Does the American Family Have a History?

                                                      Family Images and Realities


                                                                   Steven Mintz

                                                            University of Houston



            A revolution has taken place in family life since the late 1960s. Today, two-thirds of all married women with children--and an even higher proportion of single mothers--work outside the home, compared to just 16 percent in 1950. Half of all marriages end in divorce--twice the rate in 1966 and three times the rate in 1950. Three children in ten are born out of wedlock. Over a quarter of all children now live with only one parent and fewer than half of live with both their biological mother and father. Meanwhile, the proportion of women who remain unmarried and childless has reached a record high; fully twenty percent of women between the ages of 30 and 34 have not married and over a quarter have had no children, compared to six and eight percent, respectively, in 1970.

            These changes have produced alarm, anxiety, and apprehension. They have inspired family values crusaders to condemn careerist mothers, absent fathers, single parents, and unwed parents as the root cause of many of society's ills: persistent poverty, drug abuse, academic failure, and juvenile crime. This is a situation that begs for historical perspective.

            Recent scholarship has demonstrated that diversity and change have been the only constants in the history of the American family. Far from signalling the family's imminent demise or an erosion of commitment to children, recent changes in family life are only the latest in a series of disjunctive transformations in family roles, functions, and dynamics that have occurred over the past three centuries.

            Few subjects are more shrouded in myths, misconceptions, and misleading generalizations than the history of the family. Students will find the history of the family an eye-opening window on the past. They will discover that:

            --         It was only in the 1920s that, for the first time, a majority of American families consisted of a breadwinner-husband, a home-maker wife, and children attending school.

            --         The most rapid increase in unwed pregnancies took place between 1940 and 1958, not in the libertine sixties.

            --         The defining characteristics of the 1950s family--a rising birth rate, a stable divorce rate, and declining age of marriage--were historical aberrations, out of line with longterm historical trends.

            --         Throughout American history, most families have needed more than one breadwinner to support themselves.

            In recent years, families have gone through many disconcerting and disruptive changes. But if family life today seems unsettled, so, too, was family life in the past. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States had the highest divorce rate in the western world, and one child in ten lived in a single-parent home. Hundreds of thousands of children spent part of their childhood in orphanages, not because their parents were dead, but because their mother and father could not support them. Infant mortality, orphanhood, and early widowhood affected a distressingly high proportion of families. Between 35 and 40 percent of all children lost a parent or a sibling before they reached their twenties.

            Americans are prone to romanticizing the past and confusing historical fantasy and reality. This is especially true when Americans ponder our society's "bedrock" institution, the family. Among the most potent myths that pervade contemporary society are that divorce, domestic violence, and single parenthood are recent phenomena; that throughout American history, most families consisted of a breadwinner-husband and a homemaker-wife; and that in the past strong, stable families provided effective care for the elderly and other dependents. Only careful historical analysis can correct such myths.

            In few areas has susceptibility to mythmaking been more detrimental than with the family. Highly romanticized images of the past have contributed to unrealistic expectations about family life. Ahistorical thinking has also led Americans to downplay the genuine improvements that have taken place in family well-being: especially the fact that smaller families mean that parents can devote more time and resources to each child. Even worse, a lack of historical perspective has encouraged scapegoating of families that diverge from the dominant norms; and it has blinded Americans to the social, economic, demographic, and ideological pressures that have contributed to familial change--and made transformations in gender roles and family structures irreversible.


Families in Colonial America

            Far from being a stable, unchanging institution, the family is as enmeshed in the historical process as any other social institution. The family's roles and functions, size and composition, and emotional and power dynamics have all changed dramatically over time.

            In colonial America, the family was, first and foremost, a unit of production. It also performed a variety of educational, religious and welfare functions that were later assumed by other private and public institutions. The family educated children in basic literacy and the rudiments of religion; it transmitted occupational skills; and it cared for the elderly and infirm.

            Family composition was far more elastic and porous than in later American families. Even in the most healthful regions during the seventeenth century, three children in ten died before reaching adulthood; children were likely to lose at least one parent by the time they married. As a result, a majority of colonial Americans probably spent some time in a step-family. Family size and composition also varied according to the household's economic needs. Many children left their parents homes before puberty to work as servants or apprentices in other households.

            Perhaps the biggest difference between families then and now is that colonial society placed relatively little emphasis on familial privacy. Community authorities and neighbors supervised and intervened in family life. In New England, selectmen oversaw ten or twelve families, removed children from "unfit" parents, and ensured that fathers exercised proper family government.

            In theory, the seventeenth-century family was a hierarchical unit, in which the father was invested with patriarchal authority. He alone sat in an armed chair, his symbolic throne, while other household members sat on benches or stools. He taught children to write, led household prayers, and carried on the bulk of correspondence with family members. Domestic conduct manuals were addressed to him, not to his wife. Legally, the father was the primary parent. Fathers, not mothers, received custody of children after divorce or separation. In colonial New England, a father was authorized to correct and punish insubordinate wives, disruptive children, and unruly servants. He was also responsible for placing his children in a lawful calling and for consenting to his children's marriages. His control over inheritance kept his grown sons dependent upon him for years, while they waited for the landed property they needed to establish an independent household.

            In actuality, the ideology of patriarchy co-existed with a high degree of blurring of gender boundaries. Colonial women shouldered many duties that would later be monopolized by men. The colonial goodwife engaged in trade and home manufacturing, supervised planting, and sometimes administered estates. Women's productive responsibilities limited the amount of time that they could devote to childcare. Many childrearing tasks were delegated to servants or older daughters. Ironically, the decline of patriarchal ideology was accompanied by the emergence of a much more rigid domestic division of labor.


Themes and Variations

            There were profound differences in the family patterns in New England, the Middle colonies, and the Chesapeake and southern-most colonies. In New England, a patriarchal conception of family life began to breakdown as early as the 1670s. In the Chesapeake and the Carolinas, a more stable patriarchal structure of relationships did not truly emerge until the mid-eighteenth century.

            Demography partly explains these regional differences. After an initial period of high mortality, life expectancy in New England rose to levels comparable to our own. A healthful environment contributed to a very high birthrate (over half of New England children had nine or more siblings) and the first society in history in which grandparents were common. In the Chesapeake, in contrast, a high death rate and an unbalanced sex ratio made it impossible to establish the kind of stable, patriarchal families found in New England. During the seventeenth century, half of all marriages were broken within eight years, and most families consisted of a complicated assortment of step-parents, step-children, wards, and half-brothers and half-sisters. Not until the late-eighteenth century could a father be confident about his ability to pass property directly to his sons.

            Religious differences also contributed to divergent family patterns. Not nearly as anxious as the Puritans about infant depravity, Quaker families in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey placed a far greater stress on maternal nurture than did Puritan families. Quakers also emphasized early autonomy for children. They provided daughters with an early dowry and sons with sufficient land to provide a basis for early independence.


The Emergence of the "Republican" Family

            During the eighteenth century, New England fathers found themselves less able to influence their sons' choice of occupation, when or whom their children would marry, and their offsprings' sexual behavior. By mid-century, sons were moving further away from the parental home, fewer daughters were marrying in birth order, and rates or illegitimacy and pregnancy prior to marriage were rising markedly.

            One force for change was ideological. The mid- and late-eighteenth century saw repeated attacks upon patriarchal authority by such popular writers as Samuel Richardson, Oliver Goldsmith, and Henry Fielding, who rejected the idea that a father should dictate a child's career or choice of a marriage partner and who argued that love and affection were superior to physical force in rearing children and that women were more effective than men in inducing children's obedience. Economic shifts further contributed to an erosion of paternal authority. Rapid population growth, which resulted in plots too small to be farmed viably, weakened paternal control over inheritance. New opportunities for nonagricultural work allowed many children to marry earlier than in the past.

            By the early nineteenth century, a new kind of urban middle class family had begun to emerge as the workplace moved some distance from the household and as many of married women's productive tasks were assumed by unmarried women working in factories. A new pattern of marriage arose, based primarily on companionship and affection; a new division of domestic roles appeared, which assigned the wife to care full-time for her children and to maintain the home; a new conception of childhood arose that looked at children not as little adults, but as special creatures who needed attention, love, and time to mature. Spouses began to display affection more openly, calling each other "honey" or "dear." Parents began to keep their children home longer than in the past. By the mid-nineteenth century, a new emphasis on family privacy could be seen in the expulsion of apprentices from the middle-class home, the increasing separation of servants from the family, and the rise of the family vacation had appeared as well as such family-oriented celebrations as the birthday party and decorating the Christmas tree.

            The new urban middle-class was based on a strict segregation of sexual spheres, on intense mother-child bonds, and on the idea that children needed to be protected from the corruptions of the outside world. Even at its inception, however, this new family form was beset by certain latent tensions. One source of tension involved the paternal role, which was becoming more psychologically separate from his family. Although fathers thought of themselves as breadwinners and household heads, and their wives and children as their dependents, in fact men's connection to their family was becoming essentially economic. They might serve as disciplinarian of last resort, but mothers replaced fathers as primary parent.

            Another contradiction involved women's domestic roles. In their youth, women received an unprecedented degree of freedom; increasing numbers attended school and worked, at least temporarily, outside a family unit. After marriage, however, women were expected to sacrifice their individuality for their family' sake. In a society that attached increasing value to individualism and equality, the expectation that women should subordinate themselves to their husbands and children was a source of latent tension. Women's subordinate status might be cloaked with an ideology of separate spheres and true womanhood, but the contradiction with the ideal of equality remained. A third contradiction involved the status of children, who remained home far longer than in the past, often into their late teens and twenties. The emerging ideal was a protected childhood, shielding children from knowledge of death, sex, and violence. While in theory families were training children for independence, in reality, children received fewer opportunities than in the past to express their growing maturity. The result was that the transition from childhood and youth to adulthood became more disjunctive and conflict-riven.

            These latent contradictions were apparent in three striking developments: a sharp fall in the birth rate, a marked and steady rise in the divorce rate, and a heightened cultural awareness of domestic violence. The early nineteenth century saw the beginnings of a sharp fall in the birth rate. Instead of giving birth to seven to ten children, middle class mothers, by the end of the century, gave birth to only three. The reduction in birthrates did not depend on new technologies; rather, it reflected the view that women were not childbearing chattel and that children were no longer economic assets. An emerging ideology deemed children to be priceless, but the fact remained that the young now required greater parental investments in the form of education and other inputs.

            During the early and mid-nineteenth century, the divorce rate also began to rise, as judicial divorce replaced legislative divorce and many states adopted permissive divorce statutes. If marriages were to rest on mutual affection, then it divorce had to serve as a safety valve from loveless and abusive marriages. In 1867, the country had 10,000 divorces, and the rate rose steadily: from per thousand marriages in 1870, to per thousand in 1880, to per thousand in 1890.

            A growing awareness of wife beating and child abuse also occurred in the early nineteenth century, which may have reflected an actual increase in assaults and murders committed against blood relatives. As families became less subject to communal oversight, as traditional assumptions about patriarchal authority were challenged, and as an expanding market economy produced new kinds of stresses, the family could become an arena of explosive tension, conflict, and violence.


Slave and Working-Class Families

            Various groups have developed different family strategies in response to their social and economic circumstances. No group faced graver threats to family life than enslaved African Americans. Debt, an owner's death, or the prospects of profit could break up slave families. Between 1790 and 1860, a million slaves were sold from the upper to the lower South and another two million slaves were sold within states. As a result, about a third of all slave marriages were broken by sale and half of all slave children were sold from their parents. Even in the absence of sale, slave spouses often resided on separate plantations or on separate units of a single plantation. On larger plantations, one father in three had a different owner than his wife; on smaller plantations and farms, the figure was two in three.

            In spite of the refusal of southern law to provide legal protection to slave marriages, most slaves married and lived with the same spouse until death. Ties to the immediate family stretched outward to an involved network of extended kin. Whenever children were sold to neighboring plantations, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins took on the function of parents. When blood relatives were not present, "fictive" kin cared for and protected children.  Godparenting, ritual co-parenting, and informal adoption of orphans were common on slave plantations. To sustain a sense of family identity over time, slaves named children after grandparents and other kin; slaves also passed down family names, usually the name of an ancestor's owner rather than the current owner's.

            While the urban middle-class family emphasized a sole male breadwinner, a rigid division of sexual roles, and a protected childhood, urban working-class families emphasized a cooperative family economy. Older children were expected to defer marriage, remain at home, and contribute to the family's income. It was not until the 1920s that the cooperative family economy gave way to the family wage economy, which allowed a male breadwinner to sport his family on his wages alone. Contributing to this new family formation were the establishment of the first seniority systems; compulsory school attendance laws; and increased real wages as a result of World War I. The New Deal further solidified the male breadwinner family by prohibiting child labor, expanding workmen's compensation, and targeting jobs programs at male workers.


Twentieth-Century Families

            Over the past three centuries, Americans have gone through recurrent waves of moral panic over the family. During the late nineteenth century, panic gripped the country over family violence and child neglect, declining middle-class birthrates, divorce, and infant mortality. Eleven states made desertion and non-support of families a felony and three states instituted the whipping post where wife-beaters were punished with floggings. To combat the decline in middle-class birth rates, the Comstock Act restricted the interstate distribution of birth control information and contraceptive devices, while state laws criminalized abortion. In a failed attempt to reduce the divorce rate, many states reduced the grounds for divorce and extended waiting periods.

            Mounting public anxiety led to increased government involvement in the family and the emergence of distinct groups offering expert advice about childrearing, parenting, and social policy. To combat the exploitation and improve the well-being of children, reformers pressed for compulsory school attendance laws, child labor restrictions, playgrounds, pure milk laws, and "widow's" pensions to permit poor children to remain with their mothers. There were also concerted efforts to eliminate male-only forms of recreation, campaigns that achieved success with the destruction of red-light districts during the 1910s and of saloons following adoption of Prohibition in 1918.

            To strengthen and stabilize families, marriage counselors promoted a new ideal: the companionate family. It held that husbands and wives were to be "friends and lovers" and that parents and children should be "pals." This new ideal stressed the couple relationship and family togetherness as the primary source of emotional satisfaction and personal happiness. Privacy was a hallmark of the new family ideal. Unlike the nineteenth century family, which took in boarders, lodgers, or aging and unmarried relatives, the companionate family was envisioned as a more isolated, and more important, unit, the primary focus of emotional life.

            During the Depression, unemployment, lower wages, and the demands of needy relatives tore at the fabric of family life. Many Americans were forced to share living quarter with relatives, delay marriage, and postpone having children. The divorce rate fell, since fewer people could afford one, but desertions soared. By 1940, 1.5 million married couples were living apart. Many families coped by returning to a cooperative family economy. Many children took part time jobs and many wives supplemented the family income by taking in sewing or laundry, setting up parlor groceries, or housing lodgers.

            World War II also subjected families to severe strain. During the war, families faced a severe shortage of housing, a lack of schools and child-care facilities, and prolonged separation from loved ones. Five million "war widows" ran their homes and cared for children alone, while millions of older, married women went to work in war industries. The stresses of wartime contribute to an upsurge in the divorce rate. Tens of thousands of young people became latchkey children, and rates of juvenile delinquency, unwed pregnancy, and truancy all rose.

            The late 1940s and 1950s witnessed a sharp reaction to the stresses of the Depression and war. If any decade has come to symbolize the traditional family, it is the 1950s. The average age of marriage for women dropped to twenty; divorce rates stabilized; and the birthrate doubled. Yet the images of family life that appeared on television were misleading; only sixty percent of children spent their childhood in a male-breadwinner, female homemaker household. The democratization of the family ideals reflected social and economic circumstances that are unlikely to be duplicated: a reaction against Depression hardships and the upheavals of World War II; the affordability of single-family track homes in the booming suburbs; and rapidly rising real incomes.

            The post-war family was envisioned not simply a haven in a heartless world, like the Victorian family, but as an alternative world of satisfaction and intimacy. But this family, like its Victorian counterpart, had its own contradictions and latent tensions. Youthful marriages, especially among women who cut short their education, contributed to a rising divorce rate in the 1960s. The compression of childbearing into the first years of marriage meant that many wives were free of the most intense childrearing responsibilities by their early or mid-thirties. Combined with the ever rising costs of maintaining a middle-class standard of living, this encouraged a growing number of married women to enter the workplace; as early as 1960, a third of married middle-class women were working part- or full-time. The expansion of schooling, combined with growing affluence, contributed to the emergence of a separate youth culture, separate and apart from the family. The seeds of radical familial changes were planted in the 1950s.


Contemporary Families

            Since the 1960s, families have grown smaller, less stable, and more diverse. At the same time, more adults live outside a family, as single young adults, divorced singles, or as older people who have lost a spouse. As recently as 1960, seventy percent of the households in the United States consisted of a breadwinner father, a homemaker mother, and two or more kids. Today, the male breadwinner, female homemaker family makes up only a small proportion of American households. More common are two-earner families, where both the husband and wife work; single-parent families, usually headed by a mother; reconstituted families, formed after a divorce; and empty-nest families, created after a children have left home. Declining birth and marriage rates, the rapid entry of married women into the work force, a rising divorce rate, and an aging population all contributed to this domestic revolution.

            Despite the changes that have taken place, the family is not a dying institution. About ninety percent of Americans marry and bear children, and most Americans who divorce eventually remarry. In many respects, family life is actually stronger today than it was in the past. While divorce rates are higher than in the past, fewer families suffer from the death of a parent or a child. Infants were four times more likely to die in the 1950s than today and older children were three times more likely. Because of declining death rates, couples are more likely to grow into old age together than in the past and children are more likely to have living grandparents. Meanwhile, parents are making greater emotional and economic investment their children. Lower birth rates mean that parents can devote more attention and greater financial resources to each child. Fathers have become more actively involved in their childrearing.

            Nevertheless, the profound changes--such as the integration of married women into the paid labor force--have taken place in the late twentieth century resulted in a "crisis of caregiving." As the proportion of single parent and two-worker families has increased, many parents have found it increasingly difficult to balance the demands of work and family life. Working parents not only had to care for their young children, but, because of increasing life spans, aging parents as well. In an attempt to deal with these needs, the United States adopted the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, entitling eligible employees to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a twelve-month period for specified family and medical reasons. Yet despite widespread rhetoric about promoting family values, many "reforms," such as welfare reform, weakened social supports for families. Whether the early twenty-first century will witness a wave of family-related reforms comparable to the Progressive Era remains to be seen.


                                                         Teaching Family History:

                                                        An Annotated Bibliography


                                                                   Steven Mintz





            Over time, virtually every aspect of American family life has undergone farreaching transformations. The family's roles and functions, organizational structure, demographic characteristics, emotional dynamics, and childrearing practices have changed profoundly over the past three centuries. So, too, has the American home, its design, furnishings, and technology. A chronological approach to family history underscores the ways that shifts in social values, health, and the nature of the economy have transformed the most intimate aspects of American life.


            Overviews and Interpretations


            Carl N. Degler, At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present (New York: Oxford University, 1980). Demonstrates that the "traditional" family--the emotionally-intense, child-centered unit consisting of a male breadwinner, a full-time mother, and their children--is a product of the pre-Civil War era.


            John Demos, Past, Present, and Personal: The Family and the Life Course in American History (New York: Oxford University, 1986). Provocative interpretive essays on such topics as the history of adolescence, child abuse, fatherhood, and old age.


            Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988).  Argues that the only constants in the history of American family life have been diversity and change.


            Handbooks and Research Guides


            Joseph M. Hawes and Elizabeth I. Nybakken, eds., American Families: A Research Guide and Historical Handbook (New York: Greenwood, 1991). Examines the history of the family as a scholarly discipline, the methodologies for the study of family history, the family in successive historical era, and the special topics of women and the family, African American families, Native American families, and immigrant and working class families.


            Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner, eds., American Childhood: A Research Guide and Historical Handbook (New York: Greenwood, 1985). Analyzes aspects of childhood experience from the colonial era to the late twentieth century.




            Robert V. Wells, Uncle Sam's Family (Albany: SUNY, 1985). An introduction to American demographic history, which discusses such topics as the "demographic transition" and migration.


            Domestic Environment


            Karen Calvert, Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900 (Boston: Northeastern: 1994). Examines material artifacts to reconstruct the way that children were perceived and treated.


            Clifford Edward Clark, The American Family Home, 1800-1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1986). Analyzes changes in architectural style and interior space, decor, and furnishings.


            Historical Eras


            Colonial Family Life


            Barry Levy, Quakers and the American Family (New York: Oxford University, 1992). This study of Quaker families in the Delaware Valley from 1650 to 1765 argues that the Quaker emphasis on family privacy and child nurture set the pattern for American family ideology.


            Jan Lewis, Pursuits of Happiness. Illustrates how a shift in sensibility reshaped relations within the homes of eighteenth century Virginia's planter elite.


            Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Family (New York: Harper & Row, 1990). The classic study of religion and domestic relationships in Puritan New England.


            Daniel Blake Smith, Inside the Great House (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1995). Traces the shift from a patriarchal, authority, and emotionally restrained family intoa more inteimate, child-centered family life in the colonial Chesapeake.


            Helena M. Wall, Fierce Communion: Family and Community in Early America (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1995). Deliberating downplaying colonists' regional and religious diversity, this book stresses the high degree of community interference in disputes involving childrearing, marriage, and slander.


            Nineteenth-Century Families


            Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class (Cambridge University Press, 1980). A case study that illustrates how dramatically family life changed during the early nineteenth century.


            Twentieth-Century Families


            Elliott West, Growing Up in Twentieth-Century America: A History and Reference Guide (New York: Greenwood, 1996). Examines children's lives at home, at play, at work, and at school, along with changes in children's health and the legal treatment of childhood.


            Contemporary Families


            Judith Stacey, Brave New Families: Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late Twentieth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California, 1998). Vivid descriptions of the new kinds of familial relationships not defined by biology or traditional gender roles.


            Primary Sources


            Robert H. Bremner, ed., Children and Youth in America (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1970-1974). A documentary history of children's experience, childrearing, and public provision for children.





            Since the seventeenth century, a diversity has been a hallmark of American family life. Family size and structure, roles and functions, and emotional and power dynamics have varied not only according to historical era, but also along class, ethnic, regional, and religious lines. A multicultural approach to family history allows teachers to underscore the extraordinary richness and complexity of the American mosaic.




            Stephanie Coontz, ed., American Families: A Multicultural Reader (New York: Routledge, 1998). Illustrates the wide variety of family forms, values, gender roles, and parenting practices that have prevailed in America across lines of race, ethnicity, class, geographical location and historical period.


            African American




            Jay David and Bill Adler, eds., Growing Up Black (New York: Avon, 1992).  A collection of childhood experiences by such figures as Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X, Ralph Abernathy, and Maya Angelou.


            Overviews and Interpretations


            Donna L. Franklin, Ensuring Inequality: The Structural Transformation of the African-American Family (New York: Oxford University, 1997). Traces the evolution of black family lifefrom slavery to the present, highlighting the differences in black and white marriage and family patterns.


            Herbert Gutman, Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York: Random House, 1977). Challenging the traditional view that slavery devastated the African American family, the book argues that most slave children grew up in two-parent households and that most slave marriages remained intact unless disrupted by sale.


            Families Under Slavery


            Wilma King, Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in 19th Century America (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1995). Examines slave children's early entry into work; forms of play; religious experiences; and the punishments they experienced and their separation from families.


            Ann Patton Malone, Sweet Chariot: Slave Family and Household Structure in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1996). A detailed analysis of household composition in rural Louiosana from 1810 and 1864 demonstrates that slave households were diverse and highly adaptable.


            Brenda E. Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (New York: Oxford, 1997). A thorough examination of family life, gender roles, courtship, marriage, and parenting in Loudoun County, Virginia, from the 1730s through the 1850s, which argues that the harsh realities of slavery made it difficult for slaves to maintain nuclear families.


            African American Families Today


            Alex Kotlowitz, There Are No Children Here (Doubleday, 1991). The story of two boys struggling to survive in a Chicago public housing project.


            Asian Americans




            Maria Hong, ed., Growing Up Asian American: An Anthology (New York: Avon Books, 1994). A collection of stories, essays, and excerpts from memoirs that examine childhood and adolescence across generational, class, and ethnic lines from the late nineteenth century.




            Selma Cantor Berrol, Growing Up American: Immigrant Children in America Then and Now (New York: Twayne, 1995). Chronicles the experience of immigrant children from the eighteenth century to the present.






            Harold Augenbraum and Alan Stavins, eds., Growing Up Latino: Memoirs and Stories (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1993). Presents fictional and non-fictional accounts of coming of age by writers of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and other Latin American ancestry.


            Joy L. De Jesus, ed., Growing Up Puerto Rican: An Anthology (New York: Avon, 1998). Leading Puerto Rican writers portray the problems that beset the passage from childhood to adulthood.


            Tiffany Ana Lopez, ed., Growing Up Chicana/o (New York: Avon, 1994).  Autobiographical essays and stories that examine the experiences of family life, discrimination, education, and rites of passage.




            Robert Griswold Del Castillo, La Familia: Chicano Families in the Urban Southwest, 1848 to the Present (South Bend: University of Notre Dame, 1984).


            Native American




            Patricia Riley, ed., Growing Up Native American: An Anthology (New York: Avon, 1994). Short stories, novel excerpts, and autobiographical essays examine Native American childhood and adolescence from the nineteenth century to the 1990s, including life in boarding schools and foster care and the transition from native languages to English.





            The objective of this approach is three-fold: to understand the differing ways that Americans have understood the life stages; to examine the changing experience of the stages of infancy, childhood, youth, early adulhood, middle age, and old age; and to explore the changing rituals of family life, such as courtship, and marriage.


            Overview and Interpretations


            Howard Chudacoff, How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). Examines the growing awareness of age and the way it has shaped entry into school, marriage, legal adulthood, and the workforce.




            Richard Meckel, Save the Babies: American Public Health Reform and the Prevention of Infant Mortality, 1850-1929 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1998).  An examination of the discovery of infant mortality as a social problem in the 1850s through the limited federal funding for infancy and maternity programs in the 1920s.




            Priscilla Ferguson Clement, Growing Pains: Children in the Industrial Age, 1850-1890 (New York: Macmillan, 1997). Emphasizes diversity in children's experiences in family life, schooling, employment, and play, and the efforts of reformers and educators to improve children's well-being and create more uniform patterns of childhood.


            Gary Cross, Kid's Stuff: Toys and the Changing Worlds of American Childhood (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1997). Traces the impact of commercialization on children's toys and the nature of play.


            David Macleod, The Age of the Child: Children in America, 1890-1920 (New York: Macmillan, 1998).  Emphasizes a tug ofwar between different conceptions of childhood, from the varied experiences of farm children and working-lcass urban youths to the Progressive reformers' ideal of a sheltered childhood.


            Joseph M. Hawes, Children Between the Wars: American Childhood, 1920-1940 (New York: Macmillan, 1997). Examines the rise of the peer group, the emergence of the child guidance movement and the U.S. Children's Bureau, and the impact of Great Depression.


            Elliott West, Growing Up with the Country: Childhood on the Far Western Frontier (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1989). Describes the varieties of childhood experience along the overland trails, in mining towns of the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, and the farms of the Great Plains and Southwest from 1850 to 1900. Potrays children as a conservative force who encouraged parents to rpeserve pre-migration culture.


            Elliott West and Paula Petrick, eds., Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1992). Historical essays examine regional, class, gender, and ethnic diversity in childhood experience from 1850 to 1950.


            Viviana Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (Princeton: Princeton University, 1994).




            Joe Austin and Michael Nevin Willard, eds., Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America (New York: New York University Press, 1998). Examines cultural expressions of youth including hip-hop, fan clubs, dancing, low riding, and graffiti.


            Michael Barson and Steven Heller, Teenage Confidential: An Illustrated History of the American Teen (Chronicle Books, 1997). Uses movie posters, comic books, advertising art, advice columns, and music paraphernalia to trace the evolution of the teenager from the "Kleen Teens" of the thirties.


            William Graebner, Coming of Age in Buffalo (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1990). This study of growing up during the 1950s emphasizes the tension between the myth of youthful homogeneity and the multiplicity of youth cultures and the public and church-related efforts to socially engineer youthful experience.


            Philip J. Greven, Jr., The Protestant Temperament (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990). Identifies three distinct patterns of childrearing, rooted in three religious sensibilities, that pervade the period from the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries.


            Harvey Graff, Conflicting Paths: Growing Up in America (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1995). Demonstrates that there were multiple paths to growing up, shaped by class, gender, region, and time period.


            Joseph Kett, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1977). Traces the expansion of adult control over youthful experience.


            David Nasaw, Children of the City: At Work and At Play (New York: Oxford University, 1986). How urban working-class children shaped the conditions of their lives.


            Grace Palladino, Teenagers: An American History (Basic Books, 1996). Argues that the teenager is a social invention of the Great Depression and World War II.


            Young Adulthood


            Beth Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1989). Traces shifting patterns of middle-class courtship from the 1920s to the 1960s, with a special focus on the distribution of power between women and men.


            Marlis Buchmann, The Script of Life in Modern Society: Entry into Adulthood in a Changing World (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989). Comparing the experience of white high school graduates of 1960 and 1980, the book argues that the transition to adulthood has become more extended and individualized.


            Paula Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (New York: Oxford University, 1978). Examines the nature and extent of the rebellion of middle-class youth against Victorian traditions.


            John Modell, Into One's Own: From Youth to Adulthood in the United States, 1920-1975 (Berkeley: University of California, 1989).  Traces the rise and decline of dating, loosening constraints on sexuality, and the shifting meaning assigned to parenthood.


            Ellen K. Rothman, Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America (New York: Basic Books, 1984). Based on extensive documentary evidence, this volume argues that couples played a greater role in nineteenth century courtship and that sexuality was more freely expressed a greater role than previously thought.


            Old Age


            David Hackett Fischer, Growing Old in America (New York: Oxford University, 1978). Argues that economic circumstances and religious ideology contributed to a veneration of age in the American colonies, contrasting to the later adulation of youth.





            The family is not a unitary institution. It consists of a variety of familial roles, each of which has undergone profound change over time. One way to organize a course, or a module within a class, is to focus on the evolving roles of father and husband, wife and mother, daughter and sister, and son and brother.





            Rima D. Apple and Janet Golden, eds., Mothers & Motherhood (Columbus: Ohio State University, 1997). A collection of essays examining thesocial, cultural, demographic, emdical, and political factors that have shaped the definition and experience of motherhood.


            Joan J. Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York: Vintage, 1998). Shows how popular culture and the mass media have exploited girls' sensitivity to their changing bodies and their appearance.


            Elizabeth Ewen, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars (New York: Monthly Review, 1990). Examines women's lives and culture on Manhattan's Lower East Side from 1890 to 1925, and looks at how they responded to the pressures of Americanization.


            Miriam Formanek-Brunell, Made to Play House (New Haven: Yale University, 1993). An examination of the creation, marketing, and use of dolls from 1830 to 1830.


            Joan Jensen, Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women (New Haven: Yale University, 1986). Examines the lives of rural women, primarily in the Philadelphia hinterland.


            Susan Grey Osterud, Bonds of Community (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1991). Focuses on the nineteenth-century Naticoke Valley in New York, and examines the kinship networks, work patterns, courtship, childbirth, and community activities.


            Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1986). This study shows how the rise of mixed-sex commercialized leisure activities eroded Victorian gender norms.


            Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lies of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (New York: Random House, 1991). Illustrates the diversity and richness of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century women's domestic and public lives.


            Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Random House, 1991). The diary of an eighteenth-century Maine midwife and healer sheds light on sexual mores, medical practices, and household economies on the rural New England frontier.




            Robert Griswold, Fatherhood in America: A History (New York: Basic Books, 1993). Traces the shift from the Victorian patriarch to the modern American daddy; the rise and decline of the male breadwinner ideal; and shows how the experience of fatherhood has been shaped by class, ethnicity, economic forces, and cultural values.


            E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood (New York: Basic Books, 1993). The history of boyhood and male adolescent and young adult experience.




            The major events of American history--the Revolution, the Civil War, industrialization, immigration, and World War--have exerted a powerful influence on family life.  A flourishing literature has explored the impact of some of these seminal events on familial and marital relations, gender roles, and childrearing practices. By using the family as a lens, it is possible to uncover the human meaning of the critical events of American history.


            The Civil War


            James Alan Marten, The Children's Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1998). Examines how the war shortened childhood, influenced children's relations with their fathers, and altered children's literature and schoolbooks.


            Emmy E. Werner, Children's Voices from the Civil War (Perseus, 1999). Diaries, letters, and reminiscences reveal the impact of the war on children's lives on the battlefield and home front.


            The Family and the Great Depression




            Glen H. Elder, Children of the Great Depression (Westview, 1998). Assesses the influence of the Depression ont he life course of 167 Californian sover two generations.


            The Family and World War II


            Beth Bailey and David Farber, The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1994). Argues that wartime Hawaii prefigured many of complex social and cultural influences of the postwar world, especially shifts in gender roles.


            Judy Barrett Litoff and David Smith, eds., Since You Went Away: World War II Letters from American Women on the Home Front (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995). This collection of letters is organized around the themes of courtship, marriage, motherhood, work, and sacrifices.


            William Tuttle, "Daddy's Gone to War": The Second World War in the Lives of American Children (New York: Oxford University, 1995). Examines how children dealt with absent fathers, working mothers, and family mobility, as well as children's games, entertainment, health, and welfare.


            The Family During the 1950s


            Wini Breines, Youth, White, and Miserable: Growing Up in the Fifties (Boston: Beacon, 1992). Traces the roots of the women's movement to women's experiences in the 1950s.


            Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1993). Exposes the falseness of many illusions about families in the past.


            Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (Basic Books, 1988). Argues that the postwar emphasis on domestic tranquity was a response to Cold War fears and tensions.


            Family Life Since 1960


            Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Really Are: Ending the War Over America's Changing Families (New York: Basic Books, 1998). Argues that despite changes in structure, contemporary families are functioning more effectively than many people assume.




            In recent years, a burgeoning literature has examined the historical roots of contemporary social policy debates over adoption, teenage pregnancy, divorce, domestic violence, and social welfare policies. This body of scholarship helps students to understand that the problems that our society encounters are not unprecedented, but that they were often perceived and understood in very different ways. This scholarship also allows students to evaluate the effectiveness of a variety of approaches to social problems.


            Adolescent Pregnancy


            Maris A. Vinovskis, An "Epidemic" of Adolescent Pregnancy? (New York: Oxford University, 1988). Places contemporary policy debates over adolscent pregnancy in historical perspective and shows that teenage pregnancy peaked in the 1950s.




            E. Wayne Carp, Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998). Traces the practice of and attitudes toward adoption from the colonial era to the present and reveals that confidentiality in adoption was a new innovation following World War II.


            Children's Rights


            Joseph Hawes, The Children's Rights Movement (Diane Pub. Co., 1999). A history of organized efforts to protect children and advocate their interests and assert their rights.




            Janet Farrell Brodie, Abortion and Contraception in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1997). Examines the changes in social values, contraceptives, and medical knowledge that produced a sharp drop in birth rates during the nineteenth century.




            Regina G. Kunzel, Fallen Women, Problem Girls (New Haven: Yale University, 1993).  A history of out-of-wedlock pregnancy from 1890 to 1945 that examines the rise of maternity homes and the transition from evangelical female benevolence to the scientific language of professional social work.


            Eric C. Schneider, In the Web of Class: Delinquents and Reformers in Boston, 1810s-1930s (New York: New York University Press, 1992). Traces public and private efforts to address juvenile delinquency through congregate institutions, placement with farm families, and the juvenile court system.




            Robert Griswold, Family and Divorce in Caifornia, 1850-1890 (Albany: SUNY, 1983). This study, based on 400 divorce cases, sheds light on the redefintiion of male and female roles, sexuality,parenthood, and domestic violence.


            Elaine Tyler May, Great Expectations: Marriage and Divorce in Post-Victorian America (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983). Analyzes a thousand divorce cases to explain why divorce rates rose 20-fold beween 1867 and 1929.


            Roderick Phillips, Putting Asunder: A History of Divorce in Western Society (Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy, ??). A monumental history that traces shifts in religious and secular attitudes, the evolution of divorce laws, and changing responses to marital breakdown.


            Glenda Riley, Divorce: An American Tradition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1997). This history reveals the failure of restrictive laws to curb divorce and shows that the conflict between pro- and anti-divorce factions inhibited the development of processes to move spouses out of abusive, loveless, and unworkable marriages.


            Domestic Violence


            Linda Gordon, Heroes of their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence (New York: Viking Penguin, 1989). Uses the records of three Boston social agencies to show how the problems of spouse beating, physical abuse and neglect, and incest have been interpreted and dealt with in different ways at various times between 1880 and 1960.


            Elizabeth Pleck,


            Families and Public Policy


            W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson, Broken Promises: How Americans Fail Their Children (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1988). Analyzes the development of public policies toward children since the early nineteenth century.


            Family Law


            Peter W. Bardaglio, Reconstructing the Household: Families, Sex, and the Law in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1998). Examines how southern law treated miscegenation, rape, incent, child custody, and adoption.


            Michael Grossberg, Governing the Hearth (Chapel Hill: University of North Caorlina, 1988). A comprehensive account of how courts treated marriage, adoption, illegitimacy, and other facets of family law.




            Elaine Tyler May, Barren in the Promised Land (New York: Basic Books, 1996). Examines changing attitudes toward childlessness, compulsory sterilization, and adoption.


            Orphanages and Foster Care


            Kenneth Cmiel, A Home of Another Kind: One Chicago Orphanage and the Tangle of Child Welfare (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995). Reveals the shifting functions of a Chicago orphange--as a foster home for working class families in distress in the nineteenth century, as a group home for emotionally disturbed children during the 1950s, and as a residential center for severely maladjusted children during the 1960s.


            Timothy A. Hacsi, Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1997). Examines the rise and decline of orphanages run by churches, ethnic communities, charitable organizations, fraternal societies, and local and state governments.


            Peter Halloran, Boston's Wayward Children: Social Services for Homeless Children, 1830-1930 (Cranbury, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1989). A history of social services for impoverished and delinquent children in Boston from the 1830s to the Great Depression.


            Nurith Zmora, Orphanages Reconsidered: Child Care Institutions in Progressive Era Baltimore (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1994).  Argues that Baltimore's orphanages provided adequate food, hygiene, medical care, offered vocational training, and encouraged orphans to maintain close ties with relatives.




            John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (Harper & Row, 1988). A survey of American sexual attitudes and behavior from the colonial era to the present.


            Beth L. Bailey, Sex in the Heartland (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1999). Challenging the notion that the sexual revolution began among a bohemian subculture, this book examines how the eeconomic and social dislocations of World War II, the expansion of the mass media, and government politicies toward sexual transmitted diseases and the birth control pill contributed to the sexual revolution.


            Roger Thompson, Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1986). This examination of adolescent sexual behavior, courtship, and marital relations based on seventeenth-century county court records argues that patriarchal control was less restrictive than previously thought and that a distinctive youth had emerged by the late seventeenth century.


            Single Parenthood


            Linda Gordon, Pitied But Not Entitled





            While some students feel uneasy about discussing their family history publicly, many other students enjoy the process of reconstructing their familial roots. A geneaological approach not only allows students to undertake research about a subject they passionately care about, it also allows them to see how shifts in their family's naming patterns, marriage patterns, fertility and mortality rates mirror broader social and demographic transformations.


            National Archives and Records Administration Genealogy Page


                        Provides genealogical research guides, genealogical data, and links to additional genealogical resources on the World Wide Web.





Model Syllabi


            Peter Bardaglio, Goucher College

                        New Frontier: Coming of Age in Cold War America



            Harvey Graff, University of Texas at San Antonio

                        Growing Up in America: Past, Present, and Future



            John Kasson, University of North Carolina

                        Introduction to American Studies: American Identities



            David Macleod, Central Michigan University

                        Growing Up in America



            James Marten, Marquette University

                        "Childhood in America"



            Miriam Reumann, Brown University

                        Home Front Culture During World War II



            Alex Urbiel, Ramapo College

                        Childhood and Youth in 20th Century America



Primary Sources


WPA life histories

Slave Families


            1930s and 1940s Nursery Schools



            William A. Alcott, The Young Man's Guide (1836)



            American Sunday School Books



            Carlisle Indian Industrial School



            Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl



            New England Primer



            Nineteenth-Century American Children and What They Read: Some of Their Magazines



            Northern Great Plains: Fred Hultstrand and F.A. Pazandak Collections



            Photographs of Lewis Hines






            WPA Life Histories



Secondary Sources


            Kenneth Cmiel, "A Nineteenth-Century Asylum," A Home of Another Kind (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995)