NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN CHILDREN & WHAT THEY READ:
Some of the Children
Who Wants a Little Boy?
Much as we would like to think that 19th-century Americans lived in two-parent families, and illegitimate children didn’t exist, people have been people in every century. Desperate widows and widowers—or those pretending to be—advertised for someone willing to adopt one or more children.
Some contemporary articles about children
A lot of child-rearing advice was produced in 19th-century America. The wonderful thing about these works is that they not only give us insight into what 19th-century writers thought parents should do, but a glimpse into what parents actually were doing. Sometimes, it’s astonishing.
“Birth, Nursing, and Education of Infants; Education and Amusements of Youth,” by John Dunn Hunter (1824), discusses Native-American children and child rearing. Hunter lived mostly among the Kansas and the Osage, between around 1800 and 1816; he wrote about his experiences in Memoirs of a Captivity Among the Indians of North America.
“Case of Conviction,” by Francis Wayland (1831), is a stunning look at how one father dealt with a stubborn child; while the author remained anonymous, William G. McLoughlin identified him; see the bibliography of works on childhood.
“Three Little Boys in Prison,” by Charles Holden (1844), describes the confinement of three boys aged 10 to 12, in a jail with adults.
“Precocious Children,” by Samuel Goodrich (1844), is an excerpt from his Fireside Education reprinted in The Mother’s Assistant; it warns parents against attempting to make their children into prodigies.
“Confinement of Children in School,” by Dr. James Jackson (1845), printed in The Mother’s Assistant, gives us a glimpse of how schools were run.
“Treatment of Children at School,” by Dr. S. B. Woodward (1845), from The Mother’s Assistant, argues for the schooling of the child’s mind, soul, and body.
“Family Education,” by Lavinia H. Pillsbury (1845), like many pieces in The Mother’s Assistant, focuses on spiritual education. Like Francis Wayland, Pillsbury emphasizes that the child must become obedient; however, 14 years after his piece, she takes a moderate view.
“Dangers of Childhood, and Means of Obviating Them,” by George Whippel (1845), reminds parents that they are to be in control of their children, not vice versa; it appeared in The Mother’s Assistant.
“Female Education” (1848), from The Mother’s Magazine, opts for a practical education, so women can more effectively run their households.
“School Learning,” by Helen C. Knight (1849), explains that girls don’t actually need that much education, to the readers of The Mother’s Assistant and Young Lady’s Friend.
“Join in the Recreation of Your Children,” by Stephen T. Allen (1851), encourages parents to enjoy relaxing with their children—and to use the opportunity to educate them. It also reminded readers of The Mother’s Magazine—which Allen published—of Robert Merry’s Museum—which, not so coincidentally, he also published.
“Children’s Rights,” by “Fanny Fern” (1853). “Fanny Fern” was Sara Willis Payson, a popular 19th-century American essayist who combined sentiment with satire. “Children’s Rights” is from her collection entitled Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio (first series).
“Clothing for Girls,” by G. M. J. (1853), from The Mother’s Journal and Family Visitant, is a warning to emphasize warmth—not fashion—in girls’ clothing.
“Early Culture of Children,” by G. M. J. (1853), from The Mother’s Journal and Family Visitant, focuses on what children should—and shouldn’t—eat.
“Physical Education of Children” (1853), an excerpt from Tilt’s Elements of Health reprinted in The Mother’s Journal and Family Visitant; it advises parents on proper food and sleep patterns, and informs readers that wine and beer may not be very good for children.
“Children and Children’s Parties,” by S. B. S. (1853), from The Mother’s Journal and Family Visitant, warns against parties, which emphasized vanity, dancing, and—a great concern in 19th-century America—children who acted like little adults.
“Love of Nature” (1853) explores the spiritual education of girls, with an emphasis on lack of “worldliness” familiar to readers of The Mother’s Assistant.
“Conversation. To Young Women” (1853) offers young women models of what to do and what not to do; like almost all the pieces in The Mother’s Assistant, it has a Christian slant.
“Parental Duties,” by J. W. Guernsey (1853), hammers home an emphasis on obedience in children, using the murder of Dr. George Parkman as a warning to readers of The Mother’s Assistant.
“Early Training of Children” (1854), like many works on the education of infants, focuses on obedience. While The Fireside Miscellany wasn’t a religious magazine, the piece emphasizes that obedience to parents will lead to obedience to God—the lesson Francis Wayland reinforced in his piece two decades earlier.
“Degeneracy of Stature,” by Thrace Talmon (1856), from The National Era, blames the “school-room steam-press systems” and the rushrushrush of mid-19th-century life for the fact that “our young people are deteriorating in stature.”
“A Crooked Tree” (1857) espouses a method of child-rearing that didn’t crush the child’s spirit and stands in stark contrast to earlier philosophies.
“Baby Education” (1861), from Arthur’s Home Magazine, details how to raise a healthy, happy baby whose life "will be one continual hymn of praise to God for its own existence.”
“Children, from One to Three Years of Age” (1861), from Arthur’s Home Magazine, is full of advice on rearing a child who isn’t intellectually “precocious"—and contains a startling list of the ills that could befall a 19th-century toddler.
“Crooked Spines in Girls,” by Helen C. Lewis (1861), from Arthur’s Home Magazine, blames tight lacing for what may be instances of scoliosis in teen-age girls.
“Happiest Days,” by “Gail Hamilton” (1863). “Gail Hamilton” was Abigail Dodge, an American essayist in the popular satiric/sentimental strain of “Fanny Fern”. “Happiest Days” is her blast at sentimental adults who idealize childhood; it’s from her popular collection, Gala Days.
Written by children: A few pieces created by 19th-century children
Carolyn M. Hewins (1846-1929) was an influential figure in the movement to create children’s libraries, whose memories of her mid-nineteenth-century childhood entertained and enlightened acquaintances in Hartford, Connecticut. Luckily for scholars of works for nineteenth-century American children, she left a record of the books she read as a child as part of her memoirs.
On 31 December 1863, 18-year-old Horatio Phineas Lovejoy, his 12-year-old sister Amelia, and a friend were caught in a blizzard. Almost 20 years later, a description of their struggle to survive was published to benefit Horatio, disabled after the incident.