Children in the 1800s
Compared to people in the twenty-first century, with all their modern conveniences and technological advances, the life of any early-American seems difficult. However, the lives of children were among the most arduous. Linda Pollock states in her book Forgotten Children that between 1660 and 1800 families -and society in general- became more affectionate, child-oriented, and permissive of uniqueness and unstructured time (67). Although this may be true, many other sources depict the lives of children as taxing and oppressive at best. Children of the time were either forced to abandon education for their family contributions, or had to balance school with a full day's work ("Education"). Even when they were not in school or doing manual labor, their day-to-day lives were uncomfortable and harsh (Kids). Social status
, as is expected, was a key factor in determining how hard a child's life would be (Murray 9). Although many children at the time had it easier than others they were all asked at an early age to take on adult responsibilities. The lives of all children in 1800 were mundane and difficult due to family and societal expectations for labor, schooling, and maturity.
Gender, social status, and the region in which a child lived determined how much schooling a child would receive and where and how they would get it. Children of the upper class
were either taught in private schools or by a tutor. They were taught reading, writing, prayers, and simple math ("Education") . They were taught using repetition from the Bible, a religion-based reading supplement called a primer, and/or a paddle-shaped (also religious) horn book ("Schooling"). The upper-class boys were taught more advanced academic subjects, and may have been sent to boarding school
in England or another state. The girls were taught to assume the duties of a wife and mother and obtained basic knowledge so they could read the Bible and record expenses ("Education"). While the south had very few laws for education because of its population, the middle and northern colonies (and then states) had established guidelines for their citizens. Pennsylvania's Law of 1683 set a monetary penalty for any parent whose children could not read and write by age twelve, and who were not taught a useful trade. By 1642 the northern colonies had already mandated a public education or apprenticeship for children, one grammar school for towns with more that one-hundred families, and an elementary school for towns with more than fifty. However, most towns didn't have a school house and children were taught basic knowledge at home, and would learn and practice their parent's trade ("Schooling"). The amount of schooling received was also based on the family's dependency on the child, helping to explain why wealthier families could devote more time to an academic education.
The daily routines of children in 1800 were also very demanding. Not only were they expected to follow strict rules of etiquette, but between the ages of four and seven they wore small-scale adult clothes which were often uncomfortable ("Children's Glossary"). "Boys and girls meant workers - the boys on the farm or sea or in the shop, the girls in the home" (qtd. in Kids). As soon as children could perform simple tasks they were given chores. Children between the ages of four and eight were expected to do things such as help with basic cooking and cleaning tasks, weed, card wool, and start their lessons in school (tasks vary for different regions). Girls between the ages of nine and twelve would help with more complex chores and were trained in all aspects of being a wife and mother; large numbers of girls were wed at age 16. By this age it is also likely, given high death rates during childbirth, that a girl would have already taken over the responsibilities of a deceased mother. A young girl's journal entry from 1775 gives a list of 26 chores accomplished ranging from fixing clothing, making candles, and spinning linen to feeding animals. The daily tasks of a boy that age would involve bringing in fuel for the day, working in the fields, and going to school or (more likely, especially if poor) going to an apprenticeship, which were started around age eight. The popular thought of idleness as a sin was reflected in the amount children were expected to accomplish daily (Kids).
Although children's work in the fields and at home could be considered child labor, a growing problem, closer to present-day definitions, was appearing around 1800 in America. Adoption didn't come into play until the mid-1800s and even then was hard to attain. Before that, children that were given up or found to have unfit parents were forced into apprenticeships where they traded their labor for the cost of living (Murray 9). At this point in time children were still widely thought of as property which meant that in some cases their parents could unofficially sell them. A first hand account from 1750 details a common event in which immigrants indentured their children until the age of 21 in return for an erasure of debt and ability to leave the ship and start their new life ("The Peopling"). The end of the 18th century also brought the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. It is estimated that in the early 1800s one third of factory workers in America were between the ages of seven and twelve. In this time period it was not unusual for a family's financial burdens to fall on the children (Collins).
Rare as it may have been sometimes a child did have free time, especially in the winter, or if their parents had slaves. When they did have unstructured time they would play games such as rolling the hoop, nine pins, tag, marbles, and leapfrog. They also often had a few whittled or corn husk toys. Richer families were able to afford a greater variety and better quality toy for their children, many of which were shipped from England ("Toys and More"). In the late 1600s John Locke, a British philosopher, had popularized the notion that toys helped the learning process, and by the end of the 1700s there were educational toys for many different subject areas (Smith). Although not many gifts were given, Christmas was an important holiday and around the turn of the century, and was being popularized as a children's holiday ("Colonial Christmas"). Even though most of a child's life was full of difficulty they found refuge in their simple toys and holidays.
Between schooling, chores, and manual labor children in 1800 had a very hard life. Their day's were brutal, repetitive, and exhausting. The higher the social status the more free time, toys, and academic schooling a child would have (Kids). The orphans and incredibly poor were often indentured or would spend years of their life being apprenticed (Murray 9). The majority, farmers and other members of the middle class, obtained basic efficiency in school and would spend the rest of their life helping their parents, and eventually obtain a job of their own (usually the same as their father's) or a husband ("Education"). The daily lives of almost every colonist ended in physical exhaustion and very little entertainment, something that should be admired by all present-day Americans.
Children's Glossary. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 22 Oct. 2005 .
Collins, Joey. "History of Labor and Unions." Child Labor. 22 Oct. 2005 .
Colonial Christmas Customs. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 22 Oct. 2005 .
Education for Boys and Girls. Stratford Hall. 22 Oct. 2005 .
"Kids." Children in Colonial Times. Fort Frederica. 22 Oct. 2005 .
Murray, John. The Worth of a Child. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
The Peopling of America. University of Houston. 22 Oct. 2005 .
Pollock, Linda. Forgotten Children. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Schooling, Education, and Literacy in Colonial America. Gettysburg College Alumni . 22 Oct. 2005 .
Smith, Travis. Play and Playthings: How It Affects the Learning Process . Michigan State University. 22 Oct. 2005 .
Toys and More. Museum of American Heritage. 22 Oct. 2005 .