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Childhood In America

History—meaning the totality of actual events that happened in the past—does not change. But another definition of history—the study and understanding of our past—is a conversation that is constantly in flux. Scholars, librarians, and archivists discover new sources. Interpretative approaches rise in influence and then are superseded. Researchers reveal hitherto unknown connections between people and places. And, most importantly, who and what historians study and write about changes over time.

A spread showing illustrations of men and women performing different trades, printed but hand-colored.

The Book of Trades (London?, 1806) was published in multiple editions to provide children and their parents with information about future employment options. The Clements Library copy (1806) contains the inscription, “Mary R. Tatnall painted this picture in the ninth year of her age.” It is impossible to know if Mary’s artistic attention to detail translated into success in a future job.

To take just one historiographical example, early histories of the Civil War focused on the political leaders of the United States and the Confederacy and the military strategies their respective generals enacted. This initial focus on political and military elites was augmented by new scholarship that dealt primarily with the everyday experiences of enlisted soldiers. Subsequent historical scholarship addressed the ways that African Americans—both enslaved and free—played a role in and were affected by the war. Other historians focused on women’s experience of the war, whether on the home front, maintaining farms and businesses in the absence of sons, fathers, and husbands, or in theaters of conflict. But what do we know about the experiences of children during the Civil War? (Spoiler alert: not much.) We know that children, along with adults, experienced enslavement and violence and disease and economic uncertainty and political unrest in the early 1860s. How did the exigencies of wartime shape their lives?

Or, to pose the question more broadly, how do we write the history of children in the United States? Children are challenging subjects for historians. Many children in the American past didn’t live very long (close to 50% of children born in the U.S. in 1800 died before the age of five). As was the case for African Americans, Native Americans, and women throughout much of American history, children left fewer legal and historical records that places like the Clements Library would collect than white adult men. And while children were the object of a great deal of print production in early America—from primers to picture books to religious tracts—there are very few sources that were produced by children that reflect their own experiences.

As a result of these evidentiary challenges, the history of childhood as a field has emerged more slowly than other areas of scholarship. One of the best ways to measure the emergence of fields of study is to look at when they become institutionalized in academic life. When do scholarly organizations, journals, and degree-granting departments dedicated to specific disciplines develop?

While countless universities had schools of education and departments of early childhood development throughout the 20th century, the interdisciplinary study of childhood took longer to evolve. The American Sociological Association created a Section on the “Sociology of Children” to focus on contemporary childhood in 1992. But the Society for the History of Children and Youth only formed in 2001, and did not launch a journal until 2008. The United States’ first graduate program in Childhood Studies (at Rutgers University-Camden) admitted its first cohort of students in 2007.

Two carte-de-visite photographs: A group of 5 young African American children by Hughson & Son, St. Joseph, Mich. and A standing portrait of a single African American girl with pigtails.

Children’s appearance in the historical record often leaves us with more questions than answers. Thanks to the David V. Tinder Directory of Early Michigan Photographers, we have biographical information on the producers of these late 19th-century photographs, but not on the subjects.

Although the institutional embodiment of childhood has been slow to emerge, in recent years some of the most exciting Americanist scholarship to be published has dealt with the history of childhood. Steven Mintz’s Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, published in 2004, was the first synthetic overview of American childhood as a distinct phase of life. Mintz wrote that instead of “regarding children simply as passive creatures, who are the objects of socialization and schooling, and consumers of . . . products produced by grownups,” he sought to view “children as active agents in the evolution of their society” and to show that “children have been creators as well as consumers of culture.” A group of scholars working in a range of disciplines have responded to this call, and in particular have worked to highlight the ways in which “childhood” has never been a static category in U.S. history, nor has it ever been a period of idyllic innocence. Rather, this scholarship shows how childhood has been experienced differently at different moments by different groups of children.

Perhaps the most important body of recent Americanist scholarship in childhood studies has focused on the experiences of Black children. Nazera Sadiq Wright’s Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century (2016) uses written records left by Black girls to outline the ways in which race and gender shaped the experience of childhood. Anna Mae Duane has contributed several books that outline our understanding of race and childhood, from Suffering Childhood in Early America: Violence, Race, and the Making of the Child Victim (2010) to Child Slavery Before and After Emancipation: An Argument for Child-Centered Slavery Studies (edited volume, 2017) to Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation (2020). Robin Bernstein’s award-winning 2011 book Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights uses a range of artifacts—books, toys, theatrical props, domestic knickknacks—to show how the notion of childhood “innocence” changed and became racialized over the course of the 19th century. Richard Bell (Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped Into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home) and U-M’s own Jonathan Wells (The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War) both have recent books (2019) that focus on the experiences of free Black children in the North who were kidnapped into slavery. And most recently, Crystal Lynn Webster’s Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North (2021) details how Black children navigated the unpredictable forms of Northern unfreedom that were not slavery but were also not liberty.

Two pages of children's doodles side-by-side; "Margaret to Mamma" and a character named "Spizer" with words "written love notes" repeated on it.

The Clements is lucky to hold items by children whose personalities continue to shine through in the archive, charming us centuries later. In these two notes by Margaret June Alexander (Alexander Family Papers) and Willys Peck Kent (Evarts Kent Family Papers), their love for family members is clear, even as the identity of “Spizer” remains a mystery.

Another recent body of scholarship focuses on the experience of children as laborers in the American past. These include Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America (ed. Ruth Wallis Herndon and John E. Murray, 2009), Sharon Braslaw Sundue’s Industrious in Their Stations: Young People at Work in Urban America, 1720-1810 (2009); and Vincent DiGirolamo’s Crying the News: A History of America’s Newsboys (2019). Children in the American past performed agricultural, domestic, and industrial labor, but they also worked as soldiers, experiences that have been uncovered by scholars such as Allan Stover in Underage and Under Fire: Accounts of the Youngest Americans in Military Service (2014) and Caroline Cox in Boy Soldiers of the American Revolution (2016). Jon Grinspan has outlined how young people in the 19th century U.S. became actively involved in partisan politics, even before they were old enough to vote, in The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century (2016).

This brief list of scholarship only covers work published in book form. Far more scholarship has emerged in the past 20 years in journal articles, exhibition catalogues, and other formats that combine to push against the notion of childhood as a uniform condition that was experienced in the same way by all children across American history. One other thing that much of this scholarship has in common is that very little of it was researched at the Clements Library. We hope that this issue of The Quarto will help reveal the wealth of material that the Clements holds that is waiting to be examined by students, research fellows, and faculty interested in the history of childhood in America. We’re ready when you are.

—Paul Erickson
Randolph G. Adams Director of the Clements Library