In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Childhood

  • Introduction
  • Historical Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Regional Surveys
  • Readings on Methodology and Historiography
  • Professional Associations and Academic Programs
  • Journals and Book Series
  • Philippe Ariès, His Followers, and His Critics
  • Childhood as a Stage of Life
  • Demography
  • Native America
  • Slavery
  • Class
  • Private Life and the Household
  • Public Life and the Idea of Community
  • Public Authority
  • Child Circulation

Atlantic History Childhood
Ruth Herndon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0235


This bibliography focuses on childhood in Atlantic world cultures in the 17th and 18th centuries (1600–1800). Geographically, it brings together European, African, and American cultures bordering the Atlantic. “Childhood” has two meanings. First, it refers to a set of human experiences during a discrete biological phase of life. Second, it also is a social construction; that is, it is a set of ideas that vary from one society to another, circulate from one society to another, and are reshaped over time. Childhood shows how societies replicate themselves, how members of the rising generation are trained to take their adult place in society. Early modern Atlantic societies attached meanings to childhood and assigned value to children in distinctive ways. The scholarship discussed here identifies those differences of meaning and value. The referenced works largely consider childhood from an adult perspective; that is, they describe the ideas and experience of parenting more than the ideas and experience of being a child. This is a historical source problem: since the youngest human beings left few records of their own, those available to scholars were generated by adults or older children, and the authors were usually male. Studying childhood from the “inside” is therefore an extremely difficult project, for scholars must read these sources against the grain, acknowledging profound gender and class bias, in order to glean more than the prescriptions for childhood generated by upper-class adults or the descriptions of childhood generated by parents or older children who were looking back (often nostalgically) at the earliest stages of life. To give voice to the children themselves—especially to girls and to the youngest children of both sexes—means finding and analyzing new kinds of sources, a challenge yet to be successfully met. Nevertheless, historians of childhood have been innovative and resourceful in getting the sources to inform us about childhood. Further, historians of childhood have linked their work to the history of family, sexuality, marriage, gender, women, community, class, education, labor, and more. Because the history of childhood is so tightly knotted with these other fields, it creates an especially good window on the Atlantic world, showing how Atlantic societies have tried to maintain, reproduce, and reinvent themselves by raising the next generation.

Historical Overviews

Sweeping overviews—both geographic and chronological—are recent work. Until Philippe Ariès and others established the significance of domestic or private life in the 1960s and 1970s, scholars did not consider “childhood” and “children” as significant research topics. Now, fifty years later, a few scholars have placed the study of childhood within a global context and addressing the whole span of world history. Studies of childhood in western Europe and Great Britain frequently reference developments in Africa and the Americas, the result of European expansion and colonization in the early modern period, but none has situated childhood as a distinctively Atlantic concept or experience. The six volumes in the Berg Cultural History of Childhood and Family (Cavallo and Evangelisti 2010, Foyster and Marten 2010, Heywood 2010) showcase recent scholarship on childhood from Antiquity to the present era, but only in the “Western” world; Africa and Asia are not considered, and some regions of the Americas are neglected. Still, its overview of the scholarly work on Europe, the United States, and Latin America is impressive and an excellent beginning place for undergraduate students. Each volume follows a standardized format, beginning with an introduction that draws together relevant issues; followed by ten thematic chapters that focus on family relationships, community, economy, geography and the environment, education, life cycle, the state, faith and religion, health and science, and world contexts; finally, an extensive bibliography and a detailed index support the content. Stearns 2010 provides the only truly global history of childhood, but what Stearns gains in breadth he loses in depth: the early modern Atlantic world almost falls out of his scope, compressed into a short discussion of Ariès (whom he teams with Rousseau and other intellectual pioneers of the Enlightenment) and a short discussion of European colonialism. The modern world since 1900 receives most of Stearns’s attention. Fass 2004 provides encyclopedic entries that range globally across time and culture, but concentrating on the historical scholarship on childhood in Europe, Britain, and the United States. Sommerville 1982 gives a thorough survey of childhood in “Western” history, from ancient Greece and Rome to the 20th century, keeping his eye on Europe but acknowledging that European ideologies reached beyond the continent. Cunningham 1995 traces “Western” ideas about childhood (public life) and the experience of children (private life) from the ancient world through the 20th century. Cunningham gives most of his attention to the period 1500–1900, which he sees as the “long lead-in” (p. 187) to major shifts in thinking about childhood in the 20th century.

  • Cavallo, Sandra, and Silvia Evangelisti, eds. A Cultural History of Childhood and Family. Vol. 3, A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in the Early Modern Age. Oxford: Berg, 2010.

    This volume covers 1400–1650, when childhood was significantly shaped by Renaissance attitudes towards human potential, Reformation preaching about the individual soul, and the nation-state’s growing authority over the family. In each thematic essay, the authors distinguish between prescriptive representations of families and economic/demographic realities that disrupted such ideals and left the family “unconventional and highly unstable” (p. 14).

  • Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. London and New York: Longman, 1995.

    Cunningham sees a common pattern of change in Europe and the United States between 1500 and 1900. In 1500, children were contributors to the family economy; in 1900, children no longer had value as economic producers; instead they were economic consumers of parental resources, especially in schooling. Cunningham’s discussion of children and poverty (pp. 111–17) is particularly valuable.

  • Fass, Paula S., ed. Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood: In History and Society. 3 vols. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.

    This useful reference work reflects the state of scholarship in the early 21st century. Fass’s introductory essay is a concise overview of the directions childhood scholarship has taken. The articles are arranged alphabetically, covering topics from “Abandonment” to “Zoot Suit Riots.” Many images are presented, and there is an excellent and extensive appendix of primary sources.

  • Foyster, Elizabeth, and James Marten, eds. A Cultural History of Childhood and Family. Vol. 4, A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in the Age of Enlightenment. Oxford: Berg, 2010.

    This volume covers 1650–1800, when Enlightenment writers, especially Locke and Rousseau, introduced new ideas about children as innocent and childhood as a unique time when the individual could be shaped positively through education. In each thematic essay, the authors distinguish between enlightenment ideals about human nature and the realities in which most children lived, constrained by geographic location and cultural prescriptions about race, class, gender, and religious belief.

  • Heywood, Colin, ed. A Cultural History of Childhood and Family. Vol. 5, A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in the Age of Empire. Oxford: Berg, 2010.

    Focuses on the 19th century, but the volume’s introduction and thematic essays demonstrate that the early modern period was part of the long-term development of present-day ideas about childhood.

  • Morrison, Heidi, ed. The Global History of Childhood Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

    Morrison organizes previously published material around four themes: theories and methodologies; constructions of childhood; children’s experience; and historical perspectives on problems facing children today. The somewhat random collection ranges broadly across time and place and includes excerpts from Ariès and others referenced in this bibliography. While not a true global analysis of childhood, the volume does introduce readers to the wide range of literature available.

  • Sommerville, C. John. The Rise and Fall of Childhood. SAGE Library of Social Research 140. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE, 1982.

    Sommerville traces childhood from ancient Greece and Rome to the 20th century, emphasizing western Europe, but reaching beyond. He attributes the changes identified by Ariès to the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on religious training of children. He considers the 18th century a time of “glorification” of the child, the consequence of Lockean ideas permeating Western society and compromising strict Calvinist views of the child as a creature born sinful.

  • Stearns, Peter. Childhood in World History. 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

    This global overview covers childhood in prehistoric, classical, premodern, and modern societies around the world. Stearns concisely summarizes the scholarship on Europe and its American colonies, suggesting that a Western “pattern” shifted in the 18th century with a new emphasis on schooling over work, limitation of family size, and a reduction in infant mortality. Originally published in 2006. For an extended analysis, see Joseph M. Hawes’s review in H-Net Reviews (July 2007).

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