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In This Article History of Childhood in America

  • Introduction
  • Thematic Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Document Collections
  • Journals
  • Colonial and Revolution
  • Antebellum
  • Civil War and Reconstruction
  • 19th-Century Children’s Culture
  • The Western Frontier
  • Child Savers
  • Immigration
  • Experts and Agencies
  • Constructing Race and Gender in the Early 20th Century
  • Early 20th-Century Peer Cultures
  • 20th-Century Consumer and Popular Culture
  • World War II and Postwar America
  • Parenting Advice
  • History of Minds and Bodies

Childhood Studies History of Childhood in America
by
Susan Miller

Introduction

The history of childhood and youth is a relatively new field in American history that has grown exponentially in size and sophistication over the past twenty years. Befitting a burgeoning field, historians are currently engaged in all areas of scholarship—compiling anthologies, creating reference works, and crafting both monographs and comprehensive synthetic overviews. Located within the larger interdisciplinary arena of childhood studies, as well as alongside complementary subfields of American social history, the history of youth attracts a range of scholars with training in a diversity of disciplines, including (but certainly not limited to) the history of education and the family, folklore, American studies, and children’s literature. Both the emerging nature of the field and the genre-challenging creative scholarship of its creators have guaranteed that key historiographical questions and assumptions about periodization are very much open to debate. Scholars grapple with how concerns familiar to social historians—race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, and sexuality—differently affect the lives of young people, even as they consider issues particular to youth, such as the coherence of an age cohort, the effects of generational influence, and the impact of accepted norms of child rearing and scientific “truths” on the realities of children’s lives. As historians write the experiences of youth into the narratives of American history, they have also identified some important methodological challenges. How to uncover children’s voices, while remaining critical of the presumed authenticity of such sources? What are the benefits and limitations of memoirs in reconstructing the experience of youth? How to balance the realities of a category of historical inquiry defined by certain biological and development distinctions with an understanding of the historical construction of childhood? How to locate the historical child within complex and evolving ideologies of childhood?

General Overviews

Two decades after the publication of Kett 1977, a seminal work on youth, and the scholarship created in its wake, both scholars and popular writers such as Thomas Hine (Hine 2000) and Grace Palladino (Palladino 1996) were ready to try their hand at synthetic overviews of the history of American childhood. All had to grapple with a problem that many historians condense into the phrase “children versus childhood”—how to be true to the diversity of real children’s lived experience while tracing the historical construction of an abstract notion of childhood and its resonance in American culture? Some scholars attempted to organize centuries of material around the character of sources, including Calvert 1992, a work on material culture that stands as a corrective to works based largely on print sources in general, and prescriptive literature in particular. Others chose to organize overviews around a central conceptual idea. Illick 2002 and Graff 1995 look to the American economic system, characterized by persistent inequalities and the ascendance of privatization and consumerism, to explain kids’ diverse experience of childhood. Yet attention to reformers’ agendas, governmental institutions, and the pervasiveness of the market economy also spawned an awareness of the multitudes of ways in which children asserted agency and created their own cultures. Mintz 2004 argues that all of these disparate trends must be synthesized to arrive at a full portrait of the historical development of American childhood.

  • Calvert, Karin. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600–1900. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

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    Calvert’s text focuses on material objects from clothing to furniture. Material objects, she posits, are imbued with commonplace ideas people do not bother to write down, thus revealing agreed-upon social norms about the nature of childhood. Calvert makes broad arguments about patterns of materiality in culture while staying close to tangible sources.

  • Graff, Harvey J. Conflicting Paths: Growing Up in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

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    The organizing conceit of Graff’s text is that children follow a series of paths to adulthood as defined by their social class, race, and gender. An analysis of one or two individuals is embedded in a series of thematic narratives, including on the privatization of the family and the rise of consumer culture.

  • Hine, Thomas. The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. New York: Harper Perennial, 2000.

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    A popular press history of adolescents from colonial times to the present. Hine argues that teenagers are unfairly criticized for being irresponsible by the same adults who took meaningful responsibilities away from them. His highly readable prose appeals to undergraduates, even as the coverage spanning two hundred years necessitates superficial coverage of important themes.

  • Illick, Joseph E. American Childhoods. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

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    A synthetic history that emphasizes early America, including the diverse childhoods of European colonists, African slaves, and Native Americans. Material on the 19th century focuses on the growth of urban industrialism, while material on the 20th century details the divergent experiences of suburban and urban youth. Illick stresses the structural economic inequalities that shape the lives of youth.

  • Kett, Joseph F. Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

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    Kett’s field-defining text can be fairly criticized for its narrow focus on white boys, yet Rites of Passage did help set the research agenda for a generation of historians. Ironically, the text now appears to be read more broadly outside the field than within it and so remains a starting point for conversations with scholars in other disciplines.

  • Mintz, Steven. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2004.

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    The most comprehensive single-volume history of American youth, providing coverage from colonization to the late 20th century. Mintz’s text is consistently attentive to the diversity of children’s experience while maintaining a unifying narrative voice throughout. It is an invaluable teaching aid for syllabus construction and lecture preparation, if not for actual undergraduate reading lists.

  • Palladino, Grace. Teenagers: An American History. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

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    Teenagers is a lively, well-researched nonacademic history of adolescence from the 1930s to the 1960s. Palladino’s central argument is that, regardless of paeans to the vibrancy of youth or jeremiads about delinquency, what adults really care about most is teenagers’ role as consumers. The text is quite appealing to undergraduates.

LAST MODIFIED: 03/23/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199791231-0052

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