The Age of the Child: Children in America 1890—1920. – Review

The Age of the Child: Children in America 1890—1920. – Review – book reviews

Michael Zuckerman

The Age of the Child: Children in America 1890–1920. By David I. Macleod (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998. xiii plus 219pp. $29.95).

The Age of the Child is a landmark in the historical study of American childhood. David Macleod is too modest to trumpet the immensity of his accomplishment, but his synthesis will inform our understanding for a long time to come.

Macleod’s achievement is especially impressive because it does not depend on methodological or conceptual novelty. Its strengths are the solid strengths of social history. Not least among them are a magisterial command of the materials, an appreciation of the rich variety of American society, and a realization that a society of such ethnic and ecological diversity will not sustain the soaring simplifications of abstract theory.

With sympathy, shrewdness, and a sure sense of proportion, Macleod illuminates the disparate experiences of farm children, small town youth, and city boys and girls of every sort. With grace, economy, and an unfailing instinct for the things that matter, he integrates his analyses of social structure and of personal feeling, his interpretations of the material culture of the many and the reform ideas of the few. The Age of the Child sets a myriad of telling details in suggestive contexts, and the details and their contexts sum to some surprising conclusions.

Like others whose work he synthesizes, Macleod sees in the Progressive era a clash between competing ideals of “sheltered childhood” and “the familiy economy.” Self-styled child savers campaigned to prolong youthful dependency into early adulthood; more traditional parents determined to set their children to productive labor at a much earlier age.

Unlike those others, however, Macleod knows better than to tell their stale tale of the triumph of the reformers.

Instead, he shows that sheltered childhood was not, as we have so often assumed, the prevalent condition of the young. Protracted youth was the privilege–in truth, only the project–of a particular class in a particular place. Affluent cosmopolitans in the cities of the Northeast constituted a very small proportion of the population. The preponderant mass of city-dwellers were in the working-class wards, the ethnic neighborhoods, and the slums, and the preponderant masses of Americans were not in the cities or the Northeast at all. Few among those masses could afford to shelter their young, and few actually wanted to.

Macleod never ignores the elite advice to which historians have attended so assiduously. He knows well enough that it anticipated familial changes to come. But he never mistakes such advice for the practice of the people of the period, either. He is at his most informative in elucidating child-rearing values of farm and small-town parents and the experiences of farm and small-town youth in the last decades in which most Americans lived in such settings. He is at his most evocative in exposing the stark limits of the reach of the reformers. His resonant demonstration that most Americans were simply untouched by the advice that dominated the media of the day–and historical accounts since–invites a reconsideration of the Progressive era much more generally.

The Age of the Child is organized by a simple schematic that does not remotely register the richness of its analysis. Macleod sets successive life-stages–infancy and early childhood, later childhood, and adolescence–on the vast and various grid of America. He examines each stage as it was experienced by boys and by girls of the comfortable middle classes and the laboring poor, of this region and that, of this ethnicity and that, of this religion and that, of this ecological niche and that. The freshness and power of his architectonic does not depend on its design so much as on the fluency of its execution.

Macleod is at his very best in his treatment of infancy and early childhood. He covers everything, from the masturbation that agitated the childcare advisers to the early mortality that haunted almost everyone. And as he discusses debates over diet or apparently antiquarian details about dolls, he develops with unfailing acuity a succession of fascinating implications for far larger patterns.

In his exploration of the disciplining of the young, to take just one irresistible example, he discovers an astonishing and indeed quite virulent insistence on parental control. Parents and their Progressive advisers alike were obsessed with order and authority and fiercely intolerant of every infantile pleasure. So far from conceiving of the newborn as a sacred vessel of innocence or even as a darling creature of curiosity, they suspected the little one’s every wayward impulse. They gave her little opportunity to play, and they gave themselves less occasion for displays of love. They disdained almost utterly to pick him up or comfort him when he cried. Insofar as they followed the leading childcare manuals of the day, they sought primarily to put their infants to sleep: sixteen to twenty hours a day, and alone at that. Macleod’s recovery of this regime of repression and, indeed, of sensory deprivation casts a new light on the assumptive Ariesian march toward milder, more nurturant and child-centered care. I t affords us an intriguing intimation of the anxiety–the harried nervousness–that drove parents of the Progressive era to seek such control and to use corporal punishment to assert a mastery they did not feel.

Making careful, compelling use of memoirs, Macleod observes that children raised under such a regimen did not want to perpetuate it. In fact, they did not even recall their rearing with nostalgia. They shared meals with their parents, to be sure, but in stolid silence. They recalled times of tenderness, of course, but not nearly so readily as episodes of punishment. They looked back on their parents as undemonstrative, and they could not bring to mind much talking or touching with them. Males and females alike remembered fathers and mothers alike as more authoritarian than affectionate.

The years after early childhood were scarcely more satisfying, at the time or in retrospect. On the basis of both contemporary testimony and later reminiscence, Macleod concludes that youngsters a century ago enjoyed little parental attention or warmth, little free time for play, and little encouragement to express themselves. As one of them remarked wryly, “Childhood, didn’t have much.” (p. 109)

More than anything else, youngsters worked. Some of them worked for pay, some at unpaid chores. More than a few did both. Almost all contributed consequentially to the family economy. The amount of time they spent at work dwarfed the amount they spent in school. Taking everything together, farm children around the turn of the century worked about the same hours as the average adult today does.

Progressive reformers worried about the occupational hazards to which young workers were exposed. The youngsters themselves complained much more about the repetitiveness and tedium of their tasks. They found neither much challenge nor much fulfillment in their labors, and they often declared their determination to be done with jobs of drudgery and subordination.

Historians have generally followed the reformers in their fixation on the risks that young workers ran. Macleod does not. He sees past the platitudes of Progressive rhetoric to the complaints of the children themselves: that their labor was dull more than dangerous, mindless more than maliciously exploitative. He sees past the political campaigns of the child savers to the demographic realities of the day: that legislation affected only the mines, mills, and canneries where a relative handful were employed and never touched the farms where so many worked.

The reformers never really offered any viable alternatives to the family economy. They just exhorted fathers to earn more, so that sons and daughters could enjoy a sheltered childhood. They castigated parents who put their offspring to early employment, but they rarely wondered why parents acted as they did, or why children went along. The children knew. Their families needed the money, and they themselves hated school.

School was the obsession of the elite, but no one outside the enclave of reform viewed school as the child shelterers did. Only the affluent could provide their children a moratorium from precocious maturity. As Macleod says, others did not and could not set school in opposition to productive labor. Others sent their young to school in conjunction with work, not as an alternative to it. In Chicago in the 1910s, 93% of truant boys and 98% of truant girls skipped school with their parents’ knowledge. And even when truancy declined, as slowly it did, students stayed in school because they saw in such persistence a path to a better career. Where the reformers envisioned school as an extension of childhood, the mass of Americans took it as a ladder to adulthood.

In short, Macleod captures eloquently and exactly the impotence of the Progressive ideal of sheltered childhood to touch the lives of children other than the reformers’ own. I would complain only that he does not push as far into his own insight as he might. He does not develop, or even spell out explicitly, the incompetence of the reformers to reach their own children on the nurturant terms they professed.

The evidence of Macleod’s own account is that the schools the Progressives promoted for their own offspring were scarcely distinguishable from those they inflicted on the less fortunate. In the high schools of the elites as much as in the primary schools of the masses, in policy as much as in practice, children were silenced and standardized. Child savers tried to train their own offspring as they tried to train farm boys and immigrant girls, for efficiency far more than for expressivity. Indeed, high schools, which enrolled fewer than one in ten adolescents in 1890 and still enrolled fewer than one in three in 1920, emphasized competitive sorting even more than elementary schools, which increasingly educated everyone. Though Macleod never quite says it in so many words, the schools that processed the privileged were scarcely different, in essential ideals or in everyday praxis, from the ones that processed the poor.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Carnegie Mellon University Press

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group