prior to these clubs, children would run around in the streets playing simple games with household objects. The clubs allowed for a more structured lifestyle for the children. Organized sports also made playing even more fun (Texas State University). For some, it would become their profession and source of income. Children would also watch the sporting events, and that occupied their time as well. The Boy Scouts of America organization was set up in 1910 by a group of boys’ work agencies. It provided a program for young children that “[built] character, train[ed] them in the responsibilities of participating in citizenship, and develop[ed] personal fitness,” all of which were very important qualities needed for a child’s future. The Boy Scouts was run by adults who wanted to create future leaders of their country using education, lifelong values and fun (Boy Scouts of America). The concept of childhood eventually became thought of as a time of fun of happiness which would ultimately lead to a better well-being of the child (West Virginia University).
A way that society protected the well being of a child was by the creation of orphanages. A fairly new idea during the time period was that“ if parents are absolutely brutal, society steps in and removes the untrustworthy guardian”(Scribner’s Magazine). Also, some poor children were given up by their parents when they couldn’t manage to raise them. “Child savers” tried to help children who were delinquent, and they would bring them to orphanages. They valued education and proper childhood for children. However, they often neglected children who lived in rural areas because it was also much harder for the “child savers” to travel all they way from urban neighborhoods to the quiet rural ares of the United States. So, children not living in big cities were “lost” if no one could care for them. The purpose of placing children in orphanages was to protect children from the dangers of urban societies and to protect society from dangerous children. Parental death, remarriage and poverty had a big impact on the family and the child savers’ goal was to protect the well being of the child (Huck’s Raft: History of American Childhood).
All of these noticeable changes to American culture resulted in a new understanding of the period of childhood. Very few individuals prior to this time had formed ideas for the way childhood should transpire. Previously, children were thought of as “adults in training.” Kate Douglas Wiggin was an educator who advocated for children’s rights, and she wrote, “when the child is born, one of his unalienable rights, which we too often deny him, is the right to his childhood” (Scribner’s Magazine). It took America a long time to realize the importance of childhood. During the Industrial Revolution, children couldn’t couldn’t handle the long hours and the responsibility of work. Life was hard for children, and that’s not the way it was supposed to be. This new philosophy “emphasize[s] the role of the family and the sanctity of the child” (West Virginia University.). Kate Wiggin asked, “who owns the child?” She answered that the parent was a “divinely appointed guardian,” and the rights of the parent are a “delicate matter” (Scribner’s Magazine). Children are vulnerable, and they need the help and protection of their parents to survive and to learn so they can become fully fledged adults (Cliff Notes).
Although this new definition of childhood improved some children’s lives, there were some negative results to the industrialization of America. Jacob Riis took a series of photographs portraying the life of children during this time period. He captioned one of his photographs, “What boys learn on the street playgrounds.” The picture shows some boys playing in the streets, and stealing food from a push cart (What boys learn on the street playgrounds Picture). Since many children no longer worked in factories, they either attended school during the day or stayed home. These children would go out to the streets to play in the neighborhood and didn’t always behave. With the new vision of childhood, parents were more relaxed with their children. Some children became spoiled or lacked the values that a child working long hours in a factory would have. Without these values, they lacked the maturity that they would have had if they worked in a factory. Kate Wiggin described maturity as a “period which arrives very late in life with some persons and never arrives at all with others.”(Scribner’s Magazine)
During the Industrial Revolution in America, children initially worked in factories for wages; however, in time, they were able to stay home until an older age, resulting in new industries and new aspects of culture to support and encourage the children. Children became more in touch with nature due the increase in free time and the goal of learning. Parents’ attitudes towards children changed. Children learned how to be self reliant which led to independence and children being more mobile and responsible. Children’s health improved, and life expectancy grew, as they started to leave the unsafe working environments and demanding physical labor. Education became a necessity, and it became more accessible to the average child. Philosophies changed and added a new idea called childhood which delayed the age of mini adults and added teenage years.