Early Years: Adolescence and Youth

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Early Years: Adolescence and Youth



Paternal Power and the Emancipation of Children During the eighteenth century, youth was extended further than ever before, both by law and by the assertion of parental authority over children. By the 1760s laws bolstering the father’s right to control his children’s property and choices of marriage partners were enacted in many parts of Europe. In some places children remained legally under paternal power until the age of thirty. Stories abounded of cruel parents who refused to let their children marry or practice the professions of their choice. The French monarchy was infamous throughout Europe for its lettres de cachet, arrest warrants authorizing the confinement of an individual without trial. Many such warrants were used at a parent’s request to punish unruly youths, who were often imprisoned or transported to penal colonies. During the French Revolution, the National Assembly abolished such warrants. Equating excessive paternal authority in the home with excessive royal authority over subjects, the assembly also limited paternal power by declaring twenty-one the universal age of majority for men and women. France and other European nations attempted to harness youthful energy, first by engaging young people in the rituals of citizenship and later by requiring military service from them. French Revolutionaries held a Fêete de la Jeunesse (Festival of Youth), at which sixteen-year-old boys were granted the “duty of bearing arms.” When young people turned twenty-one, women were expected to begin bearing children for the Republic while men were expected to take up their roles as citizens and defenders of the state. These legal and social changes contributed to the demarcation of a distinct life stage, which by the end of the nineteenth century was widely known as adolescence.

Middle-Class Adolescence While the legal dependency of youths on their parents may have been reduced in the nineteenth century, middle-class adolescents of the period became more dependent. Historians have identified adolescence as a stage of social dependency that was at first peculiar to the middle


Many Europeans considered the decades before World War I the Belle Epoque (Beautiful Era), a time when society was at its grandest and life for most was wonderful. After World War I, many Europeans identified their youth with this period. Stefan Zwelg (1881–1942), an Austrian Jewish writer, epitomized this age in his autobiography, The World of Yesterday (1943). Calling his early years a “Golden Age of Security” in which Austrian middle-class families felt assured of their economic and political well-being, he also revealingly described the social anxiety surrounding female adolescence in the 1890s.

This “social morality,” which, on the one hand privately presupposed the existence of sexuality and its natural course, but on the other would not recognize it openly at any price, was doubly deceitful. While it winked one eye at a young man and even encouraged him with the other “to sow his wild oats,” as the kindly language of the home put it, in the case of a woman it studiously shut both eyes and acted as if it were blind. That a man could experience desires, and was permitted to experience them, was silently admitted by custom. But to admit frankly that a woman could be subject to similar desires, or that creation for its eternal purposes also required a female polarity, would have transgressed the conception of the “sanctity of womanhood. . . .” In order to protect young girls, they were not left alone for a single moment. They were given a governess whose duty it was to see that they did not step out of the home unaccompanied, that they were taken to school, to their dancing lessons, to their music lessons, and brought home in the same manner. Every book they read was inspected, and, above all else, young girls were constantly kept busy to divert their attention from any possible dangerous thoughts. They had to practice the piano, learn singing and drawing, foreign languages, and the history of literature and art. They were educated and overeducated. But while the aim was to make them as educated as possible, at the same time society anxiously took great pains that they remain innocent of all natural things.

Source: Stefan Zweig, The World Of Yesterday (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), pp. 77–78.

class but slowly penetrated the rest of society by the end of the century. Since middle-class children had more schooling and leisure time than those of the working class, it is understandable that the concept of adolescence emerged in the middle class. Secondary and boarding schools—in part a product of parental concern to prepare children for success in life— were instrumental in this process. The poor faced different circumstances. Even in 1900 many adolescents never attended secondary school, and, consequently, the conception of adolescence as a life stage with its own needs and problems spread more slowly among the poor.

Young Workers Because many were forced to begin working for a living as early as age seven, boys from the working class often had shorter childhoods than their middle- or upper-class counterparts. Consequently, the period in which they were independent from their parents and unmarried could last many years. The numbers of these boys, who were often migrants searching for work, swelled during the nineteenth century, and they created their own social organizations, sometimes criminal gangs or secret journeymen’s brotherhoods in league against their employers. Disgruntled, mobile, and independent youths threatened order and property in urban neighborhoods and even contributed to the rebellions that erupted throughout Europe in the 1830s and 1840s.

Juvenile Delinquency Modern conceptions of adolescence were also created through judicial institutions. Alarmed by pick-pockets, street gangs, and prostitution, the urban middle classes and political elite of nineteenth-century Europe blamed urban youths for what they perceived as an increase in crime. One historian has called the street gang “the school of the poor” that taught young people important social and survival skills. By the late nineteenth century, social reformers called for special courts that would consider only the crimes of children and teenagers. Individualized penalties and specific correctional institutions were gradually developed for youths. For example, in 1854 England passed a Youthful Offenders Act that established special youth-detention centers for children up to age sixteen. German courts for youthful offenders were established in 1910.

Youth Organizations and Movements In the nineteenth century, European governments and political parties attempted to harness the energy of male youths and to teach them proper values in a variety of ways. Protestant and Catholic churches sponsored youth groups to teach morality, thrift, and the middle-class work ethic within a Christian framework. Most movements were deeply patriotic as well. The Boys’ Brigade, the first British youth group dedicated to military and religious training, was founded in 1883 by William Alexander Smith (1854–1914). Other groups emerged in subsequent decades. One of the most influential was the Boy Scouts, founded by Robert Baden-Powell (1857–1941) in the decade before World War I. Designed to foster new citizens’ loyalty to their communities and nations, the scouting movement spread to most Western countries in the early decades of the twentieth century. Some other youth groups appear to have formed spontaneously without adult supervision. The German youth group Wandervogel (Migrating Bird), for example, was formed as an informal naturalist and hiking group during the 1890s but did not become an official organization led by adults until 1901.


Carol Dyhouse, Girls Growing Up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (Boston: Broadway House, 1981).

John Gillis, Youth and History: Tradition and Change in European Age Relations, 1770-Present, expanded edition (New York: Academic Press, 1981).

John Neubauer, The Fin-de-Siecle Culture of Adolescence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

J. R. Wegs, Growing Up Working Class: Continuity and Change Among Viennese Youth, 1890-1938 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989).