Ideal Family: Defining the Ideal Family Throughout American History

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The ideal American family was transformed in the 19th century in large part due to the great changes taking place in the American society. Many family groups fit this changing mold while some did not. In this essay I will show how this concept of the ideal American family changed. I will also try to explain which groups of Americans followed this concept and why.

The end of the 18th century was a turbulent time in American history. The country had just won its independence from Great Britain and was attempting to find an identity for itself. Up to this point families in America were similar to British families. The father was the head of the household, but lived in harmony with his wife. The children were seen as part of the family’s labor force, helping to produce food and supplies for the family. The church ruled the family as much as colonial law in the late 18th. A change in the general economy paved the way for the emergence of a new type of family.

The market economy arose in the 1800’s in America. Goods were no longer being produced solely for family consumption. The families of this period were producing goods in excess to sell at markets. Goods able to be purchased at a market as well as the slave trade in the south helped to lessen the amount of household production for the average American family. With a market economy now in place in America, the door was open for the factory system and industrialization. This factory system created two main types of families in America: Middle Class and Working Class.

Middle class families were better off economically than their working class counterparts. In these families men worked in jobs considered to be middle class white-collar occupations. Women were therefore staying home and surviving on the man’s salary. With these middle class women staying home along with the smaller amounts of household production, a new type of labor arises. Women in this early 19th century time period become more and more involved in child rearing. The household work for these middle class women is task-oriented and unwaged. This makes them more and more dependent on their husband’s salary and more responsible for the children who were also out of the labor force.

Working class families were different in some ways from middle class families. Often in a marriage, the man’s wages were not enough...

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...y are allowed to do.

Although the Irish were oppressed in this country I feel that they were proud to be Irish. Possibly more so in relation to the surrounding social order. The two cultures, Irish and Protestant, held such different ideals that I believe that the Irish were as proud to be who they were as the Protestants were sure of the virtue of their own ways.

The idea of an ideal American family seems ridiculous today. Two hundred years ago many Americans may not have thought twice about the idea that there was a correct form that a family should follow. In the 19th century our country was young and was one of a few to have to come up with its own national identity in such a short period of time. In hindsight and with a bit of anachronism one could say that America dealt with its immigrant population with a great deal of hypocrisy. Instead of being a haven for immigrants America was almost a factory, attempting to take in different people and create a melting pot in which everything becomes alike. Every ingredient eventually loses its uniqueness.


christine stansell "women children and the uses of the streets" Femenists studies 8 (sep.82)

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